A pretty good indicator of the economic health of El Paso is found in the number of stores tucked into the Sunland Park Mall that deal in only one type of good (clothing) that, storewide, all ring up for the same price (a price less than a student-discounted movie ticket in nyc); as it stands that number is at least three. Think dollar stores. There’s the store where every clothing item is $8.80 (but not $8.88!), the store that only sells Mexican-flavored cowboy hats for $7 (where the arcade used to be), and the store that is basically Puff’s $12 Zoo but now has a different, less-cool name. Most of the national chains left the uniquely predetermined claustrophobia that defines the enclosed-mall for the cheap, ample and available land around the desert that was waiting for strip malls.
But, on the other hand, a really good indicator of the economic health of El Paso is found in census data which shows that the city’s poverty rate tops 27 percent, and the median income hovers significantly below the national average of $48,000 at around $35,600. El Paso’s population is also over three quarters Hispanic, while a quarter of the population is foreign-born. Really, however, neither indicator provides an adequately clear picture of the unique trans-national partnerships that allow the border region to work, and prosper.
Actually, the best indicator of the economic health of El Paso can be measured by the extent of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers’ progress in erecting a border wall along the Rio Grande, dividing El Paso and Juarez. In a last ditch effort in the fight for its own economic and cultural self-survival, the city of El Paso sued U.S. Homeland Security to halt construction of the wall. In January of this year, the Supreme Court denied their appeals. They lost.
If you’re a fan of talk radio, or are familiar with the rancorous fulminations over the very existence of legal and illegal immigration – part of that broader, more general right wing fear of the “other” – it must come as a surprise that El Paso is one of the safest cities in the country, not to mention the happiest. El Paso is the third safest urban center (after Honolulu and New York) with only 18 murders in 2007 in a city over 700,000, and was recently ranked by Men’s Health Magazine as the second “happiest” place in America. The title of number one happiest place in the country went to Laredo, Texas, another border town north of the river. That El Paso is safely ensconced in an embrace of jocularity across a shallow river from blood-soaked Juarez is another indicator that in spite of seemingly contradictory evidence, the border provides a delicate alternate model for economic growth, one that is beset by constant danger by overblown concerns of national security and ever-higher barriers.
How does it work? When former Juárez mayor Gustavo Elizando states that the only way “the cities in this region can make it, is to forget that a line and a river exist here,” he is referring to an economic co-dependence. El Paso and Juarez have generated a series of overlapping economic and functional circulation realities between the cities that circumvent the traditional gatekeeper role of boundaries. Culture, family, a never-ending supply of labor pass back and forth in an asymmetrical relationship of twin cities, one twin richer, the other bigger, that leads to a mutual beneficence. However, there is a constant danger that the pass will be choked off, doors will close, and the cities will drift.
In a Reason Magazine article titled “The Miracle of El Paso,” the author argues that El Paso defies the belief that poverty leads to crime not in spite of “its high proportion of immigrants, it’s safe because of them.” By 2050, racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. will outnumber non-Hispanic whites; one out of every four will be Hispanic. With population increase comes greater political influence. El Paso provides a handicapped preview version of what in the future will become a political and cultural reality, one that is, and was, avoidable in the post-2001 rush to close the borders. A premonition of the mutual benefit to be had in monetary and spirit well-being that come from accepting that culture, economics and politics are entwined and nurturing the open, cross-pollination of people and ideas – that the lowering of the wall – can allow everyone along the border to thrive.
That belief is losing. The wall is winning.