Despite an 18-foot-high steel bollard fence that separates El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, residents on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border consider each other neighbors and friends.
That is according to a first-of-its-kind survey called the “Border Perceptions Index” that examines how people in El Paso and Juárez perceive one another. The study was conducted by the El Paso Community Foundation and its Juárez counterpart, the Fundación Comunitaria de la Frontera Norte, in collaboration with The University of Texas at El Paso, Familias Triunfadoras Inc. and Agencia de Estadística de Mercados.
In fact, 47% of El Pasoans and 35% of Juarenses view El Paso and Juárez as sister cities.
“(This survey) truly shows that there are opportunities to integrate our two cities more,” said Mario Porras, director of binational affairs at the El Paso Community Foundation. “It is good news that at the local level we do see each other as neighbors, friends and sister cities. Those were the top three answers on both sides of the border.”
More than 2,400 borderland residents participated in the survey conducted in August and September 2018, which was funded through a grant from the Inter-American Foundation’s Building Broader Communities in the Americas initiative.
The survey’s goal is to provide data to decision-makers on both sides of the border to make informed decisions about programs and policies for health, education, commerce, immigration and binational collaborations. The community foundation plans to present the survey’s findings to the sister cities’ respective mayors this summer.
“We’re interested in finding better ways to collaborate as a community and really unite our cities and our people more,” said Porras, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business from UTEP.
A major part of that collaboration was to enlist UTEP faculty members Josiah Heyman, Ph.D., and Eva Moya, Ph.D., to implement the study in El Paso.
Participants in El Paso and Juárez answered the same questions related to seven domains: the environment, regional challenges, economic development, politics and participation, border community integration, education, culture and health, and collaboration and international crossings.
To ensure that the study included different segments of El Paso County’s population, UTEP researchers mapped households by 160 census tracts and sent 19 community health workers from Familias Triunfadoras, Inc., into those neighborhoods to knock on doors. In less than three weeks, community health workers gathered 896 surveys. In Juárez, Agencia de Estadística de Mercados canvassed 1,535 households.
“By using the census tracts to cover the whole county, it allowed us to ensure that we got a proportionate number of people from all backgrounds from San Elizario to the Upper Valley,” said Heyman, director of UTEP’s Inter-American Border Studies at UTEP and border studies professor.
Heyman credited the survey with providing valuable information about who crosses the border, their reasons for doing so and the number of crossings undertaken.
Among the survey’s findings, 25% of those polled in Juárez said they had crossed into El Paso between 2016 and 2018, compared to 63% of El Pasoans who said they had crossed into Juárez during the same period.
Heyman said these results demonstrated that border-crossing inequality exists between U.S. and Mexico residents.
“That’s not surprising, he said. “A lot of people in Mexico do not have visas so they are unable to cross into the U.S. You do not necessarily need a visa to get into Juárez. I think this confirms what we expected that access to crossing the border is unequal.”
The majority of respondents in both cities identified insecurity as the most important problem in Juárez. They said migration was the biggest problem affecting the El Paso- Juárez region, and migration policies were the main reason that the region was not fully economically integrated.
Although people seemed concerned with migration policies and not with migrants, respondents agreed that migration information programs were needed to improve the relationship between the two cities.
Yet, despite these regional challenges, when borderland residents were asked what they thought of when they heard El Paso or Juárez, 57% of El Pasoans and 47% of Juarenses said the first word that came to mind was “neighbors.” It was followed by “sister cities” and “friends.”
“I think that for the most part we see people getting along, valuing each other, and respecting each other,” said Moya, associate professor of social work. “There are issues but most of the issues I’ve seen are primarily of national stature such as migration.”
Porras said that one of the most interesting questions the survey asked participants was where they lived until they were 12 years old. According to Heyman, the first 12 years of children’s development are considered their formative years, which have a strong influence on the rest of their lives. The survey found that 48% of El Pasoans lived in Mexico until age 12.
“It’s surprising to find that in El Paso there’s a huge percentage of people who lived in Juárez before they were 12 years old,” Porras said. “That tells you that on the U.S. side there’s a truly bicultural influence in our community.”
Moya said the survey’s findings could be used as part of a branding campaign to educate people about the realities of life on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Almost any of these questions can be used to enhance our region’s image,” Moya said. “This is an opportunity to show our culture and that our communities are safe and we’re people of trust and honor.”
Porras lauded the collaboration among the El Paso and Juárez community foundations, UTEP and the different partner organizations in both cities. He said the survey was an example of how El Paso and Juárez can successfully work together.
“This project shows that we can generate this type of data and information about our region by working together,” Porras said. “I see it as an example of ‘walk the talk.’ If we want to better collaborate between El Paso and Juárez, then let’s start by collaborating between the community foundations and our community partners.”
Author: Laura L. Acosta – UTEP Communications