The story previously aired on KUT as part of a partnership with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PRI’s Global Nation and the Migration Policy Institute, focusing on immigrants and education.
Wake up, get dressed, pack your homework, maybe a lunch. That’s the typical morning routine for most students. But some students on the U.S.-Mexico border grab something else on their way out the door — their passports.
Nineteen-year-old Arlet Burciaga is one of those students.
6:45 a.m. Arlet has been awake for over an hour. She stands in her modest kitchen in her home in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The walls are mostly bare except for a small sign that reads Feliz – Happy. Her mom, Martha, counts pesos.
Martha just got home from an overnight shift at a car parts factory where she makes about $45 dollars per week. They live with Arlet’s younger sister and older brother, who also works in a factory in Juárez. Martha hands Arlet three pesos for the bus and four for the bridge toll. She gives her a hug and a kiss. Arlet is on her way.
6:54 a.m. Arlet leaves her home in Ciudad Juárez and walks down the hill to the bus stop.
Arlet lives in Mexico, but her school is in the U.S. — the Lydia Patterson Institute, a private Methodist school in El Paso. Arlet could go to school in Mexico, but when she heard about the U.S. high school through her church, she applied and received a full scholarship. The school also gives her money to cross the border daily and twenty dollars per month for other expenses.
6:59 a.m. The bus arrives right as Arlet gets to the bus stop. There are very few people on the streets, but the bus is full of people.
7:05 a.m. Arlet is on the short public bus ride from her neighborhood to the bridge where she will cross the border to school in El Paso.
It’s a short ride to the bridge.
For Arlet, this daily trip has become the norm, even though she knows it’s anything but.
“I don’t think it’s pretty normal,” Arlet says, laughing a bit. “I think it’s [a] big deal to cross the bridge every day. It’s [a] big experience because every day you never know what is going to happen in the bridge or during the walk to your house.”
Once known as “the murder capital of the world,” Juárez is still recovering economically from cartel violence between 2009 and 2012. But now, people on both sides of the border say they feel safe in the city. People who live in El Paso and Juárez say there is a misconception about life at the border. Despite current politics surrounding immigration, people constantly flow back and forth on a daily basis.
A crowd forms in the early morning at the Puente Internacional Paso del Norte in Ciudad Juárez.
Sometimes crossing can be difficult. Security tightens when things happen, like September 11 and the Boston Marathon Bombings, and lines get longer. Other times, Arlet can’t get through because, like a normal high schooler, she forgets things, including her passport.
7:05 a.m. Arlet arrives at the toll. “Today, there is a lot of line,” Arlet notices as we walk towards the toll. “I don’t know why, but we need to get in the line.” At the bottom of the bridge, there is a large sign that hangs over the road. “Feliz Viaje,” she says. “Happy trip or something like that.”
A few years ago, Arlet would’ve had a tough time translating from Spanish to English. Before she attended Lydia Patterson she only spoke Spanish and had never been to the U.S.
“The teachers talked to me and I was like, ‘I don’t understand.’ And it was a very hard, hard moment for me.”
7:10 a.m. Arlet crosses the bridge.
7:15 a.m. Arlet goes through U.S. customs. Seventy percent of the 435 students at her school cross the border daily. Some are U.S. citizens who live in Mexico.
Arlet and her friend, Vicki, wait in line at U.S. customs. On this day, the student line is closed, so it takes longer to get across the border.
Others, like Arlet, are Mexican. Arlet waits in line with her friend, Vicky. Usually, there is separate a line for students. Today, it is closed.
“It’s unfair,” says Vicki. “There aren’t many immigrations officials today.”
“Which [line] is moving faster?” Arlet asks. “This one or this one?”
“And they closed the line for students, which is necessary,” Vicki says, ignoring Arlet.
In front of them, a man is pulled aside. The agent checking his passport takes him into a separate room. “Maybe he doesn’t have the required documentation?” Arlet wonders. “He’s suspicious, I think.”
Arlet’s passport, which she must bring to school every day to cross the border from Mexico to the United States.
Another few minutes pass before another agent signals to them and checks their passports.
“Where you going?” the officer asks.
“Escuela,” Arlet answers.
7:45 a.m. Arlet passes through customs without incident.
Once in El Paso, Arlet is on her own. Her mom doesn’t have a passport and can’t cross the border. If something happens to Arlet on the U.S. side, her mom couldn’t come and help.
Arlet and her friend, Vicki, grab breakfast before class. Arlet has been awake for almost three hours now.
7:55 a.m. Arlet arrives at school.
Once Arlet is at school, she immediately heads to the cafeteria for breakfast. Lydia Patterson serves free breakfast and lunch to all its students.
8:30 a.m. Arlet heads to her first class of the day: English.
Nearly all of the students at the school graduate and go to college. The school has strong connections with Methodist colleges across the U.S. They help the students navigate the college admissions process and get scholarships. Socorro de Anda, president of Lydia Patterson, says a college degree could change Arlet’s life—and her family’s, too.
“We’ve seen many, many families pulled out of poverty because one child has gone through here and has gone through college,” says de Anda.
3:05 p.m. School Ends.
As part of her scholarship, Arlet stays after school to work for a few hours. Students can do custodial or clerical work.
4:21 p.m. Arlet heads home.
After three years of daily commutes across the border twice a day, Arlet says she is tired, but she knows it is worth it.
“I think it is a blessing of God to my life because it gave me an opportunity to learn a new culture, the American culture, to [have] new experiences in my life,” Arlet says.
Now, Arlet is ready for a new journey: off to college. It’s unclear where, yet. She hopes it’s in the United States. If so, she can leave her passport at home.