She pulls on blue sweats branded with the frowning bear mascot of her high school, stuffs her cheerleading skirt into her backpack and gets in the car.
Her dad drops her at the U. Although the days are still warm, dawn in the desert hovers around 30 degrees. A yellow mist settles across a motionless line of cars that seems to stretch from the horizon to the border checkpoint. Vendors hawk newspapers and burritos to commuters bound for El Paso, who can wait three or four hours to cross the bridge each morning. A stream of children with backpacks, earbuds in, hands shoved in pockets, weave between traffic and funnel onto a pedestrian walkway. Every day, Ashley makes this crossing to get to high school.
An estimated 40, children cross the U. Most of these cross-border students, known as transfronterizos, attend elementary and high school. Even as the U. On average , more than 35, passenger vehicles make this northbound journey into El Paso each day, along with nearly 20, pedestrians. Ashley is just one student amid the daily back and forth of people crossing between the U. The school is a stone's throw from the border wall and has deep roots in the immigration debate. Many of its students are American citizens who cross the border from Mexico each day to attend school.
At ground level, though, an increasingly militarized border divides them. The Rio Grande, which marks the boundary between the U. This combination is passable via four traffic-clogged bridges. Another practically empties into Bowie pronounced Boo-ey High School. Known to locals as La Bowie, this historic school has deep roots in the debate over immigration. In the past year, students say, a series of migrant caravans from Central America have clogged the already congested crossing points, leading to wait times reminiscent of the months after Sept.
This diploma, their parents hope, will be the stepping stone to a good college, a well-paying job, the American dream. So, they set their alarms a little earlier and spend chilly mornings in line to enter the country.
Some days it takes five minutes and others it takes three hours. With her American passport, she goes to school here, while he remains across the border. But her parents wanted her to learn English, and Bowie is where her friends are. She shrugs off questions about the border wall.
For politicians, journalists and much of the country, this border is the epicenter of a crisis. Inside, immigration officers scan their papers, and they put their backpacks through an X-ray machine. Ashley pops her American passport card into the back of her phone case, and the two walk across lanes of Mexico-bound traffic, a small park and into the Bowie cafeteria.
The sun is bright now, and Bowie is so close to the border that the wall is visible from the back of the school, where students tend to gardens and study in overflow classrooms. In the hallways, Spanish is the lingua franca. English is a second language for nearly two-thirds of Bowie students.
She lived in El Paso for a year with a legal guardian, but missed her family too much. So, now, Jasmine wakes up at a. After school she does softball, student council, National Honor Society and a handful of other extracurriculars. If she has an away game, she returns home around 1 a. On her screen is an early acceptance application for the University of Texas at Austin, where she hopes to study environmental engineering. Due in part to the recession of the mids and an uptick in immigration enforcement, the number of U.
Today, an estimated half a million reside south of the border. Ashley, Melanie, Jasmine and many other students who cross each day were born in the U. According to a study , 81 percent of cross-border students were born in the U. Some have mothers who were living in America at the time, others came just to give birth, some were undocumented.
In El Paso, their children learn English, receive an education and see the prospect of well-paying jobs. On the steps of the sunken amphitheater, altars honor the dead with candles, snacks and drinks, and photographs of family members, pets, celebrities—as well as victims of a massacre that killed nearly 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso three months earlier. The school food truck serves pan de muerto, a sweet bread, and hot chocolate.
A mariachi band fiddles with instruments, and the dance team dons colorful costumes paired with striking skeletal face paint. W hen Rodriguez was growing up in El Paso, as the undocumented son of agricultural workers, the border wall was a little more than a fence with holes in it. Some of those holes were directly behind Bowie and a nearby middle school.
Rodriguez remembers that sometimes a chase would cut through their classrooms if the door was left open. That was life on the border—everyone was connected to both sides.
To catch people sneaking into the country, Border Patrol agents would patrol Bowie and interrogate anyone they deemed suspicious. Later that year, something happened that became a turning point in immigration enforcement: Bowie students sued the federal government for violating their civil rights—and won. Today, the wall still sits directly behind the school, but students seem more focused on their ever-unfolding teenage drama than political turmoil. The border is an inconvenience—one that makes them late for school or prompts sleepovers with family or friends in El Paso on game nights—and, perhaps most importantly, a cause of their sleep deprivation.
A rise in undocumented immigrants coming to the U. At the start of the 21st century around 4, agents patrolled the border, but the attacks of Sept. Heightened security led to hours-long lines into Texas.
Today, more than 21, agents work on the southern border, and although the number of people both turned back at the border and apprehended while crossing illegally had been declining over the past decade, in the past year it nearly doubled , from over , to almost a million. Everyone was accepting. El Paso is nearly 80 percent Hispanic, and political posturing from Washington D. The immigration debate is an everyday reality: Residents volunteer at migrant shelters and share the road with white U. The attacker, who drove nearly 10 hours from his home outside Dallas, is believed to have written an anti-immigrant manifesto and targeted a store frequented by Hispanic shoppers.
In the s, small settlements began to grow along the Rio Grande. In , El Paso, which had belonged to Mexico, was seized by Texas. Then, two years later, the U. There were few restrictions on cross-border movement until That year, the U. Immigration Act was passed to slow refugees fleeing the Mexican revolution.
A few years later, the first Border Patrol was formed. Despite the increasingly fortified physical division, the cities are still so interwoven that shops take both U. Dollars and Mexican Pesos, and businesses move between the two countries. A t the football game on Friday night, the 21 cheerleaders chant and dance energetically even as Bowie gets badly beaten by a rival team.
In Texas, cheerleading is practically a higher calling, and other teams are packed with girls who started training as toddlers. When they go to competitions, the disadvantage is stark; no one can remember the last time the Bowie cheerleaders won. For a long time, her dream was to become a Border Patrol agent.
She changed her mind last year after hearing about the widespread detention of children. Students dance in the parking lot of Bowie during "Senior Sunset," an annual event where the graduating class watches their last sunset as seniors together. Every morning at 5 a. Before they moved to El Paso, her older daughter, Elsa, would drive the other siblings over the bridge, drop them at school and then take herself to Bowie High.
She graduated from high school without doing a single extracurricular activity and with few friends. She flicks her long black hair over a shoulder and shoves her hands in her jacket. Cheerleaders Laysha Diego and Maleny Barba hold each other during the "Lighting of the B," a tradition to mark the end of football season. Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the U.
It is Fort Bliss. A nonprofit news organization covering the U. Life Inside. We Are Witnesses. Regional Reporting. Death Penalty. Juvenile Justice. Mental Health. Politics and Reform. About Us. This story was published in partnership with National Geographic.
Photo editing by Emily Kassie and Mallory Benedict. The border wall separating the U. The students sued—and won. At the last home game of the season, Bowie lost badly to a rival high school. Go boo.