How Youth Ministries Are Reaching Teens Torn on the US-Mexico

Image: Caleb Bryan

Jocelyn Duran’s mother crossed the US-Mexico border 17 years ago to give birth to her in a hospital in El Paso, Texas, making the baby girl the only American citizen in her family. When she was three years old, Duran moved from her mother’s home in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to live with her grandmother in El Paso and begin attending school there.

An American education promised opportunity, an opportunity unlike any her family members had known and one she was expected to make good on. Together, she and her grandmother would turn nothing into something. “You start with zero,” Duran says. “Except this big dream.”

Her grandmother, who is undocumented, worked as domestic help. For a time they lived in whatever home the woman was tending. They struggled financially. Over the years, Duran felt torn between the life she was building in El Paso and the family she could almost see just across the trickling Rio Grande. She watched her grandmother, who felt abandoned, drift into hopelessness and eventually abandon her Protestant faith.

Once they were in an apartment of their own, Duran found her way to a church down the street and began developing what she characterizes as a “real relationship with Jesus.” It developed further when she was a student at Bowie High School, where she got involved in her church’s youth ministry. “If you don’t have Jesus, you’re just out here all alone,” she says.

The high school sits less than half a mile from the Cordova Bridge, one of four bridges connecting El Paso and Juárez. In Duran’s junior year, when her family felt she was old enough to walk over the bridge by herself, she decided to move back to Mexico to be with her mother, becoming one of hundreds of students who commute from homes in Juárez to schools in El Paso.

Now 17, Duran gets dropped off each morning at the bridge to stand in line and cross into America. The queue often stretches more than 100 people long, many of them students chatting outside in small groups or, typical for Duran, standing alone with earbuds in. They welcome the morning sun during the chilly desert winter but sweat beneath it in warmer months. Once inside the US Customs office, students separate into a special line just for them.

On foot, the journey from the Mexican side of the bridge to the front door of Bowie takes about an hour—relatively quick compared to the two hours it can take on rainy days when Duran catches a ride with a friend at 6 a.m. and crosses the bridge by car. Delays occasionally make her late to school, but not often. Students file through customs and walk across Chamizal National Memorial Park to Bowie, which is visible from the checkpoint.

At 3:57 each afternoon—Duran is precise about this time—she leaves school and does the crossing in reverse, catching a bus home on the Juárez side of the bridge. When she has tennis practice or swim team, she’s fortunate enough to miss rush hour and her mom picks her up on the other side.

Duran never notified the El Paso Independent School District about her change of residence when she moved in with her mother in Juárez; she’s still registered under her grandmother’s El Paso address. Technically, that is fraud. According to a district representative, any student who admits to living in Mexico “would put himself at risk, since by law we can only provide services to students who reside in El Paso County.” Even for US citizens, lying about residency for the purpose of attending a school district other than your own is grounds for nullifying credits or for expulsion; in some states it’s punishable with hefty fines and jail time.

But the practice has been common for decades in border cities like El Paso, and for the most part, school districts look the other way. (School funding in Texas is attendance-based, so binational commuters in fact bring districts additional state revenues.) Students residing in Mexico use relatives’ addresses to enroll in American schools. Families rent cheap apartments for the mailbox. One Young Life staffer remembers students banding together to pay for an apartment and putting different utilities in each of their names to prove residency.

Immigrant youth commonly feel stuck between two worlds - and as if they might be rejected by either of them at any moment.

Image: Caleb Bryan

Immigrant youth commonly feel stuck between two worlds – and as if they might be rejected by either of them at any moment.

School districts along the border have occasionally tried to crack down on such commuting, even posting photographers at points of entry to identify Mexican students. But Duran and binational students like her often feel they have little choice but to make such moral compromises, goaded forward by the decisions of their parents and by family expectations they may not even be aware of until adolescence. Like any teen, they are awkwardly searching for their place in the world only to realize a wall runs through theirs.

“Sometimes my conscience is like ‘aaahhh!!!!’” Duran says, making explosion gestures around her head. She describes filling out her FAFSA, the federal application for student aid and a standard part of the college application process, wrestling with right and wrong when asked for an address or information about her family’s income.

“It feels like I’m lying,” she says. “But it’s something I have to do if I want the best outcome for my life.”

Whether they have citizenship, temporary status, or no documents at all, immigrant youth commonly feel stuck between two worlds—and as if they might be rejected by either of them at any moment. That tension is especially acute for many teens raised along the southwest border, whose proximity to it makes it that much harder to navigate the societal and logistical difficulties that national boundaries create. For teens like Duran, church youth groups and national networks like Young Life offer a home that transcends the border—a rare place to feel like they belong and sort out what it means to live for Christ in a culture of “the middle.”

“[We tell them] their hope is not in America,” says Young Life leader Bridget Chacón, who focuses on college students in El Paso. “Their hope is in Jesus.”

Last fall, the 33-year-old Chacón stood at a recruiting table in the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) student center. Young Life’s highly relational discipleship mission was a natural fit with her outgoing, charismatic personality. Connecting came easily. But the bridge crossers had been a hard group to crack. When she tried to reach out, the students declined invites to events or coffee and rarely explained why. Sometimes they walked campus alone; sometimes they moved in small groups, closed circuits of shared experiences.

Most international commuters at UTEP have student visas or are US citizens living in Juárez, but “if they don’t trust you, they won’t tell you they commute every day,” Chacón says.

That particular day at the Young Life table, however, a new student leader had joined Chacón at the table and she noticed something changing. Andrea Carolina “Caro” Perez Lopez, 24, was chatting with the commuters not only in Spanish, which Chacón could have done, but in the colloquialisms and slang of Juárez. Perez Lopez told the students that she too crossed the border every day on a student visa.

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Source: Christianity Today