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A year after the U.S. border was closed to all non-essential travel, the pandemic has underscored an informal economy that many fronterizos prefer not to talk about even as they struggle to adapt to a new reality.
“We were quickly trying to scramble and figure out what we do next,” said Patricia, a single mother of three in El Paso. Her family relied on a woman from Ciudad Juárez to help care for her ailing grandmother.
Across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Catalina depended on the income from her job cleaning houses in El Paso to help support her family.
“It’s made it very, very hard for us,” Catalina said.
The women, like many others, spoke on the condition their full names not be used because the work is not authorized.
Mexicans with border crossing cards can legally visit the United States to see family and friends, shop and enjoy social gatherings, or go to appointments.
But they are not supposed to work. Even so, generations have held down informal jobs.
“We did have a lady come to El Paso every week Sunday to Friday and she would care for my grandmother full time, day and night which was very helpful because the entire family has full time jobs, they go to school, lots of commitments,” Patricia said.
She’s not alone. “I do have a lot of people I know who do depend on workers coming from Mexico for different reasons whether it be for care of an elderly person, care for children, for home care,” Patricia said.
The women from Mexico who do that work are a vital, affordable support system for women in the U.S. so they can hold down jobs outside the home.
That “caring work or caring labor” is happening all along the U.S.-Mexico border, said Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for Interamerican and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Indeed, the pandemic has exposed just how essential informal workers and caregivers from Mexico are to the families in the United States who depend on them – they are often affordable essential workers for others doing essential work.
But they are part of a hidden economy and most Mexican citizens with border crossing cards are not allowed into the U.S. because pandemic restrictions limit travel to essential reasons.
“I think essential was very much in the eye of the beholder. I think when we go to figure out who was essential, we’re going to figure out it’s a very insightful map of power,” Heyman said.
Those who hold down jobs connected to international trade are among essential workers still allowed to go back and forth across the border.
“The law itself doesn’t match with reality very well,” Heyman said.
The informal labor market carries a risk. Mexican citizens could lose their border crossing cards if they are caught doing unauthorized work.
That makes it hard to calculate this hidden workforce, but a survey by the El Paso Community Foundation offers suggestions about the potential pool of people, Heyman said. He and colleague Eva Moya at the UTEP School of Social work co-authored the 2018 study.
During the previous two years, nearly 75 percent of those surveyed in Ciudad Juárez had visited El Paso. Those who did not cited lack of a border crossing card as an impediment. Among the top reasons for Juárez residents came to El Paso: shopping, visiting family and friends, and entertainment.
The survey did not ask if people also worked while on the U.S. side but nearly 5 percent volunteered they had crossed to work. Some could be U.S. citizens living in Juárez who can work legally in El Paso.
The unauthorized workforce is no doubt much larger than self-reported and is overlooked by authorities Heyman said.
“It’s largely unnoticed, not valued and not recognized,” he said.
But the disruption during the pandemic has created economic hardship for families on both sides of the border.
In El Paso, Patricia has no idea when her grandmother’s caregiver will cross again. The family has had a hard time finding a stable and affordable alternative.
“Private health-care facilities and companies are just not affordable for the typical family. The cost is just outrageous to hire somebody through a health-care agency even to come for even three hours. It can range from $30 to $50 an hour,” Patricia said.
Her grandmother is disabled and has diabetes and needs round-the-clock care.
Catalina, the Juárez mother, also is struggling during the border shutdown. She has not been able to find work to make up the income she used to earn crossing the border four days a week to clean homes and do laundry, mostly for older El Pasoans.
That income helped pay the tuition for her children’s schools in Juárez. Her husband works full time but they relied on a dual income to support their family. “It’s been very, very hard,” Catalina said.
“I have friends, my sisters, we all depend on going to work in El Paso and here we are still waiting,” she said.
Finding a job at a maquiladora or factory, usually a fallback position for Juárez residents, also has become more difficult during the pandemic. “They’re not hiring people older than 45,” said Catalina who is 50.
Mayra, 30, decided to stay on the U.S. side of the border with her three young children who are dual citizens. But that means she hasn’t seen her mother and other relatives in Ciudad Chihuahua for a year.
“Now with the pandemic, I haven’t been able to visit my family. If I go, I can’t come back,” Mayra said.
While she’s been in El Paso this past year, an aunt and uncle died from COVID-19 in Chihuahua. “It has been difficult not to see them,” she said.
As hard as it is, she’s stayed in the United States to give her children a better life and has found plenty of housekeeping work.
She works for five different families. Her grateful employers tell her, “Thank goodness we found you. Thank you for giving us a helping hand,” she said. “I tell them, ‘no, thank you for helping me.’”
Mayra’s 60-year-old aunt who used to work in El Paso continues to draw a salary from her longtime employer while waiting in Chihuahua for the border to reopen.
“It was a blessing they kept paying her,” Mayra said.
Strong cross-border bonds between those who depend on each other have also been revealed during the pandemic.
“She’s just become like family to us,” Patricia said of the woman who was her grandmother’s caretaker. Every other week, one of Patricia’s relatives crosses into Juárez to bring the woman groceries and used items her family can sell to make a little cash.
One of Catalina’s El Paso employers is also helping her by regularly sending cash. “God put some very good people in my path,” she said her voice cracking.
“We need them as much as they need us. And we miss them a lot.”
Maria Ramos Pacheco of El Paso Matters contributed to this story.
Cover illustration by Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters