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hot crossings

Their School Days Start With Customs Officers—and Searing Heat

For the thousands of kids who cross the U.S.-Mexico border each day for school, hotter days are making a fraught experience more uncomfortable—and dangerous.

Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images
People crossing the Paso del Norte bridge between downtown El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, as seen from El Paso

As the first rays of sunlight peek through the horizon, at the Paso del Norte (Pass to the North) International Bridge between the United States and Mexico, static lines of workers, children, and visitors with papers in hand eagerly await their turn to enter the U.S. A smaller, yet noticeable, group of these entrants consists of students of all ages, who cross back and forth between Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, every day to attend school in the U.S. Some are in uniform, while others have school IDs hung around their necks. It’s early in the morning on August 7; the school year has just started, and the heat already feels oppressive. Later today, the high will reach 109 degrees.

For the average high schooler, an eight-hour school day is enough to elicit complaints—but for binational students, the school day is the least of their concerns. For them, getting to school on time can mean waking up as early as 3 a.m., shuffling between often unreliable sources of transportation, and dealing with unpleasant encounters with Customs and Border Protection officers. 

This summer, as Texas temperatures break records almost daily, these students face a new problem: overheating in their cars or while standing in line outside, making them drenched in sweat by the time they reach school. This week, temperature highs in El Paso were still in the triple digits, as they’ve been for much of this summer. The students who make these long trips—sometimes by foot, other times by car—are experiencing climate change on another level. 

“I’ve been feeling like [that time] waiting in line, it’s completely different to what I was feeling around five, six years ago,” said Mauricio Escobar, a high school senior and U.S. citizen who lives in Juárez, across the border from El Paso. He often alternates between walking and driving to his school; the whole trip can take him over an hour. 

Home to three international ports of entry, El Paso has long been a hub for migratory activity. From the population, which is 80 percent Hispanic, to its name—El Paso means “the pass” in Spanish—binationality is embedded in the city’s culture. 

It’s common practice for parents living full-time in border towns in Mexico to cross the border to give birth in order for their children to get U.S. citizenship. This leaves thousands of kids on the frontera with feet in two worlds, and the bridge as a lifestyle. When these kids are old enough, their parents often send them to school in the U.S. for a better chance at a top college. These institutions “have a lot more trust in U.S. education than in Mexican schools. So it’s the better option for me and my sister,” Ander Lorttia, a 17-year-old high school senior who is a U.S. citizen living in Mexico, said.

“I’ve been going to school in the U.S. since first grade,” said Lorttia. “I cross every single day, to El Paso for school, and then back to Juárez after school ends. This is regular stuff for me.”

Lorttia’s situation isn’t unique. The Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso estimates that thousands of students use the El Paso bridges each day to receive an education in the U.S.

“It’s a hassle,” said Escobar, who is a competitive swimmer. “I have to get up at 4 in the morning to go to practice. I drive to a friend’s house … park my car next to the bridge, we walk over, and then we walk to the pool … and after practice, someone from El Paso gives us a ride to school.”

Even without early sports practice, the commute is often long, unpredictable, and tiring, which makes it the biggest reason for exhaustion for most of the students I spoke to. “It’s actually really difficult—you’re doing it daily, and you get burnt out,” said Aaron Otero, a high school senior with dual Mexican and U.S. citizenship. 

Early days are the norm for most students who use the bridge, but overall experiences can differ. Some students and their families choose to undergo a long application process, complete with a rigorous background check, from CBP to obtain a special pass called a Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection, or SENTRI, pass, that allows them to cross faster with fewer checks—similar to a TSA pre-check. Otero’s family is ineligible for the pass; since he and his sister don’t have one, they have to account for a two-hour wait at the bridge. “I play football, and we have to be there at 6:45 a.m., so I have to be out of my house by 5 a.m.,” Otero said. “If I’m not, I’m not going to make it.” 

Like the experience of binationality itself, which has no textbook or blueprint, students have learned that there is no “normal” border crossing experience on a given day. 

“They’ll sometimes do random checks,” said Lorttia, who has a SENTRI pass but sometimes uses the regular lanes to cross when he travels with his peers. “They like to check the car and trunk.”

Others told me about how the attitudes of officers change depending on documentation. “It gets super bad when [the SENTRI pass] is going to expire and you have to use other forms of documentation. The officers get super sketchy about it, saying, like, ‘Your SENTRI is about to expire and you can’t be crossing,’” said Escobar. 

Those with and without the pass know that there’s one thing they have in common: long and often unpredictable waiting times. These waits outside or in hot cars can compound with harsh sunlight, minimal shade, and no air conditioning to create a match made in hell—or, at least, that’s what it feels like.  For students who walk over the border, the experience is even worse. “The two weeks that I was walking to El Paso to work, the heat was unbearable. It was bad,” Escobar said.

Figuring out the safest experience in the heat and crowded lines can come down to simple mathematics of calculating exactly how long to stay after school or dawdle at home. “The wait time increases exponentially” at the end of the day, said Lorttia. “I feel like if I stay maybe 10 minutes extra that can be up to, like, half an hour longer that I’ll be waiting at the line.”

All this extra time spent outside can be dangerous in extremely hot temperatures. It can take just 10 or 15 minutes for the initial symptoms of heatstroke to set in. But there are currently few protections for students waiting in line to cross the border to go to school.

“When I have crossed walking several times, there are absolutely no air conditioning units outside,” said Otero. 

The heat can pose a problem even for students who cross the border in their cars. “I had a problem with my A.C. not working in my car last week. I got up early, went to school, and in the middle of the line my A.C. stopped working,” Otero said. “I was there the next two hours in 104-degree weather inside a car. I was just sweating really bad by the time I crossed over.” 

And while hotter temperatures are to be expected in the Chihuahuan Desert, students say that it’s gotten worse.

“Last year, I used to walk from the school to the border for an hour. And I can’t do that anymore,” said Lorttitia. “I’ve had to think better about where I park, with the shade. The first day of school, I parked wherever, and when I got out of school, I opened the car and I could not grab onto the steering wheel because it was burning my hands.”

After this piece was published, a press representative for Customs and Border Patrol reached out to The New Republic over email. The representative pointed out that average temperatures when students were cross early in the morning tend to be lower than during the day. He said that the city of El Paso and the International Boundary and Water Commission maintain pedestrian areas near the bridges, which includes providing shade. He also said that any agent communicating to a student that a SENTRI pass is about to expire is “likely giving them good advice.” According to the representative, CBP operates special expedited lanes for students during the year, and opens additional lanes and increases staffing during busy periods.

“All that being said our agency does have an important homeland security mission which cannot be ignored,” he wrote. “It’s not just about getting people across the border quickly.”

As summers get hotter and hotter, students are figuring out how to survive the heat, traveling in groups to take turns carpooling, paying for gas, and buying cold drinks. But they’re receiving remarkably little help from their schools in this effort. Administrators at both Cathedral High School, a school 15 minutes from the bridge where 50 percent of the students come from Mexico, and El Paso High School did not respond to a request for comment about how they may be protecting binational students during heat waves. 

Apart from the physical effects involved in crossing the border, the heat also takes a toll on students’ mental health, both inside and outside the classroom. One study found that every degree increase in temperature reduces a student’s ability to learn by 1 percent. Students also recognize how this heat is affecting them. “It’s more difficult mentally than physically,” Lorttia said. “Physically, you can always sleep and recuperate. It’s really hard trying to keep up, plus being a senior starting to stress about college applications and getting a good GPA.” 

During these hot days that are becoming increasingly common, the bridge becomes a place for reflection, as teens worry about the many others they see doing this daily.

“There are kids that are crying to their moms, like, ‘Mom, it’s so hot, it’s so hot,’” Escobar said. “I just can’t imagine how they survive it.”

This piece has been updated throughout to correct inaccuracies with regards to Border Patrol checkpoints, the availability of shade, and wait times at bridges.