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Towns separated by US-Mexico border closings are fighting back

In rural West Texas, residents held a midriver fiesta protesta calling for easier access to their Mexican neighbors

Watch parts one and two of Lori Jane Gliha's report.

LAJITAS, Texas – On a blistering 101-degree May day, Brisa Garcia’s two daughters bounced in anticipation along the banks of the Rio Grande River in far West Texas.

It was the first time in a year that the two girls would see their grandmother and aunt, and they were dressed for the occasion. Both donned long matching French braids, one topped by a khaki Gucci baseball hat and the other by a straw hat with a big fuchsia bow.

Catching sight of their relatives on the other side of the river, they exploded into wide smiles and waded in, yelling and waving while trying to hold onto the bouquets of red roses they had for the women.

Eventually, dozens of other Texans and Mexicans followed suit, albeit with a little more hesitation, given that U.S. Border Patrol agents lingered above on a hill. By the end of the day, relatives and friends packed that corner of the river dancing, singing and grilling on both sides. It was – at least for a few hours – a return to a time before their lives became so complicated.

Technically, the "fiesta protesta," or protest party, they were a part of on May 11 took place between two countries: Lajitas in Texas and Paso Lajitas in Mexico. These two towns were once close-knit communities, but since 9/11, when several informal border crossings were effectively closed,  the Paso Lajitas side had become a ghost town.

Crossing between the towns used to mean a couple of minutes wading across the river. Residents now face a four-hour trek through the nearest official crossing. People on both sides say the heightened border control has kept mothers from daughters and businesses from customers – a loss that's costing them their community. So now they are pushing back: asking for less – not more – border control.

A different situation

Local residents focused on re-opening the border crossing organized the fiesta protesta, dubbed "Voices from Both Sides," so that people could share music from the banks of the Rio Grande while protesting the crossing’s closure years ago.

“All we've got to do is start the conversation,” said Jeff Haislip, one of the group's leaders. He even spoke to the Border Patrol ahead of time about the plans for the protest and has an ongoing petition for locals to sign that he plans to give to the U.S. State Department, which must be involved in any re-opening.

The musician also crossed to the other side during the protest to dance to the Texas-based band Los Pinche Gringos.

Revelers dance during the "Voices from Both Sides" protest.
America Tonight

Mike Davidson is a singer and guitarist for the band, as well as director for the regional tourism council. “If you go up and down the border, residents, politicians and a lot of the towns are not happy with status quo right now,” he said.

Collie Ryan, a songwriter and artist who performed at the fiesta protesta, has lived near the banks of the Rio Grande in the Lajitas area for more than three decades. She said the area shouldn't be treated like other border regions. Its total isolation – thanks to miles of rugged desert and volcanic cliffs – leave residents uniquely protected.

 “It's a totally different situation here,” she said. “We don't have the same problems that they have [in other border communities], and they have legitimate problems and legitimate reasons for closing.”

Situated in the Chihuahuan desert in far West Texas, it takes a four-hour drive to get to the nearest airport. Its rough terrain makes it an unpopular route for migrants. The number of undocumented immigrants apprehended here is lowest of any other part along the Southwestern border.

Losing community

After the border closed and American tourists stopped crossing the river, those living in Texas saw their friends and family on the southern side lose their jobs and businesses. Many, like members of the Garcia family, who had once lived in Paso Lajitas, were forced to abandon their homes and businesses to move deeper into the United States or Mexico.

Garcia and her daughters now live in Midland, Texas, because she can no longer make a living in Paso Lajitas. Only two families of the 60-70 people who once lived in Paso Lajitas still live there .

The same thing happened in the nearby area of Boquillas, Mexico, when its border was closed in 2002.

“When they closed, it was sad,” resident Max Sanchez told America Tonight. “There was nothing. Just like deserted, a ghost town.”

Lilia Falcon began crying remembering the day she found her mom packing up the Falcon’s Restaurant, a business her dad had built for 30 years. She was shocked and frustrated when the crossing and her customers disappeared.

“We paid the consequences of people we don't even know who they are," she said, referring to the attacks by terrorists on on 9/11.  The attacks provoked a historic surge in border security, though many locals including Falcon are quick to point out that none of the terrorists entered the United States from Mexico.

A re-opening

Seeing Boquillas and Paso Lajitas residents struggle to make a living, locals, Big Bend National Park officials and others began pushing for a re-opening.

Last year, the Department of Homeland Security installed a crossing between Big Bend National Park and Boquillas, Mexico. It breathed new life into Boquillas, where tourists can ride a donkey, hang out in a bar or just “get away from it all.”

Kids and adults play in the Rio Grande River during the "fiesta protesta."
America Tonight

Falcon and Sanchez were among several who returned.

David Elkowitz, a Big Bend National Park public information officer, said the new crossing not only makes the area safer because it offers a legal crossing for legitimate commerce, but it also fosters environmental cooperation between Mexico and the United States.

In Lajitas, locals are hoping to see a similar crossing.

Officials from the State Department, Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to questions about whether they were considering a new crossing in Lajitas.

But for Garcia, that can't come soon enough. It had been a year since she last hugged her mother. She didn't want to venture into the waters and risk immigration consequences during the fiesta protesta, so she sent her daughters instead.

“They should open it, so we can be closer and see each other more often,” she said, surrounded – temporarily – by her family from both sides of the border.

“We don’t need security here. I think it’s just fine, just how it was."

Catherine Rentz was the producer for America Tonight's report and is affiliated with the Investigative Reporting Workshop in Washington, D.C.

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