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Juarez

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Original author: 
Alfonso Serrano

When viewed from the Franklin Mountains in southern Texas, El Paso and Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez meld into one expansive metropolis. Call it a Texan trompe l’oeil. Look closely, though, and the illusion is disrupted by the Rio Grande, the natural border that snakes through the two cities, carving out very distinct realities.

That proximity is what first drew photographer Reed Young to El Paso, in particular to the city’s Chamizal neighborhood, which he refers to as a sort of “ground zero” for the national debate on immigration. Here, where North officially meets South, the terrain gives rise to something all its own: frontera culture, with its distinct food, music and identity.

“We thought it was important to hear from people who are affected by the United States’ immigration policy today,” says Young. “National debate doesn’t always take into account the complexities of the people’s situations.”

If Washington D.C. is the political epicenter of the immigration debate, then Chamizal is arguably its human face, a place where the nuances of a thoroughly complex issue crystallize into the tangible. Take Araceli, for example. She has not seen her extended family in Juárez since 2009, although they live a few miles away. Claudia, who is transgendered, is another case in point. She is Claudia on the U.S. side of the border but always crossed the border as Ricardo, the name on her ID, until the violence in Juárez convinced her to end the treks.

Ciudad Juárez is the second most murderous city in the world. In 2010 alone, it witnessed over 3,000 deaths. The historic violence has instilled migrants with a special urgency when attempting to cross into El Paso, the safest big city in the United States. On their journey, they will encounter the most tightly enforced border in modern history. The number of Border Patrol agents stationed along the U.S.-Mexico border — 20,000 — has doubled since 2004. And the $18 billion the federal government spent on enforcing the border last year was more than it spent on all other law enforcement agencies combined.

But that didn’t matter much to Araceli. She waded through the Rio Grande with her four children in search of a better life for them. Now she cleans houses and scraps metal after work to supplement her income. And it didn’t dissuade “Goldie,” who crossed into El Paso when she was 16 and now owns Goldie’s Bar, a cantina in El Paso’s industrial section that pays homage to her hero, Marilyn Monroe.

Goldie’s story — and those of virtually everyone profiled in Young’s photo essay—attest to the strength of family ties. In Chamizal, at least, the commitment to one’s family, to the improvement of children’s lives, has proved stronger than billion-dollar physical barriers.

Reed Young is a photographer based in New York City.

Alfonso Serrano is a senior editor at TIME.com.

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 HBO’s Witness Goes Inside the Pulse-Pounding World of Conflict PhotographersThe most shocking and hardest to watch scene in the new HBO series Witness comes when photojournalist Eros Hoagland runs up to a car in Juarez where a young Mexican man sits dying after just being shot. It's a scene ...

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Alazar "Junior" Soto lies in the Des Moines River while tubing on Sunday, July 15, 2012 in Lehigh, IA.
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When the Electrolux washing machine factory left Webster City, Iowa for Juarez, Mexico almost two years ago, it effectively knocked the town’s middle class to its knees. A sizable portion of the town’s population worked there, and they quickly found themselves scrambling to figure out what came next.

A couple of months after the plant closed down, photographer Brendan Hoffman first visited Webster City, which sits about 75 miles north of Des Moines. He was following former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty who, at the time, was campaigning in the Republican presidential primary. The plight of the town presented itself to him as the bigger story.

“It was a story that I felt conflicted about and those are the kind of stories I’m most drawn to,” says Hoffman, who is a member of the Prime collective. “Sure, some of the people in Webster City are going to tell you that they got screwed over. But at the same time if we are going to consider this country to be a free-market democracy, whose is to stop [the company] from deciding that they can be more efficient by moving production to Mexico?”

Hoffman also knew he could follow the story beyond Iowa. One of his colleagues in Prime, Dominic Bracco, has been working in Juarez for years and could help him find the people who now work the jobs that used to belong to the residents of Webster City.

“This was a solidly middle class job when it was in Iowa and I’d like to see if it’s creating the same kind of jobs in Mexico,” he says.

Hoffman has been back to Webster City three times, putting together an ethnography of the town. In the spring he hopes to travel to Juarez to document the new Electrolux factory and have the story done by 2014, in time for NAFTA’s 20-year anniversary.

Instead of focusing on just one family in Webster City, he’s chosen to look more broadly at moments that slowly weave together a complicated story about a place in transition.

“I don’t think there is any way to ignore the fact that this is a major blow for the town. I wouldn’t be doing my job of being objective if I tried to gloss over that,” he says. “But at the same time it isn’t a surprise that companies have the option to move to a lower-wage country. The question comes up about whether the company has any responsibility to the town. I also don’t see why people aren’t more prepared for this kind of thing.”

While the Electrolux plant didn’t employ the entire town, Hoffman says the closing still had a seismic effect on everyone there. For those that did lose their jobs he says the Federal Government has stepped in and helped many of them go back to school through the Trade Adjustment Assistance program. Some former employees are also still living on unemployment while they look for new work. Others have ended up losing everything.

Showing this complexity in photos is difficult. Hoffman has the photo of a Webster City resident on his lawn with all his possession lined after being evicted and the photo of the shuttered plant. But he also has the photo of a dad joking around with his kids as they lay out under the stars on a summer night.

The dad, Steve McFarland, actually shows up in several of the photos. McFarland was never an Electrolux employee (he builds houses and frequently works outside Webster City) but for Hoffman he signifies someone who has found a way to work through the general economic problems in the town. Within the context of the story McFarland helps show the viewer that not everyone has thrown up their arms in despair.

“He’s not someone who worries about this future at all,” Hoffman says. “That’s probably unique in some ways, but he manages every week to have a couple dollars left over and as long as there’s something left over it’s all good.”

Some of Hoffman’s photos are more ambiguous. This summer, for example, he shot photos during the county fair, including the fair queens and the local parade. While people still lined the streets and dressed up for the contest, he says the whole event felt a little forced.

“It all kinda felt like an attempt to remain stoic,” he says. “They were trying to stay straight faced and let people know that everything is fine because look, our daughters can still be beauty queens.”

Struggling towns are nothing new in the United States, but Hoffman says he hopes that by visiting Juarez his work can provide a more three-dimensional view of an ongoing story that has affected much of the country. He’s been pushing to get an edit of the photos out before he heads to Mexico because this is an election year. Politicians on both sides love to toss around the word “middle class,” and with his story, Hoffman has provide them with a picture of what real life in the middle, or former middle, class really looks like.

“In the end I think people have to take responsibility for their own lives,” he says. “But imagine that you’re 50 years old and that’s the only job you ever had. All of sudden you have to find something new to do and maybe move somewhere new. That’s a really difficult decision for some people.”

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