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United States

On the border, it pays to earn dollars and spend pesos

Given the exchange rate, more people are choosing to live in Ciudad Juarez and work in El Paso
18 Jul 2016 – 10:00 AM EDT
Currency exchange is an invaluable service along the border. Crédito: Luis Chaparro

CIUDAD JUAREZ, México – Rodrigo Ostos recently made a decision some might consider crazy: The 32-year-old U.S. citizen plans to move from El Paso, Texas, to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, keeping his job as a U.S. accountant. He’ll commute every day across the border.

“The dollar is definitely a factor,” said Ostos, whose plan is to rent and save until he can buy a place in Ciudad Juarez. “With the dollar where it is today, I can save, even if it's just a little bit, and pay less than half the rent than I’m paying here.”

The border area that includes Juarez and El Paso is home to more than 2 million people. About 1.4 million live on the Mexican side of the border and a bit more than 800,000 live on the U.S. side.

With a weak Mexican peso (a dollar is now worth 18 pesos), hundreds of U.S. citizens like Ostos are choosing to live in Mexico and work in the United States.

With an expedited pass, which costs $500, it takes 15 minutes for Ostos to cross the border. Without it, it takes at least an hour because of the long lines and traffic. An average of 30 million people cross the border into the United States each year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

This is a novel trend. Just a few years ago, no one wanted to move to Juarez. They wanted to leave.

In 2010, Ciudad Juarez was branded the world's most dangerous city by researchers and the foreign media after it recorded more than 3,100 homicides in just 12 months. In four years, the city saw 10,000 murders, many of them linked to a war between drug cartels for control of the city.

During that period, more than 250,000 Juarez residents moved to El Paso and other U.S. cities. But a few years ago, peace began to return. Ostos says he has friends and colleagues who also plan to go back.

“I even have Anglo friends, gringos, who are moving to Juarez to take advantage of a strong dollar that can buy more,” he said. “When Ciudad Juarez was dangerous I really didn't think much about moving. But now that it's more peaceful, I don't see the sense of staying.”

Life in El Paso is 214 percent more expensive than in Ciudad Juarez, according to statistics from the two cities. Renting a one-bedroom apartment in center-city El Paso costs $633, while it costs barely $130 in Ciudad Juarez.

Cristian Mireles, a 28-year-old Mexican citizen living in Juarez, recently took a job in Texas. He now earns $1,400 a month and spends only a tiny portion on rent, food, drinks and basic services. In El Paso, the average monthly bill for electricity, water, gas and garbage collection is $125. In Juarez, it's $60.

“It's not that complicated, and it's worth it. I get up at 6:00 a.m., have breakfast and I’m on the other side in 30 minutes if the line isn’t that long. I get out of work at 4 and by 5 I'm back home,” Mireles said.

His salary is “pretty good” for Juarez, he added. “Even if I was paying for a big house, 10,000 pesos per month [about $550], I would still have a good part of my salary left over,” he said.

Working in the United States and living in Mexico offers the possibility of a more comfortable life financially. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Rodolfo Salas, born in Texas of Mexican heritage, said there are things that money can't buy. “Security. You can't buy security. We know Juarez went through some horribly violent times, which haven’t totally disappeared,” he said.

The department store manager pays $900 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in a luxury complex in western El Paso. That's half his salary. “If I pay $900 in rent, it's to feel safe, to be able to go out at night with peace of mind without having to watch my back,” he said.

The cost of living along the border
CostCiudad JuarezEl Paso
Meal at a cheap restaurant$3.80$10
A bottle of beer$1.00$3.50
A liter of milk$0.60$1.00
A bottle of water$0.70$2.30
Centrally located one-bedroom apartment$130$630

Mireles said that kind of rent is beyond his budget. “On my salary, I couldn’t live alone in El Paso,” he said. “I would have to have roommates. And for me to work in Juarez is also not an option, because I would earn less than half of what I’m offered on the other side.”

Indeed, salaries vary widely along the border. A McDonald's employee in Ciudad Juarez earns an average of $166 per month. Just crossing the river, the same employee can earn an average of $1,200 per month.

Ciudad Juarez and El Paso are divided by a now nearly dry river whose fast-moving waters long ago earned it the name of Rio Grande in the United States and Rio Bravo in Mexico. Today, the border seems almost surreal, with a huge metal fence, a string of security cameras, armed guards and motion-detecting radars.

Beyond geographic separation, the fence marks an economic border. Food is 130% cheaper south of the river. A meal at an inexpensive restaurant in El Paso costs about $10, and maybe just $3.80 in Juarez.

One basic necessity along the border is beer, given temperatures that can hit 110 degrees Fahrenheit. While $3.50 buys a bottle of domestic beer in El Paso, it can buy almost four beers in Ciudad Juarez.

It's also not surprising that border residents prefer to buy their milk, water or fruit in Juarez markets. One liter of milk costs $1 in El Paso and barely 60 cents in Ciudad Juarez. A 1.5-liter bottle of water costs $2.30 on the U.S. side and 70 cents on the Mexican side.

But some people simply can’t be persuaded to move south. Karina Espejo, a U.S. citizen born in Juarez, says she would not move across the border, given the amount of time he would spend waiting to cross border checkpoints.

“Every day you waste an hour coming to El Paso and another hour going back. I did that for five years, Monday through Saturday,” Espejo said. “There were days I waited up to three hours to come and one to go back. Despite everything, and even if it's more expensive, I prefer to be on this side and avoid all that waste of time and hassles.”

Each day, hundreds of people cross the border to get home or to work. U.S. immigration authorities in Texas reported that 110,228 Ciudad Juarez residents work in El Paso and earn an average of $2,000 per month.

And while life may be less expensive on the Mexican side of the border, residents on both sides have a lot in common.

“We speak the same mixed-up language, we eat the same things,” Ostos said. “In fact, there's not a big difference. It's practically living in the same city.”