BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, Texas -- A brand new border crossing now open in Big Bend National Park is breathing new life into the tiny Mexican town on the other side of the Rio Grande.
“This is pretty awesome to just be here and this is a real special moment,” said Adam Michalski, of San Antonio, who used the crossing a few days after it opened.
“The difference here is instead of talking to a human being face to face, the human being you’ll be talking to is in El Paso,” said David Elkowitz, a park ranger and spokesman for Big Bend.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents more than 300 miles away in El Paso rely on remote technology to check border crossers in Big Bend National Park. Rather than hand their immigration documents to an officer, visitors use a machine to scan their passports or border crossing cards.
Officers in El Paso can see the person on camera and if necessary ask the border crosser to pick up a phone and answer questions.
“With cameras everywhere if you were not legal in any way or had problems with your documentation it would be paramount to almost announcing yourself as a bank robber in a bank,” said Elkowitz.
Park rangers and Border Patrol agents based at Big Bend National Park can respond if there’s a problem.
Tourists and locals used to cross the river at Boquillas without a care. But after Sept. 11, the unofficial crossing was shut down.
When that happened, Victor Valdez began singing in the middle of the Rio Grande for tips.
"We now hope for better days," said Valdez.
He used to be the boatman who carried people across the river. Now that the crossing is open again, his son has that job.
“We hope this brings our ghost town back to life,” said Adrian Valdez.
“We love just exploring whatever and wherever and once it was opened we had to come,” said Mike Lang and his wife Lisa after they took the row bow across the border. The couple runs an inn in Vermont in a region that relies on tourism..
Cut off from tourists at Big Bend National Park, people in Boquillas struggled to survive. A devastating drought took a toll on the few families who tried to live off the land.
“It’s so dry, we don’t even have cactus,” said Eduardo Martinez as he fed a little hay to two calves. He hopes to earn money working as a guide to buy enough hay to feed a few cows and a pregnant horse.
His 90-year-old grandfather is one of the villagers who makes wire handcrafts in the shape of scorpions to sell to tourists.
“We put it on our list of things we had to do for sure. And it has not disappointed us,” said Mark McFadden, who enjoyed a taco lunch with his wife and daughter at a table outside a small restaurant.
The McFadden family is happy to be back in Boquillas. They used the old crossing years ago. Some things have not changed.
They rode burros back to the banks of the Rio Grande and enjoyed one last song from Victor. But instead of waiting for the row boat, they waded into the river.
“I’m walking across the Rio Grande from Mexico to the great state of Texas,” said Mark McFadden.
The new border crossing will also allow researches in the region, who work in protected wildlife areas in the United States and Mexico, to meet without having to make the six-hour round trip drive to the nearest port of entry.
“It’s good for tourism. It’s good for the town. It’s also good for the scientific aspects of this,” said Elkowitz.