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Mexico Woes Reflected in U.S. Border Towns : Steep Decline of Peso Felt on Both Sides

Times Staff Writer

In the fading light of early evening, the Mexican stood in the shallows of the Rio Grande beneath the bridge between Juarez and El Paso, casually swishing his hands in the current, inching out into the stream.

A U.S. Border Patrol van drove by on the opposite bank and the man retreated, briefly, toward the Mexican shore. Then, when the van was out of sight, he moved out once more into the swift current. The patrol drove by again. The man retreated. It was like a dance between the two, in which both knew the steps, what the next move would be.

Then the man in the river saw his chance. He dived for the American shore and in 10 ungainly strokes he was across the Rio Grande. He walked up the steep cement embankment, put his hands on his knees as he gasped for breath, then disappeared around a bend in the river, obscured by the high, barbed-wire-topped fence he still had to negotiate.

On shore, dozens watched on the Mexican side. Others gazed down from the crowded walkways of the international bridge. But only a stone’s throw away, at the U.S. border checkpoint, it was business as usual. Another illegal alien, with nothing but the clothes he wore, had made it to the American side.

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The scene had two faces. For the U.S. government, and for those whose job it is to keep the border closed to undocumented Mexican aliens, the crossing was but one minor episode in the continuing losing battle to stop thousands from illegally entering the United States each day. For others, it is flight to a new life, one more escape from the dreary poverty of Mexico, a country sinking deeper into an economic morass.

Mexico’s woes are taking a heavy toll in U.S. communities along the border, and it is notable that many residents here appear to be inclined to blame that as much on Washington as on Mexico City. Time and again an uninformed and unresponsive U.S. government is cited as one of the major problems.

Decline of Peso

Mexico’s economic slide is helping to drive out the hundreds of thousands who will attempt an illegal crossing along the 1,900-mile border this year, while at the same time, the steep decline in the value of the peso has been devastating for border merchants whose lifeblood has been trade with Mexico, and with Mexicans who cross the border legally to shop.

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The peso, which sold at 26 per dollar four years ago, now hovers between 600 and 640 per dollar, and people along the border nervously talk of the day, not too far off, when the exchange rate could plummet to 1,000 or more per dollar.

U.S. businesses along the border were hit even harder by the drastic peso devaluation in 1982, but the lastest decline crisis in Mexico is a major blow to businesses that were looking for a reprieve.

‘Kidding Ourselves’

“After we went through the shock of 1982, we didn’t think there was much more to lose,” said Albert Schwartz, executive vice president of El Paso’s Popular stores, the largest retail clothing business in the city. “We were kidding ourselves.”

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And while income is dropping in U.S. border towns, social services are being strained to the limit by the illegal alien influx.

In El Paso, for example, the county hospital is treating so many aliens that it is writing off as uncollectable 77 cents on each dollar’s worth of services delivered. In one example of resentment of Washington, El Paso County Judge Pat O’Rourke sent President Reagan a bill for $10 million last January in an effort to dramatize the problem.

On Wednesday, the San Diego County supervisors approved a plan to seek millions of dollars in reimbursement from the federal government for health, social and criminal justice services provided to illegal immigrants.

Crime rates have risen all along the border. Major criminal activity is largely attributable to a huge increase in the drug trade, but the influx of destitute immigrants is driving up other crime as well. In Brownsville, Tex., at the eastern end of the border, Police Chief Andy Vega said that in the last year and a half, roughly 70% of those arrested for burglaries and thefts in the downtown area--closest to the border--were illegal immigrants.

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“The only answer is that they are desperate,” Vega said.

Texas Hardest-Hit

The Border Patrol estimates that roughly half of the 1.8 million illegal aliens it expects to apprehend by the end of fiscal 1986 will be stopped in California. Nevertheless, Texas is considered to be the hardest-hit of all the border states because it has been so economically depressed for the last four years. Four of the six poorest counties in the United States are along the Texas border and a fifth is in adjacent New Mexico, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“There is a horror show coming pretty quick,” O’Rourke said. “And it’s not just the hospitals. . . . The basic rules are all being broken. It is no longer mutually beneficial to be neighbors because the balance is changing. Now we’re just importing their poverty.”

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But despite his tough talk, the judge is by no means at odds with Mexico as a neighbor. His anger, he says, stems from frustration at seeing El Paso’s per capita income decline with each passing year. Coupled with that is a suspicion that official Washington has little understanding of border problems. Others share his views.

“I’ve always been an optimistic individual, but I may be losing that,” said Reuben Garcia of Laredo, chairman of a task force on border development appointed by Texas Gov. Mark White. “We’re supposed to come up with answers by December and I doubt very much that we will.”

But like many others interviewed, Garcia sympathizes with the plight of illegal immigrants and does not necessarily feel that the hard luck for the border towns stretching from San Ysidro to Brownsville is attributable only to them. Those coming across the border are not impersonal numbers to Garcia, but neighbors down on their luck. He would do the same thing in their position, he says.

‘Can’t Blame Them’

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“You can’t really blame them,” said Garcia, who has lived on the border for the last 55 years. “Those people are looking for a job. They’ve got mouths to feed and that’s why they’re coming.”

Unless the Mexican economy improves, he added, the influx will continue. He points out that the border cities inside Mexico have grown dramatically in recent years, both in population and poverty, and now contain three times the population of their counterparts on the U.S. side.

“Mexico has never been able to take advantage of its resources,” he said. “They need to diversify their economy. But to do that now, where in the hell are they going to get the money?”

One study shows that residents along the border, on both the Mexican and American side, have little trust in officialdom. The survey, conducted by Niles Hansen, a University of Texas economics professor and border expert, found that 77% of residents along the U.S. side of the border believe Washington does not understand the nature and significance of border problems. On the Mexican side, 58% believe the same thing about Mexico City.

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Dangerous to Stop

What the Border Patrol and the Reagan Administration portray as the hordes moving north is viewed by many on the border as an inevitable consequence of poverty that would be dangerous to stop.

“I can’t see anything but those people coming over in waves in the near term,” said Tom Herring, the owner of the riverfront La Posada Hotel and one of Laredo’s leading citizens. “If we don’t let those people come out, Mexico becomes a tinder box. This has historically been their safety valve. As the economy declines, the safety valve has more pressure on it. We bear the first brunt of it. We just happen to be geographically in the wrong place. The rest of the country doesn’t see it as their problem.”

Taking issue with harsh words from Washington about the danger posed by illegal aliens, Herring said that locking up the border isn’t feasible and there is no reason to do it anyway because, in his view, the Rio Grande only serves as an arbitrary barrier to an area with a traditionally Latino culture.

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‘A Guard Every 10 Feet’

“The problem in Washington, the bureaucracy in particular has no concept at all of what’s going on along the border,” he said. “If you want to build a wall and shut the valves, good luck,” he said. “You could put a guard every 10 feet and I don’t think you could stop it.”

Debbie Kastrin, an El Paso businesswoman whose mother is a naturalized citizen of Mexican descent, also is frustrated by what she sees as a lack of understanding in Washington about the border.

“We don’t want MX missiles on the border to stop them from coming over. They are the mainstay of the economy, friends and relatives,” she said. “No one is willing to give a clear definition of where we stand with our neighbors to the south. When we yell and scream, it is the frustration of being controlled in Washington, D.C.”

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Hansen, the economist who conducted the study of border residents’ attitudes toward Washington and Mexico City, agrees.

“I don’t find anyone worrying down here that there is a Mexican maid or a Mexican construction worker,” he said. “This is the way we’ve operated forever.”


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