On the Border, in a Fix

Times Staff Writer

Ana Arredondo knows who broke into her car on a downtown street and stole her stereo the other afternoon. She's sure it was one of the immigrants who crowd the byways of this teeming border town.

"Look at the type of people you see in the streets here," Arredondo, 26, said with disgust. "Almost all of them end up committing some kind of crime."

A Mexican city may seem an unlikely place for a backlash against immigrants. But Nogales has been struggling with the costs of illegal immigration in ways that few U.S. cities can imagine.

Up to a dozen times a day, a white bus pulls up across the border from Nogales and unloads migrants the Border Patrol in Arizona has caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally. The deportees flood the city's shelters and strain public services as they try to raise money for another illegal crossing. Increasing numbers of them have come from southern Mexico and Central America, drawn by rumors of amnesty.

Last month, the deployment of the U.S. National Guard on the border made it even tougher to cross illegally, compounding problems for the city. The deportees engender suspicion and resentment from longtime residents.

"Our crime rate has been going up because the only thing they've got is the clothes on their back," said Mayor Lorenzo de la Fuente. The cost of illegal immigration "keeps going up and up.... We can't handle it.

"If it gets harder to cross and they ship back more people," de la Fuente said, "well, that's what I'm afraid of."

On this stretch of the border, illegal immigration is a larger problem in Mexico than in the United States. A wall has kept unauthorized crossings from creating much of a headache in Nogales' namesake in Arizona.

"Illegal immigration is a minor irritant to Nogales," said Ignacio Barraza, a city councilman in Nogales, Ariz., (population 20,800). "It makes more of a splash in Nebraska and Iowa."

About 500 people are deported daily to Nogales, Mexico. City officials estimate that 10% eventually give up on trying to emigrate illegally to the United States. The deportees become part of a city that's in such disarray that no one can even agree on its population -- the government census says 150,000, but local officials and academics alike say that's an extreme undercount. City Hall puts the number at about 300,000.

Immigrants have taken over the shantytowns that crowd the knobby, mesquite-coated hills that surround the town. Women and children who've been deported from the U.S. beg downtown. Newspaper headlines sometimes memorialize the latest family to die while attempting to sneak across the border.

"Nogales is the result of bad decisions made by both governments," said Francisco Trujillo, who runs the Mexico office of the nonprofit group BorderLinks, which conducts educational tours along the border. "We can feel it right here because we're at the edge of both countries."

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The two Nogaleses were built as railroad towns in the late 19th century in a notch between scrubby desert hills 71 miles south of Tucson. While the American town is still a sleepy outpost, its Mexican neighbor has become a commercial hub. The transformation began in the 1960s, when the first border factories, or maquiladoras, opened.

Assembling parts for telephones, missile systems and cars, factory workers earned relatively high wages for Mexico. The maquiladoras attracted migrants from the country's impoverished interior. Nogales and other border cities with maquiladoras began to boom, and then the migrants, searching for higher pay across the border, began crossing illegally into the United States. When NAFTA was ratified in 1993, it forced small farms in southern Mexico to compete unsuccessfully against international agribusiness. A steady stream of out-of-work farmers began traveling north to cross illegally.

That year, so many undocumented immigrants poured into Nogales, Ariz., that the U.S. government created a barrier between the city and Mexico out of military surplus metal. Two years later, the government built the wall that exists today. The 14-foot-high corrugated metal wall -- crowned with mesh tilted toward the Mexican side -- runs through the two cities, over hills and through canyons and far-flung neighborhoods. The wall pushed migrants farther west into the uninhabited desert to attempt their illegal journeys.

On the American side, the wall is blank and forbidding. In Mexico, Spanish words meaning "Borders: Scars on the earth" are spray painted onto the dark metal, which also is covered with white crosses marking migrants who died crossing the desert.

Downtown -- a grid of shops, restaurants and strip clubs catering to American and Canadian visitors -- butts up against the wall. English-language signs advertise cheap medicines at farmacias. A few blocks south, the farmacias are replaced by a mix of taco shops, clothes stores and Burger Kings. Only three streets run the length of town, creating mind-numbing traffic jams. Train tracks bisect the city, and when freight trains hauling car parts or fruit from the south lug through town, they shut down traffic for as long as an hour.

It can seem a baffling place to those deposited here without warning. Antonio Munoz, 22, had sold his horse and small hut in a town outside Mexico City to finance his initial crossing, seeking to make more money in a Georgia factory where a friend worked.

"If you were in my situation," he said, "you'd do the same."

Munoz made seven attempts to cross illegally into the United States. Each time he was caught and deported to Nogales.

His last attempt ended after he walked three days through the Arizona desert. He collapsed, began vomiting and was eventually spotted by Border Patrol agents. Now he works at a maquiladora and lives at one of Nogales' many shelters for deportees -- this one a collection of bare, whitewashed rooms upstairs from a video store off the city's main drag.

Most migrants deported here arrive penniless. While staying at shelters, they depend on food provided by the city. If they're injured, the city pays for their medical care. They clog the emergency room at the public hospital. And when they pry hubcaps off cars to trade for food, the city's police arrest them and the city's jail houses them.

Nogales' new police chief said he had directed more resources to prevent deportees from burglarizing cars and shops downtown. Marco Antonio Gudino said robberies had dropped 67% since he started the operation at the end of May. "These people come here without money," he said. "One way they can survive is to turn to crime."

The city hires some migrants for up to 15 days to clean streets, enough for a bus ticket home, and provides return fare for minors deported without family members. Local officials complain that the federal government does not compensate them for the cost of caring for the migrants whether they pass through or remain. The city doesn't even bother to estimate how much it spends anymore. "If you say it'll cost me so much, I can budget it, no problem," de Le Fuente said. "But it just keeps escalating."

Officials say most migrants are hardworking, law-abiding people. But the deportees have included child molesters, sex offenders and career criminals.

"There's no control over who the U.S. drops on us," said Sergio Gonzalez Machi, an official with the employment office of the Sonora state government that operates a shelter for migrants.

Raul Carbajal, president of Nogales' chamber of commerce, said the city's most pressing economic problem was a shortage of skilled workers in the maquiladoras. Some migrants are able to find jobs at the factories but 40% cannot pass a state test of basic work skills and literacy required for the positions. Large numbers of migrants speak only the indigenous languages of Mexico's south.

"People arrive here who don't speak Spanish or have different customs," Carbajal said. "They can't go to work at 7 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m."

Those who do work regular hours and contribute to Nogales' economy feel unwelcome. "When you go to work in the maquiladora, they look at you just like the gringos," said Juan Zamora, who makes auto parts at a factory. He spent a decade in the U.S. before he was arrested for being an illegal immigrant and was sent to a detention center in Arizona. He was deported to Nogales in April. "Whenever I walk to the factory, everyone on the street is watching me."

Even though two-thirds of the city population was born elsewhere in Mexico, long-term residents grumble about changes brought by migrants. Arredondo, the dental assistant whose car was burglarized, was born in the central state of Jalisco but pines for the simpler Nogales she moved to as a teenager. "It used to be more tranquil," she said outside her office building, as cars honked their way through a traffic jam. "There are so many people now."

Marcos Arturo Vasquez, stuck in another traffic jam several blocks long, sighed as he contemplated the chaos. The Nogales native, a taxi driver, also blamed newcomers. "Most Sonorans are very clean and quiet and proper," he said.

Border activist Trujillo said that such sentiments, while not universal in Nogales, showed that distrust of poor strangers knew no boundaries. "The same attitudes that some communities have in the U.S., we in Mexico have against migrants from the south."

There are those who sympathize with the new arrivals. "The poor things, they've suffered so much," said Rafael Vitla, 70, who unloads trucks at the isolated border crossing where deportees are dropped off. "They've lost everything and now they have to try again."

As Vitla spoke, a line of 46 deportees tromped into Mexico after being deposited about 100 yards on the other side of the border by a Department of Homeland Security bus. It was 3:15 p.m., and the Mexican border officials had already gone home for the day. The border crossing, on a remote ridge, is more than a mile from downtown.

"There are no cabs here?" Manuel Corona said in disbelief. Corona, 47, from central Mexico, had to walk through industrial neighborhoods to downtown, where he hoped to find his 23-year-old daughter who was deported the previous day.

Mexican officials say the answer to the immigration problem is to create jobs to keep people like Corona from leaving their homes. As a short-term solution, the state started a program at a shelter in April that gives qualified migrants jobs at maquiladoras. "They're in their own country and they're working," said Nitzia Gastelum Romero, who runs the shelter. "This is a model program."

Mexico isn't Larissa Sosa's home, but she's grateful for the chance to work here. Two months ago the 24-year-old Honduran native, who'd lived illegally in Mexico for four years, was caught by the U.S. Border Patrol as she tried to cross the Arizona desert. She wanted to make more money so she could get medical treatment for her ailing 70-year-old father. A Border Patrol agent helped Sosa onto the deportation bus with the words "See you next time."

In Nogales, Sosa found Gastelum's shelter, then a job at a maquiladora, and decided against crossing again. She spoke enthusiastically about learning English and computer skills.

But when asked whether she considered herself lucky to have ended up in Nogales, she began to sob. Speaking of the United States, she said with longing, "There's so much money there."

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