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On U.S.-Mexico Border, a Well-Organized Crossing

Times Staff Writer

Sheepherder Carlos Hernandez missed President Bush’s speech about shoring up the border with the National Guard. That night he was holed up in a flophouse about 70 miles south of here spending what he hoped would be his last night in Mexico for a while.

So were his nine fellow travelers, who by the next day were hiding in the shade of mesquite bushes, sharing cigarettes and waiting with him for the sun to set on the seemingly endless Sonora Desert so they could begin their last leg into the United States.

“I haven’t heard anything about that,” Hernandez said. “But how many soldiers do they think they’d need to watch over this?”

Everybody nodded.

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Today Bush will tour the border, farther west, with the same question in mind.

The migrants who gather here came from all parts of Mexico: Chiapas, Guerrero, Veracruz, Michoacan. They traveled by bus, hopped trains or paid for rides. Most left behind wives, children and parents in tiny pueblos where work was scarce.

“I’m headed to Atlanta,” said Hernandez, 25. “I’ve got a brother there who works in roofing.”

Those who believe that the U.S.-Mexico border is out of control might be surprised by the orderly manner in which the business of illegal immigration is conducted here. The church plaza in Altar, the town where Hernandez spent his last night, usually has at least half a dozen vans waiting to bring people to the border’s edge. The fare is 100 pesos, a little less than $10.

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Merchants sell backpacks, blankets, hats, water jugs, food and clothing for the walk across miles of desert. Smugglers offer deals that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on the U.S. destination. Dozens of so-called guesthouses rent beds for the night.

Hernandez and his companions passed through Altar and waited out the afternoon Tuesday at La Pista, one of dozens of desert way stations along the U.S. border’s busiest illegal crossing, about 60 miles southwest of Tucson.

Crammed vans bring immigrants to these spots over dirt roads well marked by the litter of thousands of previous travelers -- empty water bottles, beer cans, food containers, candy wrappers and, everywhere, white plastic grocery bags clinging to cactus spines and mesquite branches.

By conventional wisdom, talk of legalization is supposed to open the floodgates even wider. But the onset of triple-digit desert temperatures, as well as the tough talk by many U.S. politicians, has slowed business over the past weeks, say those working the immigrant trade route.

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“I’m down maybe 50% right now,” said Cruz Damian Felix, who owns a food stand at the plaza in Altar. “Partly, it’s the summer and the heat, but more people are saying they’re afraid.”

The toll taker who collects 30 pesos for entrance to the 70-mile dirt road that connects Altar with Sasabe said fewer vans were passing through each day. “Too hot,” he said.

Officials of Grupo Beta, the Mexican government’s migrant assistance program, believe that their warnings against crossing miles of desert after late spring have taken hold, turning illegal immigration into a seasonal practice. There is also the issue of perspective.

“Everybody here is used to seeing thousands cross a day, so hundreds doesn’t seem like so much,” said Victor Armendariz, a Grupo Beta worker. His boss, Mario Lopez Vazquez, estimated that border crossings here have fallen from a seasonal high of about 3,000 a day to fewer than 1,000.

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The U.S. Border Patrol in Tucson said it had made 278,900 arrests from Oct. 1 through Monday. Nearly all were Mexican nationals. The Border Patrol officers use the usual assortment of electronics and air surveillance, along with patrols along the web of dirt roads and trails that connect the two countries. They also station patrol cars and Homeland Security buses along nearby state highways 286 and 86, which lead to Interstate 10.

Grupo Beta officials estimated that for every arrest, two other immigrants make it across the border.

Grupo Beta’s five staff members in Sasabe spend their days patrolling immigrant camps, doling out energy drinks and warnings. They also conduct search-and-rescue missions, although most of the peril lies on the U.S. side, both from the elements and Mexican bandits who prey on immigrants.

The attitude of the migrant aid workers reflects the laissez-faire view of the Mexican government -- an almost parental, hope-you-kids-are-being-careful stance that neither endorses nor discourages illegal immigration. Mexican President Vicente Fox has often described immigrants as heroic, both for braving the dangers of heading north and for their generous $20-billion-a-year financial contribution to Mexico’s economy.

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The men stationed at Mexico’s border entrance here agree with Fox that much ado is being made over Mexicans doing work at wages that most Americans would refuse. But that doesn’t keep them from criticizing their own president.

“Fox hasn’t changed anything, and in some ways things have gotten worse,” said one official, who didn’t want to give his name for fear of losing his cushy government job. “I only have six years of school. Why? Because I got no help and needed to work. If you don’t work here, you don’t eat.”

The leading presidential candidates in the July 2 Mexican election all speak of creating more jobs so people don’t have to leave. But it seems as though thousands of Mexicans each day are voting with their feet.

“Most of the people have family or friends in the U.S., so they travel with the confidence of knowing where they’re going and who is going to meet them,” said Lopez Vazquez of Grupo Beta.

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Among the group waiting for sunset before trekking north Tuesday was Leonardo Coria, 24. He planned to return to Portland, Ore., to work at a lumberyard. He’d gone back to Mexico to retrieve his 18-year-old wife, the only woman in the group.

“I have brothers and cousins up there,” Coria said. “Last time, I went over near Mexicali. I figure this time it’ll be about a 24-hour ride from Phoenix to Portland.”

He was cocky about the crossing. Maximiliano Medina was more pensive. He said he couldn’t earn enough picking lettuce in Veracruz to support his wife, daughter and two sons. He was headed to North Carolina, where relatives were working in construction. This was his first trip north.

“We talked a lot about having a better life,” said Medina, tired after 16 days of travel. “We saw the marches on TV, but I don’t believe they’ll really get anything out of that. But we’re hoping I can make it, get somewhere, get work. But who knows? Maybe I’ll just end up back here.”

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By sundown they were gone. The Border Patrol in Tucson reported 1,404 arrests that day.

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Carlos Martinez of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.


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