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In the Shoes of an Illegal Immigrant

At a park in central Mexico, tourists pay to simulate an illegal border crossing. Does this teach empathy, or is it just plain crass?

By Patrick O' Gilfoil Healy

Clad in black clothes and moonlight, our guide Poncho adjusts his ski mask and faces us to speak. The desert has claimed many lives, he says, but tonight we will make it across the border.

The night is crisp and clear in the central Mexican highlands. Our group of 13 is about to set out on one of Mexico's more bizarre tourist attractions: a make-believe trip illegally crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States.

Dark Encounters

The four-hour caminata nocturna, or nighttime hike, traverses desert, hills, shrubs, and riverbeds in the Parque EcoAlberto, an eco-park about three hours northwest of Mexico City (and 700 miles from the U.S. border). Tourists on the mock border crossing, led by "fellow immigrants," have to run and hide from fake Border Patrol agents.

Hñahñu Indians (pronounced nyah-nyoo) opened the park in 2004 with help from the Mexican government. Since then, some 3,000 tourists—mostly Mexican—have paid 200 pesos each (about $18) to take the journey.

Park officials say it teaches empathy and offers tourists a taste of life as an illegal immigrant, but opponents say it's just plain crass.

"Of course it's just a game," says Antonio Flores, a professor from central Mexico who hiked the caminata last year with a group of students. "[But] it was very interesting, very important. Often, immigration is a subject so far away. This gave us a chance to experience it through our own steps."

The Hñahñus know firsthand about the challenges immigrants face. Of the approximately 2,200 Hñahñus from this area, 700 live in Mexico and 1,500 live and work "on the other side." Many of the guides here have crossed the real border several times.

"Being an immigrant isn't a source of pride," says Poncho, the tour guide, whose real name is Alfonso Martinez. "We abandon the family, the language, the earth. We lose our sense of community. The idea here is to raise people's consciousness about what immigrants go through."

Not The Real Thing

Compared with actually crossing the border, the simulated experience is hardly a struggle: Guides don't desert their group or leave them starving, dying of thirst, or open to attack by bandits; the biggest danger visitors face is walking into a low-hanging tree branch.

Nevertheless, park officials say that people often walk away stunned.

"They learn to value the liberty they have in their own countries," says one guide. "That they don't have to run and be chased in their own lives."