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Beyond the Border

Tensions are rising along the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border, which a million Mexicans try to cross illegally each year.

By Ginger Thompson in Las Chepas, Mexico

First, there was the sound of an engine. Then, a lookout peeked carefully over the mud-brick wall that stood less than 100 feet from the United States. "Get down!" he shouted to the 73 others behind him. Everyone dropped to the dirt, until the sound of the engine faded, and the lookout said that all was clear.

"See what we have to go through?" said one of the men, already so dirty that he didn't bother to dust himself off as he got up from the ground. "We have to sneak around like criminals, and the only thing we want to do is work."

Depending which side of the wall you stand on, the crumbling village of Las Chepas on Mexico's border with the U.S. was either a haven of organized crime or the last hurdle to a land of opportunities. (Recently, the Mexican government demolished the village in an effort to curb the illegal traffic.) About 1 million Mexicans try to sneak across the border each year, with about 400,000 succeeding, according to Mexican authorities. In the last three years, this stretch of the 2,000-mile-long border has become one of the busiest gateways for illegal migration to the U.S.

Since his election in 2000, Mexican President Vicente Fox has been pushing the United States to adopt new policies that would open the border to a freer flow of workers. President Bush has supported this approach and last month he renewed calls for a guest-worker plan that would allow millions of illegal immigrants to apply for renewable work visas. But so far the plan has languished in Congress, and efforts at broad immigration reform have been stymied.

Most Americans just north of the border view the current situation with disdain and fear. Ranchers complain that the migrants trample and litter their fields, steal, and vandalize, and local police worry about the violent drug traffickers and migrant smugglers who move among the immigrants. Some people who live along the border have begun their own armed patrols of the border as part of a militia movement known as the Minuteman Project.

Try, Try Again

The men who crouched behind the wall one day in September were afraid to talk much, and none of them gave their names. They came from almost every corner of Mexico and were headed to almost every corner of the U.S. Two of the men, brothers from the state of Hidalgo, opened up a little bit. They said that they had been moving back and forth illegally across the border for the last 10 years. They had worked all over the U.S., as waiters, carpenters, meat packers, and in the strawberry fields around Salinas, Calif.

The first time they entered the United States, the brothers said, they crossed at Tijuana into California. But then the U.S. put more Border Patrol officers there, so the brothers began crossing the Sonoran Desert into Arizona. Then the U.S. put more officers there.

This was the first time the brothers had come to the Mexican state of Chihuahua, across the border from New Mexico. This time, the brothers said they had already attempted to cross into the U.S. four times. They were spotted by Border Patrol agents each time and ran back. (Those who are caught are sent back to Mexico on a bus within 24 hours.) They were tired, but not discouraged, and vowed they would keep trying, for one simple reason, until they made it.

"In Mexico, we can make 600 pesos a week," one of the brothers said. "That's about $60. I cannot even buy enough bread for my children with that. In the United States, I make $600 a week."

That's the economic reality that pushes people to risk their lives and sneak across the border. (See "Big Dreams in Mexicali," p. 20.) Some 17 million Mexican farmers live on $2 a day. Free-market reforms such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) strengthened Mexico's large companies but devastated small farms and businesses, says Laura Carlsen, an expert on Mexico's trade policy at the International Relations Center, a New Mexico think tank.

'The Hard Part'

When asked whether they had ever had a hard time finding work in the U.S., one brother pointed over the wall and said, "This is the hard part. The rest is easy."

It is a two-day walk from here to Interstate 10, where migrants are picked up and driven, usually to Phoenix or El Paso. In the summer, temperatures reach 110 degrees, and the desert is crawling with rattlesnakes and scorpions. Immigrant smugglers sometimes take the migrants' money and leave them stranded. And gangs sometimes raid their camps and rob them.

It is not uncommon for migrants to get disoriented and lost. An increasing number of them die—at least 419 this year, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. "The more walls they build, the farther we have to walk," the other brother said, "and the more of us who will die."

That's why Mexico sends immigration officers like Sigfrido Marquez to the border towns. He works with a unit called Grupo Beta, whose mission is not to stop the migrants from crossing, only to warn them about the perils of the journey. He takes their names and gives them pamphlets with phone numbers in case of emergencies. He inspects their clothing, telling one older man that sneakers would be better than loafers and a young woman that she might want a sweatshirt rather than a halter at night.

He tells them to put a little sugar and salt in their jugs of water so that they won't dehydrate. He says it's safer to travel in groups. And he warns them that if they're caught by the Border Patrol to stop and put their hands in the air, not their pockets. Then he wishes them Godspeed.

His work has prompted outrage among U.S. authorities, who say Mexico is encouraging illegal immigration to the United States. Marquez says Mexico's Constitution prohibits the government from standing in the way of the free movement of its people. Besides, the migrants are no threat to the U.S., he says. They have become a key part of its economy.

"These people are not dangerous criminals," he said. "If they could make a decent living here, they would not be doing this."

Giving Up on Mexico

One of the migrants in Las Chepas looked different from the rest. He said he was 51 years old and had lived in New York City, working odd jobs for 15 years. The migrant said he returned to Mexico in 2000, after Fox's landmark election. "I thought it was a good time to come back," he said, "and give something to my country."

But Mexico, he said, took everything from him. He tried to start two businesses, first a restaurant, then a convenience store. Local officials kept demanding taxes and payments for different licenses, he said. Soon they just demanded bribes and threatened to shut him down if he didn't pay.

His savings, he said, vanished. His businesses failed. So here he was, headed back to New York, this time with his 22-year-old daughter.

The daughter said she had studied computers, but was unable to find a job in Mexico. "I hope someone will give me a chance in the United States," she said, "because my country closed all doors to me."