On Patrol: Jumping Border is a Huge Attraction
Thousands risk everything to seek better lives in U.S.
October 10, 2005
By Lucinda Dillon Kinkead and Dennis Romboy
Deseret Morning News
CHIHUAHUA, Mexico - All along Highway 16 on the way to Cuauhtemoc are billboards touting "Acciones de Progreso" by the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
Photo: Rosa Mendoza rests against a fence outside Cuauhtemoc, Mexico, where she lives with her two children and two others in a small house. (Tyler Sipe, Deseret Morning News)
"Third place for quality of life!" one proclaims in Spanish. "20,000 jobs created during 2005," another says.
Mile after mile on this country throughway, the government offers its high-profile promises.
"Vive la plenitud!"
But this is not the reality for 32-year-old Rosa Mendoza, who has food today but isn't sure how she will feed her two daughters tomorrow. It is not the reality for 12-year-old Cecilia Mendoza, whose throat is sore and raw one day when visitors come, but there is no money for medicine or a doctor. And it is certainly not the reality for Magdalena Calzadillas, 42, whose school-age son lives with a relative because she can't afford to care for him.
"No hay trabajo," the woman said recently from the yard of her cinder-block home. "There is no work."
There are millions more like the Mendoza/Calzadillas household among 104 million citizens of Mexico - millions with little education, few possibilities for work and with grand ideas about what possibilities lie north of the border in the United States.
Two in 10 Mexican citizens live on less than $1 a day, and nearly 37 percent of people live in poverty, according to a new report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
Of those living in poverty, many will continue to eke out a living any way they can. Some will scrounge up enough money for visas and citizenship papers. But many will give up everything in an effort to get to the United States. Many will jump the border.
Were it not for Lupita, Rosa Mendoza says that's where she would be headed.
She thinks about going to the United States. She knows someone who could help smuggle them across. But her daughter Lupita is only 5, and Rosa won't take on the dangerous mission of crossing the border illegally. Not yet.
"Later, when she is older," Mendoza said through an interpreter. "It's too dangerous right now."
Sixteen years ago, Luis Diaz sidestepped snakes and scorpions in the Mexican desert on his walk across the border to California. He went a night and a day without water and food. He did it to find a job.
"Mexico," he said, "it's hard to work over there."
His first job in America was picking strawberries in the California sun.
Diaz, 33, eventually made his way to Utah, where he has worked for the same cement contractor the past nine years. His boss even put up a $6,000 insurance bond when Diaz was arrested on a warrant for unpaid traffic tickets and sent back to Mexico.
He now has papers to legally live in the United States, but he is not yet a citizen.
This is a dream scenario for many people who live in Mexico.
Photo: U.S. Border Patrol officers Jorge Martinez and Mike Aragon watch for illegal immigrants who might be trying to cross into El Paso, Texas, and New Mexico from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Nearly 1,200 agents patrol along the border in the El Paso sector, which consists of 289 boundary miles and 125,000 square miles.
There are lots of ways to get into the United States illegally. Not all people come across the border running or swimming.
Visits to the U.S. Border Patrol office and U.S. ports of entry - the checkpoints where people enter the United States from Mexico across enormous bridges - show many do give up everything to risk illegal travel into the United States. Some get caught. Some go to jail. Others make it to Texas, New Mexico, Utah or somewhere else for a new life.
Manuel A. Anida-Perez didn't make it.
The 36-year-old told officers he was trying to get to Denver to work for his brother. So he "rented" a border crossing card for $500 from one of many fraudulent document vendors near the bridges that separate Juarez and El Paso. To the untrained eye, the document photo looked almost like Anida-Perez, but it didn't fool officers at checkpoints at the port of entry one day recently.
A 49-year-old woman trying to pass off a 16-year-old as her niece didn't make it, either.
It turns out the man with whom she and the girl were traveling had a criminal history. Something caught the eye of customs officers as the three tried to drive into Texas. Officers checked his identification and found he'd been arrested three times for transporting illegal immigrants across the border.
He had $1,800 in his sock.
Officers trying to sort out the situation surmised the teenager had paid the man to take her across the border.
And although the woman had a valid visa to visit the United States, the 16-year-old and the male did not. Officers seized the woman's car and her papers.
"They risk everything," said Chief Victor Jimenez, who supervises the port. "They literally sell the farm to get the American dream, but in a second it's all gone."
About 18,000 to 22,000 people cross legally at this checkpoint every day. Each person comes face to face with an officer, shows documents and answers a few questions.
Photo: Magdalena Calzadillas, left, walks to the town plaza in Cuauhtemoc with Rosa Mendoza and Mendoza's daughter, Cecilia. Calzadillas has a son who lives with a relative because she can't afford to care for him.
"What is your citizenship?"
"Do you have anything to declare?"
"What are you bringing with you into the U.S.?"
Officers study each document for several seconds because fraudulent documents look increasingly authentic. About 100 people weekly are busted here.
The work is so concentrated that an officer spends only 30 minutes at a station, then moves to another task.
Officers also eyeball each person to check for drugs or weapons. Some are obvious - like the man officers caught recently with 13 pounds of marijuana strapped to his body.
"He looked like the Michelin Man," Jimenez said. "Three, four pounds, maybe you can conceal it, but 13 pounds?"
Six years ago, Manuel Hernandez of Salt Lake City made a surreptitious dash to the United States to better his circumstances. He paid a human smuggler, known as "a coyote," $1,300 - borrowed from a friend - to drive him across the Mexican border. He was among 10 others crammed in a van that set out across the desert. He left a wife and two children at home in Veracruz.
"It wasn't hard because I wanted to be here so badly," he said through an interpreter.
Hernandez came to Utah looking to earn more than the paltry agricultural living he made in Mexico. He found a job at a food-processing plant where he worked for four years, sending money home to his family. He had to quit two years ago when he was diagnosed with kidney disease.
Later, his son came across the border in the same way his father did. Hernandez said his wife and daughter are still too scared to sneak into the United States.
Photo: A key holder on the kitchen wall reminds "Angel" and "Maria" of their native homeland Mexico, from where the Utah couple emigrated nearly 10 years ago.
A few blocks from the port of entry is the processing station for the U.S. Border Patrol in El Paso, Texas. Here a line of mostly young men in muddy boots and pants dirty up to the knees wait to be walked back across the bridge into Mexico. They've been caught sometime in the past 12 hours.
On the U.S. side of the border, a row of U.S. Border Patrol agents with a "hold the line" philosophy about border protection line the dirt roads. Powerful floodlights are stationed every 30 yards and are trained on the Rio Grande and the cottonwood trees that grow in its bed.
In the past 11 months, agents in the El Paso sector have caught 110,000 men, women and children crossing the border illegally.
That's 300 every day along the 180 miles of land where Mexico touches the boundary of El Paso, Texas, and parts of New Mexico.
Some days, agents catch mostly "day crossers" - roofers, gardeners, cement workers - who make their way into Texas or New Mexico to work.
"They go back every day," border patrol agent Jorge Martinez said. "They are just trying to earn a living."
Intense attention at this border checkpoint means some trying to cross move east or west and try to cross in much more dangerous terrain.
Nearby, in Arizona, 26 migrants died in the desert this summer trying to cross into the United States without adequate water or directions.
The industry of moving people between Mexico and the United States is serious, treacherous business.
Human smugglers operate intricate networks whereby people are led to the border, across the border by car or on foot and then are delivered somewhere in the United States.
Photo: There's a stark contrast between homes in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, foreground, and El Paso, Texas, in the background.
But along the way, travelers are robbed, beaten, held hostage and sometimes left to die, according to interviews with officials and dozens of illegal immigrants.
"The exploitation of people victimized by coyotes is a real concern for us because people are getting killed," said Doug Moser, customs and border patrol spokesman. "These smugglers are ruthless."
"Angel" made his way from Jalisco, Mexico, to Utah 10 years ago. He paid $300 and traveled with his uncle's family.
"It's always good to have references," he said, "because a bad coyote will kill you and take your money."
The men who smuggled him were college-age. They wore Reeboks and trendy clothes. Those who operate the human-smuggling networks now charge an average of $1,200. The most organized - those with men working cell phones in Mexico and the United States - can bring three groups of 10 people across daily. They earn $36,000 a day.
There is no chit-chat with the coyotes, Angel said. "We know that sometimes smugglers will send a group out as a sacrificial lamb to keep the border agents busy while other groups get through. It's a very scary business."
Meanwhile, all across Mexico, poor people like Rosa Mendoza and Magdalena Calzadillas weigh the dangers of crossing into the United States illegally. Even the possibility of making more money looks better than the choices from where they stand today, Calzadillas said.
There is some evidence of recent economic improvements in Mexico.
o The government of President Vicente Fox indicates "extreme poverty" - defined as income for a person of $52 a month in rural areas and $70 in urban areas - dropped from 20.3 percent in 2002 to 17.3 percent in 2004, according to the ECLAC report.
o The overall poverty level fell from 44.2 percent to 37 percent between 1992 and 2004.
o The proportion of people living on less than $1 a day shrunk from 24.2 percent to 20.3 percent between 2000 and 2002.
Mendoza and Calzadillas say they might be slightly better off than that 20 percent of people living on $1 a day - but not much.
Like so many in Mexico, school ended for Mendoza and Calzadillas at age 11. They've been living hand to mouth ever since, and now they combine their resources to feed Mendoza's two daughters.
For them, everything is so expensive - $32 a month for school, $50 for rent - and they have no income except the occasional cash raised by housekeeping or odd jobs for others.
They have a ramshackle camper from which they sell hamburgers at the ranches, but they haven't had money to buy meat to cook.
The women are eight months behind on rent for their row house. There is no yard, only a dirt parking area where a couple of dogs, a rabbit, a rooster and some scraggly cats scratch around all day.
This fall, Mendoza sent her 12-year-old daughter, Cecilia, to a ranch school that is cheaper than the school in town but still not free. The girl travels one hour each way on the bus to get there.
"She is shy at school," her mother said.
She is also embarrassed. Books and the school uniform cost extra. Cecilia is the only student with no uniform.