Coalcoman de Matamoros, Mexico — For 15 years, Luis, a handsome and muscular Mexican determined to provide for his family, has dodged US border patrols to work illegally in California. He is in the US about six months a year - earning five times what he does in Mexico.
His route to work has taken him across rivers on cold nights with water up to his chest. He has trekked more than two days with nothing to eat through desert areas on the US side. Gangs that rob and assault illegal entrants have preyed upon him. He has clung for long distances to the top of freight trains, hitchhiked, and begged for food.
Several times he has been caught and deported by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), on occasion twice in one month. But he turns right around and heads back to the US.
And this spring he plans to go again - leaving his wife and six childen here in the two-room brick home he paid for mostly with earnings from California's fruit orchards and factories.
President Reagan has presented Congress with a package of proposals for regaining control of US borders. Administration officials cite Census Bureau estimates (disputed as too high by some US and Mexican immigration scholars) that there are 3 to 6 million illegal aliens now in the US, about half of them Mexicans.
Not known are how many of these actually work and how long they stay.
Mr. Reagan wants to beef up border patrols and also fine employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. Some analysts say that this approach will be costly, difficult, and perhaps ineffective.
Short of building a Berlin wall across the border, something no US politician is suggesting, there is great likelihood that undocumented Mexicans will continue to slip across the border undetected.
Hubert, 20, another undocumented worker interviewed here, says his illegal crossing was ''easy.'' He and a cousin knew a ''coyote'' (smuggler) from Coalcoman, paid him $200 and walked with him across the border for a short while to a waiting van. A few hours later they were in Los Angeles.
Some Mexicans and others enter the US with fake documents. Hubert pulls out a fake US entry document. A bad job, he says. The transparent covering is peeling off.
Fransisco C., in his 70s, worked illegally on California fruit farms from 1970 to 1976, violating the terms of a US entry document valid only for short visits across the border. He still works in California, but he now has a legal entry document obtained because of family living in the US legally.
Illegal border crossings can be ''very dangerous,'' says Luis. His wife worries each time he goes north. ''Some of my friends have had their boots and pants stolen'' by gangs just inside the US border.
But, he adds, ''I've lost my fear. I've been going for 15 years and I don't have documents,'' he said in an interview on the narrow, cement-floor breezeway of his hilltop home in this rural town of about 8,000.
''We earn little here,'' he said. ''There's enough for food, but not enough for a home or if someone gets sick.''
Luis is wearing blue corduroy work pants and a white, sleeveless T-shirt. He has hung his straw cowboy hat on one knee.
During his six months a year here he is earning the equivalent of about $40 for a 40-hour week. In his last job in California, picking peaches, he earned about $200 a week. But to get to the higher earnings, Luis goes through one of the world's most difficult commuting routines - and an illegal one.
He recalls a particularly arduous effort to reach his job in 1969. He had managed to enter the US but was caught by the INS in California and deported by plane.
''I had three pennies when they deported me,'' he said. But rather than go home, he sold some of his clothing for $2, bought bread, and with a friend hopped inside a freight car that took them to the city of Chihuahua, in a Mexican border state.
The Mexican authorities locked the freight cars. ''But we climbed up on top and went all night. There was rain, rain, rain,'' he said smiling. Eventually they were spotted by Mexican soldiers and made to get down. After much walking and hitchhiking they reached the border town of Tijuana.
Friends fed them and paid the ''coyote'' who smuggled them across the border two weeks later. After an hour's walk they were picked up by a car sent to meet them and were driven to Los Angeles.
It had taken him a month to circumvent US immigration laws again, but Luis was back at work in California.