Bartow, Fla. — Four years ago, Pedro, then 18, left his family's small rural home in central Mexico, where he had never managed to find employment. He headed for the US border with dreams of landing a job on the other side.
At the border, Pedro walked across the shallow Rio Grande River and illegally stepped into the United States at Eagle Pass, Texas. Then, carrying some tortillas and canned goods in a burlap sack, he walked for eight days until he caught a ride to Austin. After three weeks working in a lumber yard there, he headed for Florida, where he now earns about $3,000 a year as a farm worker.
Recently, wearing slacks, a purple shirt, and a cowboy hat, Pedro explained to this reporter what it is like to be one of the targets in the most concentrated hunt for illegal aliens that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has yet made in Florida.
His story also helps illustrate the frustration that agents of the Border Patrol (part of INS) feel in trying to catch undocumented workers in Florida. Agents admit they snare only a fraction of the illegal immigrants there.
Many of those now being caught (some 800 a month) could qualify for legal residence under federal legislation now before Congress. The Senate and a House committee have passed versions of an immigration reform bill that would penalize many employers of illegal aliens, while allowing employers to hire foreign ''guest'' workers if they can show that no legal residents are available for the work.
As part of the bill, illegal aliens who have been living in the US since a yet-to-be-determined date could apply for legal residency.
Proponents of the bill see it as a way to slow the flow of illegal aliens into the United States. Opponents say many illegal aliens living in the US now will find it hard to prove they have lived here long enough to qualify for legal residence. And, opponents say, the bill could could mean the replacement of increasingly outspoken illegal alien farmworkers and others with a more docile ''guest'' workers that could be sent home if they refuse to work without better pay and work conditions.
In central Florida, migrants - both legal and illegal - are organizing more frequently to protest low wages and demand better working conditions, says labor organizer Hilario Barajas of Auburndale, Fla.
Meanwhile the hunt continues for illegal aliens like Pedro.
Pedro lives in a rented house with several friends and pays $12 a week in rent. He has paid up to $21 a week. Often, say those working with migrants, rents for houses in poor condition run as high as $150 to $200 a week.
''We're always thinking of Immigration (the INS) and hoping we don't get picked up,'' he says. Yet he visits shopping centers and goes to the movies and dances. ''We always help each other, and pass the word when the Immigration is near,'' Pedro adds. Sometimes the field boss where he is picking fruit warns him that Border Patrol agents are coming, he says.
For several months of the year, Pedro migrates through the Carolinas and other states, picking crops as they become ripe. When he can get some savings together, he, like many other Mexicans in Florida, sends some money back to his parents and brothers and sisters in Mexico.
A pregnant Mexican woman apprehended recently by the Border Patrol led agents back to her one-bedroom apartment to gather her belongings. She lived there with her two small children and (apparently) four other adults. Under a mattress on the bare wooden floor, an agent found postal receipts for money sent back to Mexico. As she sat on the steps of the apartment, she wondered out loud what would happen to her when she landed in Mexico City on the deportation flight. Her family lives a considerable distance from there, she said.
Some illegal aliens have been living in the US for many years. ''Things are hard in Mexico,'' Pedro explains. ''I would like to live here for ever.''
But Border Patrol agents are working hard to see he does not stay. They say legal US residents pay for illegal aliens in several ways, including lost jobs, law enforcement costs, and costs of social services. Some US and Mexican scholars argue, on the other hand, that illegal aliens do more good than harm to the US economy by taking jobs Americans shun.