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South of the border, fence is no deterrent

Would-be migrants say nothing will stop them from working in US.

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 29, 2006


They stream in. Today, the same as yesterday. The same as the day before. Backpacks are stuffed with bottled water, soap, chips, maybe an icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe. They wear sweaters and wool hats for the cold desert nights.

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It often starts here, in Altar, 60 miles south of the Arizona border, at one of the largest staging points for would-be migrants attempting to cross into the US illegally. The travelers arrive from all over Mexico, Central America, even as far away as Colombia, and Brazil.

They are going to "El Norte." They tell you that, straight out. And if they don't cross this time, they will simply try again.

While debate in the US continues over immigration reform policy, here, on the south side of the border, there seems to be consensus that enforcement measures will deter almost no one. "Walls and lights and sensors and police fill our heads," says Dagoberto Martinez, "...but they don't make us turn back."

As President Bush heads to Mexico to meet with his counterpart Vicente Fox this week, the US Senate has begun a full-blown debate on immigration and border security. The suggestions range from creating a path to earned citizenship and a guest worker visa program on the one hand, and embracing tough enforcement measures such as erecting fences along the border, and treating illegal immigrants as aggravated felons, on the other.

The border patrol caught 1.2 million would-be illegal immigrants in 2005; that's an average of one arrest every 30 seconds. There are no official stats for how many made it across, but the Pew Hispanic Center estimates there are, today, between 11.5 and 12 million illegal immigrants living in the US, of whom 56 percent are Mexicans.

From Altar, some, going it alone, flag down buses headed north, where they will try to sneak across. Others - the majority, according to the US Border Patrol - have hired coyotes, or people smugglers, to guide them. These travelers get on vans and are shuttled to whatever point along the border has been chosen for them that day.

Maybe they will walk across near Naco, Mexico, and into the canyons beyond, or perhaps they will trek through the rugged mountains around Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument toward Highway 8. They might take the increasingly popular Sasabe route, following "ghost roads" in the sand toward Tucson, or even try the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, a live bombing ground, and head to Yuma, Ariz.

Often, these travelers don't even know where they are along the route, many admit. All that matters is the final destination.

Nogales, Mexico

The first time Jesús Ramirez sneaked into the US was three years ago, when he was 17. He found work in Las Vegas doing construction work during the day, making $200 a week, and busing tables at night, adding another $150. Back home, in Michoacan, Mexico, says Ramirez, he never made more than $80 a week. He now sends half his money back to his parents every month, and saves most of the rest for trips home at Christmas, and to pay the coyotes to help him back across when the holidays are over.

Last week, together with a dozen others, Ramirez set off from Michoacan. He will pay the coyote $1000 upon arrival in Vegas, he explains. From Altar his group drove to near Sasabe, and across they went.

The temperatures plummeted, Ramirez says. They walked single file. No one spoke. Finally, after three long days of this, they were apprehended by an agent in a big sports-utility vehicle. Ramirez was almost relieved, he admits. The coyote managed to escape. The rest were driven to Nogales, Ariz., processed in four hours, and without ceremony, shown the gate back into Mexico.

Now Ramirez is at the Mexican immigration police headquarters in the town of Nogales, Mexico and starting to think about a ride back to Altar. Next week, he says, he will try the whole thing over again, but on a different route. He has a T-mobile cell phone number. Call it in a week or two, he suggests, and he will be back in range, on the other side.

Yuma, Arizona