As the sun sinks behind the rim of Zapata Canyon, clusters of undocumented immigrants spill out onto the dusty floor below. In the canyon, the most popular launching pad for illegal immigration along the 2,000-mile United States-Mexico border, some restless travelers buy tacos, tennis shoes, and tweed jackets before their chilly three-hour hike. Others listen as hired guides crudely chart routes and strategies in the dirt.
But almost everyone keeps an eye on the ridge almost half a mile away. For there, in stark outlines against the flaming yellow sky, stands a solitary figure next to a pickup truck - ``La migra,'' the US border patrol.
The lone sentinel represents just one of the growing number of obstacles that immigrants must face on their trek toward El Norte, the US. The men - actually waiting on the US side of a trash-filled ravine marking the international border - talk about the two highest hurdles: the inflated cost of crossing and the fear generated by the new US immigration law, which makes it illegal for employers to hire undocumented aliens.
Before jockeying for US jobs to help keep their families afloat during Mexico's economic crisis, hopeful immigrants must first raise the money to cross. The standard $150 fee for canyon ``guides'' has skyrocketed in real terms due to the devaluation of the peso from 25 to the dollar in 1982 to more than 1,300 today. For passage in a car, the price can soar as high as $500.
``It's not easy when you make only 2,500 pesos [less than $2] a day,'' says Miguel, a striking blue-eyed farmer from Colima State. In the fields of California he figures he will make twice that much in an hour. ``There is no Santa Claus,'' Miguel says. ``We have no choice but to earn money to send back to our families and children.''
Since the Nov. 6 passage of the US Immigration Reform and Control Act, there has been an additional cost. Many of the men here waiting for nightfall say they now have to buy bogus immigration papers, sometimes for several hundred dollars. Under the new law, all US employers must fill out a form insuring that each new employee has papers that at least look official.
Most immigration experts agree that the law's bark is worse than its eventual bite, mainly because the vaunted employer sanction provision is toothless. Employers, who were to begin checking new workers' papers on July 1, cannot receive anything more than a warning for illegal hiring until June 1, 1988. Even after that date, it must be shown that they knowingly hired an illegal alien, something extremely difficult to prove given the proliferation of bogus papers.
``Any employer who knows anything about the law will have to be unafraid,'' says Kitty Calavita, an immigration specialist at the Center for US-Mexican Studies in San Diego. ``The INS is not out to get them. They [the employers] bear no responsibililty.''
A tangible fear, however, still floats through Zapata Canyon.
``We hear that it's next to impossible to cross,'' says one chicly dressed 18-year-old from Veracruz State. ``Even if we do cross,'' he says, ``we're told that nobody will want to hire us.''
The young man, part of the new wave of immigrants shunning stoop labor in favor of the urban service sector, says he had to make the trip alone because friends at home fear that the border has been virtually sealed shut.
Standing next to the stylish youth is a middle-aged agricultural laborer from central Mexico. Even among the older generation of migrants who have crossed the border for years, he says, ``there is nothing but confusion'' about the law.
The fear and confusion have only been fomented by the news media and governments of both countries, says Patricia Neira, a sociologist at the College at the Northern Border here.
``There is a wide information gap,'' says Mrs. Neira, who closely monitors the flow of alien traffic through the canyon. ``Potential immigrants are only receiving bits and pieces of information. And most of it is either badly distorted or designed to scare them.''
To illustrate this, she points to the evening of May 5, the day that the US Immigration and Naturalization Service began its amnesty program for aliens who could prove they had continuous residency in the US since 1982. On that single evening, she says, the number of immigrants fell 40 percent - even though the amnesty provision had nothing to do with their situation.
``It's predictable that there would have been some initial shock waves,'' says Doris Meissner, a former INS commissioner who is now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. ``But the real test is in the future,'' Ms. Meissner says. ``Nobody has a clue about how all this is going to play in Mexico.''
Neira agrees. As the last stragglers head off into the murky recesses of the canyon she says, ``We'll have to wait until they come back with their stories. Only then will people in Mexico receive the true picture'' of the effects of the immigration law.