Why chic Mexican sneaks into US

Doris Meissner, the US government's chief anti-illegal-immigration warrior, has a message for the likes of Maria Contreras - Mexican haircutter and aspiring clandestine job-holder: Stay home, there are no secure jobs for you in the US.

But, for Ms. Contreras, the message arrived too late. I know this, because just a month ago the fashionable young woman was giving my three-year-old his regular haircut here. Now, after a grueling trek in the Arizona desert, she's in Salt Lake City.

Contreras is part of a feminization of migration not only from Mexico but from around the world. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which began tracking illegal immigrants by gender in 1992, says the number of women apprehended on the Southwest border has grown every year since 1994 - to 173,870 in the past fiscal year.

Illegal migrant Contreras is ready to do what INS Commissioner Meissner is determined to stop: She's looking for a job in the United States, determined to fulfill her dream of a better life.

Recent experience suggests that Contreras - not her real name - is more likely to fulfill her dream than Ms. Meissner to fulfill her mission. Estimates of US illegal immigrant population range between 5 million and 6 million - and growing.

Some illegal immigrants entered the US legally on tourist, business, or student visas and just decided to stay illegally. Some traveled on boats from as close as Cuba and as far away as China. But the majority are Mexicans who, like Contreras, sneaked across the ever-more-guarded but still penetrable 2,000-mile US-Mexico border.

What makes the Contreras case interesting is who she is: a young, single, urban woman who had a decent job in Mexico with enough disposable income for extras like an occasional new outfit.

She is almost the opposite of the stereotypical Mexican migrant: a married rural male out of work and desperate for the dollars his family needs just to put food on the table.

In many Mexican villages migration "to the other side" has become something of an obligatory rite of passage for young males, a modern version of the night in the wilderness. Now young women like Contreras consider the passage a possibility for them as well, though not as much out of desperation as for the "adventure." That and, as Contreras told me, to try to build a better life while they are still young.

She had already purchased a ticket for the 33-hour bus ride to Nogales, Mexico, which is next to Nogales, Arizona, and was prepared to pay the going rate of $1,200 to a pollero, or smuggler, who promised to get her across.

INS Commissioner Meissner is working hard to break the idea so prevalent in Mexico that the US and its thirsty labor market are an option for someone wanting to "get ahead." This year the INS has stepped up what it calls its "internal enforcement program," where audits of companies in industries with high immigrant labor result in blanket firings of workers without legal working papers.

Risks remain after border crossed

The agency hopes to send back to Mexico and other countries the news that illegal immigration remains a risky venture even after the border is crossed and left behind. But Contreras, who has never heard of Doris Meissner, stirred her herbal tea and listened only halfheartedly as I explained what I knew of INS efforts to cut illegals off from the job market. She preferred to tell me what was driving her to go north.

"I'm a fighter, I'm not satisfied with just getting by, and that's what I felt I was doing here," said Contreras. Looking sporty in a navy blue jogging suit and new white leather tennies, Contreras said it was the contrast of deterioration of life in Mexico with the constant reports of opportunities in the US that made up her mind for her.

"I grew up hearing about life on the other side [in the US]; it was always something out there," she said. She was born in Guerrero, one of Mexico's poorest states and a traditional source of migrants to the US. One of 10 children, she was still a girl when her family left rural Guerrero for Mexico City because of violent clashes over land. She had to drop out of school at 12 to work as a servant to help support her family.

"It's not as though I decided as a kid that going north is what I wanted to do, but the idea came up as I watched things deteriorating here," she said. "There's more crime, more violence, more poverty, and you always feel you're falling behind economically. Imagine, a supermarket clerk makes 6 pesos an hour [about 64 cents]!," she said. "How can you live on that?"

Contreras said that in a good month she could make 4,000 pesos ($425) cutting hair - enough for co-workers, family, and friends to advise her to be satisfied with this "decent living." But she countered that, while her life, with her own apartment and an occasional night out dancing, looked comfortable, "in reality it's always difficult and discouraging because you see few prospects for improvement."

At the same time, Contreras was hearing from a younger cousin sending home money from a job in South Carolina - as well as from a boyfriend making $8 an hour working illegally in a restaurant in Salt Lake City. An invitation from the latter to come north to work tipped the scales.

"I don't have any illusions about life in the US, I know there's racism, living is expensive, and at any moment they can ship you back," she said. "But my boyfriend also says that hard work is rewarded. I'm not going for a vacation."

Don't call her ignorant

After a week in her new home, Contreras, who had already called former co-workers here several times, didn't yet have a job.

But while still in Mexico she told me she was prepared to do about anything in the US, though she preferred not to clean houses or take care of children - that would be too much like what she started out doing at age 12.

She hoped to earn enough so that she and her boyfriend could save one whole salary. Their goals remained fluid, she said: either to be able to buy a house in Mexico or - "Who knows?" - maybe stay forever in the US.

"One thing I'm counting on is learning English," she said. "I don't like the idea of anyone thinking I'm ignorant."

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