Holiday visit worth the risk for migrants

Tighter border security with Mexico may make the return to the US harder.

At home with his family for the first time in two years, Carlos Ramírez beamed as he helped dig a barbecue pit for their traditional Christmas goat.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Ramírez, an illegal migrant worker in the US, returned to this indigenous highland town in the central state of Hidalgo.

Coming home for the holidays is easier for many migrants than in years past, thanks to the Mexican government's efforts to strengthen a 14-year-old federal plan designed to make the journey safer.

But for Ramírez and others who must find a way to sneak back across a border now policed by unmanned drones and an infrared camera-equipped Border Patrol, getting back to the US will be the hard part.

It may soon become even harder if an immigration bill passed last Friday by Congress becomes law. President Vicente Fox has spent the past week attacking the plan, which includes a proposal to build 700 miles of fence along the border. Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez has condemned the bill as "stupid" and "underhanded." Both men vow to unite Latin American neighbors in opposition to the plan.

Still, the willingness of undocumented migrants like Ramírez to attempt an increasingly dangerous crossing illustrates the length to which some Mexicans will go to maintain tightly knit family relationships.

"I spent one Christmas away from my family and that was enough," says Ramírez, who hitched a ride home from Biloxi, Miss., with another migrant. "It's not the same just talking on the phone. I need to be here."

It's easy to spot the moment when migrants start coming home for Christmas. Lines grow at US-Mexican border checkpoints. Mexico's main bus terminals and airports bustle with people hauling suitcases packed with presents and enormous stuffed animals.

Mexico estimates that more than 1 million documented migrants come home for Christmas. Recognizing the heavy holiday traffic, the government touts its "paisano" program, which aims to protect cash and gift-bearing returnees from thieves - and corrupt, bribe-seeking officials. Fox's government has strengthened the program in the past few years by posting independent observers at major crossing points, organizing police escorts for caravans of migrants, and setting up government hotlines to report harassment.

Yet it is unclear how many Mexicans make illegal crossings back to the US or how many migrants are being deterred by the hardened border, says Deborah Meyers, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

"We can hypothesize that a certain number of people aren't leaving for Christmas because of a tighter border," says Ms. Meyers. "But the border isn't the only issue. It's about what we're doing in the interior of the United States. The fact that they can return with a job already lined up means they'll be willing to risk migrating back and forth."

Ramírez, the undocumented migrant worker, left El Vithe for Biloxi, two years ago. When hurricane Katrina struck, he fled to Atlanta, where two of his brothers live. He then headed back to work on the cleanup. At first, he earned $8 an hour cleaning mold-infested houses. Soon, his hourly wage dropped to $7. Then his boss skipped a payment. Fed up, Ramírez will go to Atlanta after his holiday visit ends. "My brothers say I'll get construction work there within two weeks," he says.

Ramírez's neighbor, Adelaido Alvarado, recently arrived from New Orleans, where he has worked for a year. As his wife prepares dinner, Mr. Alvarado watches daughter Rocío horse around with her younger brother in the chilly mountain air. "I look forward to the tamales, the fruit punch, watching my kids swing at the piñata," he says.

Alvarado hopes to return to Mexico for good in a few years, perhaps with a new pickup truck and money to build a concrete-and-glass house. For now, in New Orleans, there's plenty of work. "My boss is waiting for me to come back," says Alvarado. Of the $400 or so he makes working six-day weeks, he'll keep sending as much as possible home.

Getting a work visa is not Alvarado's main concern. He's also ambivalent about President Bush's proposed temporary-worker plan. "I wouldn't know where to start the paperwork process," says Alvarado. "Do you think I'd be eligible? Anyway, it can be easier to get work as an illegal."

Before they left Mexico, both Ramírez and Alvarado worked in construction and made about $7 a day. The lure of earning more in the US and having family ties there that may help them find work quickly were the two factors that convinced them to migrate.

Their reasons for leaving echo the conclusion of a report released this month by the Pew Hispanic Center. The nonproft research group surveyed 4,836 Mexican immigrants, assumed to be undocumented, living in major US cities. The report found that most Mexicans come to the US for better pay, and count on a relative for support.

Furthermore, the jobless rate among the respondents was 15 percent within their first six months and dropped to 5 percent after that. What they earn in the US can more than double what they made in Mexico, the report concluded.

As their visit ends, Ramírez and Alvarado will scout out a coyote, a smuggler who will guide them across the border. They've already saved up most of the cash they'll need, which may range from $1,000 to $1,500.

Ramírez is unfazed about his eventual border trek. Everyone here knows what it will entail; at least half of El Vithe's population of 800 or so lives in the US.

Ramírez says he'll take a bus to Mexico's border with Arizona. He'll then head off into the night with a group of other migrants, led by a guide, for several days of desert hike that can turn deadly.

"I don't think about all that," says Ramírez. Although it will be only his second crossing, he speaks with confidence and assumes it will become routine. He'll probably return with a friend. "We'll find a coyote, someone who knows the border and the best places to cross, and go," he says.

Ramírez's father looks worried. "He'll suffer," he says. "And those coyotes, some of them just abandon people in the desert. It's terrible. I won't relax until word comes that he's OK."

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