Tighter borders won't help the desperate

Only a real reversal of economic trends will stem the tide of illegal crossings.

President Bush raised the odds Monday night against Delfredo Garcia Martinez who hopes soon to join as many as 2,000 people coming through here every day on their way to try to enter the United States illegally.

But it probably won't stop Mr. Martinez and tens of thousands of others trying to cross the border.

The 37-year-old Honduran set off on foot from his home two months ago with $20 in his pocket. He said he begged for more money along the way as he and a friend, Abel Quintanilla Leyva, walked, hitched rides, and jumped trains to get this close to the border with the US.

Twice, on the way through Guatemala to Mexico, different bandits tried to rob him and then beat him when they discovered he had no money. Now he and Mr. Leyva are working to raise enough money to pay one of the guides, known as "coyotes," to take them on the perilous journey through the Mexican and Arizona deserts to reach America.

The coyote charge - about $1,600 per person for a 60-mile journey from here to the border - is likely to increase now that Mr. Bush has decided the National Guard should help bolster security along the US border with Mexico. But in the order of perils illegal immigrants face as they stream from here to the border, getting caught by US authorities is pretty mild.

First of all, there's the alternative for most people who immigrate illegally, which is to stay home and nearly starve in appalling economic conditions.

Faced with that alternative, the hundreds of thousands of people who immigrate illegally every year from Mexico and through Mexico from Central America, have paid up to an estimated $18,000 to get this far and across; others, like Martinez, have risked their lives.

From here, the last leg to the US border and beyond, to places such as Phoenix, is a tortuous journey across the desert where the air temperature reaches more than 110 degrees F. and the sunbaked ground temperature reaches as high as 120 degrees.

As if that weren't enough, the migrants are prey to bandits and traffickers on both sides of the border.

There is a place on the outskirts of Altar, where vans carrying as many as a dozen immigrants stop to be counted in a quasi-official, nameless, countryless census. The place is at the beginning of a dirt road that the vans use to travel into the desert toward the Mexico-Arizona border town of Sasabe, said to be one of the busiest of all illegal border crossing areas.

Next to the checkpoint, three crosses are planted in the dry earth, one for the children who have died trying to make the crossing, others for the women and families. Who would be willing to make such a dangerous journey alone, with a wife, often carrying young ones along the wretched way? Only the most desperate, and coincidentally, the most vulnerable.

Intensifying border security on the US side has not stanched the flow.

The Rev. Prisciliano Peraza Garcia, a Catholic priest who runs a shelter for immigrants here, says that when his shelter opened in 2000, the number of immigrants crossing from Altar to the US border was 1,200 a day. "Today," he said, "it is often hundreds more, despite all the reinforcements against them."

In the process, the town of Altar has been transformed from a simple farming town, surrounded by cattle ranches, to an immigrant boomtown. The private homes that used to line the town square have been replaced with shops selling items needed for the journey across the border: backpacks, caps, water bottles, walking shoes - always in dark colors so they won't show in the dark. Business is thriving.

Francisco Garcia, a former mayor of Altar who works with immigrants, seemed flabbergasted by the decision to send the National Guard to the border.

"Mexico and the United States are not at war," Garcia said, "but it seems like an act of war to add a military presence on the border." Besides, he predicted, "the migrants are going to find a place to cross, maybe more dangerous, but they will find another way to get in."

Is there another, more creative way to approach this devastating phenomenon? Probably there is.

Altar was the last place I visited during a two-week journey through El Salvador and Mexico, countries where whole communities have been decimated by the departure of people to find work and whole ways of life have been destroyed in the name of free trade.

The president was wise to try to calm down the angry debate over migrants in America, and if it took the promise to deploy the National Guard to the border to calm the fury on the right, so be it. But it probably won't becalm that quarter, and it won't stop the migration.

What would stop the illegal migration? A reversal in the trends that have devastated the economies of the countries whose people feel they have no alternative but to leave. We are spending a lot of energy and wealth to keep immigrants out of the US. If we and the governments of the countries they are coming from were to devote as much to improving their standard of living at home, they might not feel the need to come to America.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and editor with The Baltimore Sun. He travels now on behalf of Catholic Relief Services.

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