Many Americans think of the southern border of the United States as terrain that has been yielded to illegal immigrants seeking U.S. jobs and social services.
But a thickening band of law enforcement agents is taming the frontier, blocking thousands of Mexicans trying to escape their country’s poverty.
Experts say many Mexicans who relied on illegal entry into the United States for economic survival now are suffering trauma from stressful - and often unsuccessful - attempts to sneak across the border.
Some are turning up at a shelter for migrant workers in this sprawling border city run by the Rev. Gianni Fanzolato.
“So many arrived with psychological problems, with the feeling of failure,” Fanzolato says. “They would be shaking, sweating, anxious. This ‘migrant syndrome’ - we’re seeing it every day.”
The smell of boiled onions drifts through the shelter’s courtyard. Thirty men wait for a free dinner, a blessing and a respite from trying to get to the promised land of the United States.
A few steps away, Fanzolato turns on a yellow light to push away the encroaching dusk. He closes the door, softening a migrant’s guitar music.
“They have truly arrived in the big city and they are all alone,” Fanzolato says. “The saddest thing I see is the loneliness of the migrant. They are the poorest of the poor. I see them filled with doubt.”
Many men and women who stay at Casa del Migrante have one goal - to cross into the United States. Situated a few miles from the border on a sloping side street, the shelter can sleep 400 men.
Rudy Ramirez, a psychologist and administrator at Casa del Migrante, studies “migrant syndrome” by interviewing the shelter’s residents and giving them psychological tests.
“We’re doubling, doubling and doubling the Border Patrol,” Ramirez says. “There is increased stress all along. They manifest the symptoms in neuroses, depression, psychosis - sometimes violent, sometimes autistic.”
One researcher in the United States said it should be called “undocumented entry syndrome.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that trying to cross this military border is a very traumatic, dangerous experience,” says Fred Krissman, a researcher at the Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies at the University of California, San Diego.
In January, the San Diego sector of the Border Patrol apprehended 58,582 illegal immigrants, a 51 percent increase from the same month in 1995.
Whether the rise reflects an increase in immigrant traffic or greater border enforcement remains in question. But Krissman says desperate economic conditions for Mexican laborers caused by the peso’s plunge in December 1994 has strengthened their motive for crossing.
During a reporter’s visit to the shelter, a burly, 28-year-old from the state of Michoacan prepares to try crossing again. The previous night, an officer rode up behind him on a horse and lassoed him around the neck, he says.
“I don’t care if they hit me, I have to cross the border,” says the man, who declines to give his name. “I have a wife, kids, pressure on me.”
Some Border Patrol agents ride horses in the hills of southern San Diego, but they deny they use lassos on illegal crossers. Armando Lizarraga Mendivil, a gaunt-faced 28-year-old, spent the previous night in jail after U.S. agents apprehended him in Calexico, Calif., a few feet north of the international line. He was handed over to Mexican officers.
In a trailing voice, Lizarraga says he has a construction job waiting in suburban San Diego. All he wants is to earn $2,000 and return to Mexico by summer.
Those who sleep at the shelter for more than two nights have to prove they are employed. If so, they get 15 free nights. Many find work building homes, offices and stores in booming Tijuana; others work in the numerous factories lining the border to produce goods for export to the United States.
Many have left behind destitute families in rural Mexico with high hopes of attaining jobs in the United States and earning American dollars to send back to their loved ones. Instead, they find themselves unable to get across, stranded in Tijuana until their families can send money for the trip home.
Most of the men at Casa del Migrante this night have made at least one aborted attempt to cross the border in the past 48 hours. One is preparing to make his fourth attempt in two days.
Not all have been beaten down by the tougher border.
Jelazio Herrera, 24, is heading to Chicago to be a busboy - a job his cousins there have secured for him. He plans to run over the rugged hills in worn, cracked wingtip shoes.
He pins his optimism on the rules that do not allow illegal immigrants to be arrested by the National Guardsmen, police officers and military personnel that are helping watch the frontier on the U.S. side.
“See, the officers can’t touch us,” he says. “Only the Border Patrol can.”