TECATE, Mexico – Mexican shelters, usually the last stop for northbound migrants, are filling with southbound deportees. Fewer migrants are crossing in the wind-swept deserts along an increasingly fortified border. Far to the north, fields are empty at harvest time as workplace raids become more common.
Mexicans are increasingly giving up on the American dream and staying home, and the federal crackdown on undocumented workers announced Friday should discourage even potential migrants from taking the risks as the United States purges itself of its illegal population.
U.S. border agents detained 55,545 illegal migrants jumping over border walls, walking through the desert and swimming across the Rio Grande River between October and June. That’s down 38 percent for the entire border compared with the same period a year before.
U.S. and Mexican officials say increased border security, including 6,000 National Guard troops, remote surveillance technology and drone planes, have thwarted smugglers who had succeeded for years at beating the system.
Migrants also say they feel Americans are increasingly hostile toward immigrants.
“It’s the discrimination,” said 28-year-old George Guevara, who was deported to Tijuana last month after living in the U.S. for 18 years. “It’s making people step back. It’s just too much of a risk.”
Guevara, who speaks perfect English and has only distant memories of Mexico, was living at a Tijuana migrant shelter filled with deportees, many of whom are Mexican-born but find themselves in a country that is foreign to them.
“I barely remember living here,” Guevara said. “But I see this as an opportunity. I’m going to go back to Guadalajara to see my family and forget what happened.”
While some migrants try to set up new lives, others are caught between two worlds. Salvador Perez has a pregnant wife and three small children in Bakersfield, Calif., where he worked on a pistachio ranch before he was deported. He’s tried to cross the rocky, snake-infested mountains near Tecate three times this summer to get back to them, but failed each time.
“I want to try again, but I’m scared something will happen,” Perez said.
The biggest drop in Border Patrol detentions – a 68 percent decrease – was in the remote, heat-seared desert surrounding Yuma, Ariz., once popular with smugglers. Border Patrol spokesman Jeremy Chappell credits the additional troops and tougher security.
“Where an alien before was able to sneak across, now he has the National Guard watching him,” Chappell said.
The only area that has seen an increase – 1.5 percent – is the San Diego sector, which runs along the California border and includes the harsh, roadless desert surrounding Tecate. The Border Patrol has responded with helicopters and increased intelligence from detained migrants.
Crossing there requires hiking up to six miles, scrambling over or under the border fence, then walking some more, usually in the dead of night. The region is difficult to patrol, making it one of the few places migrants believe they can still get through.
That’s why 22-year-old Romeo, a Salvadoran who refused to give his last name for fear of reprisals, was in Tecate’s town square after failing twice to sneak into El Paso, Texas, once in a car and once on foot. He was flown back to El Salvador each time.
“They tell me this is the best place to cross, but it isn’t easy anywhere,” Romeo said.
Deportations also are up for illegal immigrants who have lived in the States for years. Some are caught for minor infractions like a burned-out headlight. Others are rounded up in workplace raids that the Bush administration has vowed to intensify.
The new measures announced Friday will force employers to fire anyone who cannot prove their Social Security numbers are legitimate.
U.S. employers are already complaining, especially those in agriculture, where most workers are believed to be working with false documents.
On a recent visit to Mexico, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire said some crops are already rotting in the fields for lack of workers.
Many employers join President Bush in blaming Congress for stalling an accord that would allow more people to work legally.
“Pretty shortly people are going to be knocking on people’s doors saying, ‘Man, we’re running out of workers,’ ” Bush said.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon also lashed out Thursday. “The U.S. Congress, which today turns its back on reality, knows full well that the American economy could not move forward without the labor of Mexicans,” he said.
Fewer Mexicans are sending home cash remittances – Mexico’s biggest source of foreign income after oil – leaving many Mexican relatives with no other resources, the Inter-American Development Bank reported Wednesday.
Despite all this, some migrants are still trying to beat the odds.
Isaac Mendiola, 41, mapped out how he would cross near Tecate.
“We start walking about 7 p.m., hit the Golden Casino on Highway 8 by 4 a.m.,” Mendiola explained. “Then we call this Indian guy from the reservation, and pay him $200 to take us to Oceanside, Calif. An American lady gets us past the checkpoint for another $200. Then we take public buses to Disneyland, and we are in L.A.”
Still, even Mendiola wants to work in construction for only two more years, then return to Mexico to run a convenience store his family has opened with the money earned up north.
“Crossing is getting a lot harder now,” he said. “You gotta stop sometime. This year and next, and boom, I’m done.”
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