- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

LAPUERTA, Mexico — Fears of death, jail, deportation and bribes have Mexicans thinking twice about crossing the border, but they are not enough to stop the flow of poor into the United States. Only jobs can do that, they say. “We are going because there is no work,” said Juan Carlos Luna, 16.

Crossing illegally into the United States has become far more dangerous and expensive, Mexicans say, but for many uneducated rural workers the only alternative is starvation.

Leaning against the whitewashed wall of a closet-sized corner store, his brown hair flopping over his eyes, Juan is a veteran border crosser. Behind him is a gaggle of teenage boys laughing nervously at his story and taking turns playing the dark store’s one video game.

Juan acknowledges that entering the United States has become much harder, but said he doesn’t have any choice. Abandoned by his father and unwelcome by his mother who started a new life in the United States, Juan first crossed the border when he was 13.

“I was grabbed by the ‘migra’ in Phoenix,” he said, laughing bitterly and using the Spanish slang word for immigration officials.

After a time in the county jail, he was deported. Once back in Mexico, Juan, still 13, paid $1,800 to cross the border again and spent two years working in a gas station to pay back his debts and save money.

He returned to LaPuerta a year ago and moved in with relatives. But with no education and no job, he is thinking of going back once more to try to fulfill his dream of earning enough money to buy a house in his village.

“There is more vigilance because of [President] Bush,” he said. “And the price also went up; now it is $2,800.” Instead of paying, the teenager said, he will try to cross on his own. Others don’t even want to try.

“I always stay behind. It is too dangerous to go, and it is too expensive to cross,” said Carmen Dominguez Romero, 29, baby on one hip and a daughter by her side.

Her husband has been traveling back and forth for the past 11 years, she said, but the price charged by the “coyotes,” or handlers, has gone up by about $1,000 to about $2,300 — a fortune in a community where most families make do on less than $200 a month.

LaPuerta — which means “the door” — is a town of about 1,000 people, with one broad-branched tree covering its main square, surrounded by lush countryside.

Farmers growing onions, tomatoes and other vegetables can barely make ends meet, and their children often cross the border rather than face starvation in the big Mexican cities.

Competition from subsidized and modernized U.S. farmers and the withdrawal of factory investments because of cheaper Chinese goods also have proved too tough to counter.

Many families here live off what their relatives in the United States send them. Mrs. Dominguez Romero said her husband wires her about $140 a month to take care of her three children.

Mexico state officials, citing Bank of Mexico numbers, said remittances last year totaled more than $20 million, equivalent to 2.6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

LaPuerta and its bigger sister town Tonatico, with about 11,000 residents, have a history of emigration that began in the 1940s, when the United States needed labor and openly encouraged immigration, said Juan de la Cruz Dominguez, who provides support to legal emigrants.

“In the 1970s, you could live off the land and had a lot of work, as it was labor-intensive” farming, Mr. de la Cruz Dominguez said.

“With the fall of produce prices and modernization, many lost their jobs and could not survive,” he said. By the 1990s and 2000, border crossing was intense, with youths, men and women taking their chances in the United States.

Mr. de la Cruz Dominguez said some families have a decades-long culture of emigration. When children turn 15 or 16, they try to join their relatives in the United States to earn money.

The majority of the youths now stay in the United States. Ten years ago, they would return for traditional festivals and celebrations and stay for a few months, But now, as it gets harder to cross the border, they come back less frequently.

Tonatico Mayor Arturo Hernandez Tapia said the government needs to reduce corruption, introduce subsidies and stimulate microenterprises in the countryside.

“We are trying to consolidate state and local funds to support the construction of greenhouses to help the people. We also are trying to support them by building roads and subsidizing irrigation,” he said.

In Tonatico, officials are trying to stimulate local and international tourism, promoting their hot springs and countryside. Officials also are trying to persuade those living in the United States to reinvest in their home communities.

But Mr. Hernandez Tapia said, “Immigration is a reality we have to deal with. We don’t want our people to leave, but we also don’t want them to starve to death here, so we do what we can.”

When the Mexicans are in the United States for five years or longer, they stop sending money back home, said Mr. de la Cruz Dominguez. But now with new houses springing up and the economy struggling to return, the emigrants are encouraged to put money back into their hometowns.

Farmers still try to emigrate legally, but others are willing to pay “coyotes” to smuggle them or try to walk across the border themselves.

“Of those who sold their houses over there and returned, they come back and try to open businesses here, but it fails and they go back to the United States,” the mayor said. “One came back at age 43; he worked over there [for] 20 years. He said if he can make money, he will stay.”

A quick glance around the Mexican Mayberry towns of Tonatico and LaPuerta reveals an economy more like that of a small country town in the United States in the 1950s.

Although poor teens with no education such as Juan feel a need to cross the border for a better livelihood, students from higher-income families show no desire to leave.

“I want to work here as a vet. It is a good job,” said Fernando Lagunas Hernandez, 16, hanging out in Tonatico’s pretty cobblestoned square with his brother.

He said some of his fellow students want to stay and others want to leave, but to the Mexican capital. Fernando’s 15-year-old brother, Freddy, said he also wants to stay and study automotive engineering.

Only one of Fernando’s friends said he wanted to go to the United States.

“They are scared, because they see that people die on the border,” Freddy said.

Some young men and boys have come back after years of washing dishes or tending gardens in the United States, using their savings to work the fields. Others were kicked out of the country for being illegal. All of them agree that crossing the border has become much more difficult.

“Now it is too hard to cross,” said Felix Millan, 36, leaning forward on his horse, Black Wind. He spent five years in Illinois between 1995 and 2002, making minimum wage working as a gardener while he supported a wife and four children back home.

Juan Rea Garcia was in Illinois for six years working as a roofer and has just returned to LaPuerta. Straw hat on his head, Mr. Rea Garcia said the government had given him 50 percent of the cost of a greenhouse for about 4,000 tomato plants.

“If the project doesn’t succeed, I would have to go back,” he said simply.

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