NOGALES, Mexico (AP) – At a shelter overflowing with migrants airing their blistered feet, Francisco Ramirez nursed muscles sore from trekking through the Arizona desert – a trip that failed when his wife did not have the strength to go on.

Morgan Morel
Mexican migrants from the state of Chiapas wait for nighfall to begin crossing the Arizona desert into the U.S. near the town of Sasabe, Mexico. (AP PHOTO)

He said the couple would rest for a few days, then try again, a plan echoed by dozens reclining on rickety bunk beds and carpets tossed on the floor after risking violent bandits and the harsh desert in unsuccessful attempts to get into the United States.

The shelter’s manager, Francisco Loureiro, said he has not seen such a rush of migrants since 1986, when the United States allowed 2.6 million illegal residents to get American citizenship.

This time, the draw is a bill before the U.S. Senate that could legalize some of the 11 million people now illegally in the United States while tightening border security. Migrants are hurrying to cross over in time to qualify for a possible guest-worker program – and before the journey becomes even harder.

“Every time there is talk in the north of legalizing migrants, people get their hopes up, but they don’t realize how hard it will be to cross,” Loureiro said.

South-central Arizona is the busiest migrant-smuggling area, and detentions by the U.S. Border Patrol there are up more than 26 percent this fiscal year – 105,803 since Oct. 1, compared with 78,024 for the same period a year ago. Along the entire border, arrests are up 9 percent.

Maria Valencia, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the rise in detentions did not necessarily mean more people were crossing. She attributed at least some of the additional detentions to an increase in the number of Border Patrol agents.

“We’ve sent more technology and agents there, and I think that’s had an impact,” she said.

But Loureiro, who has managed the shelter for 24 years, said the debate in the U.S. Congress has triggered a surge in migrants. In March, 2,000 migrants stayed at the shelter – 500 more than last year.

Many migrants said they were being encouraged to come now by relatives living in the United States.

One of them is Ramirez, a 30-year-old who earned about $80 a week at a rebar factory in Mexico’s central state of Michoacan.

He spent an entire night walking through the Arizona desert with his wife, Edith Mondragon, 29. When her legs cramped, their guide abandoned them and the couple turned themselves in to U.S. authorities. They were deported.

But they said they would try again when they regained their strength.

“We can’t go back to Michoacan because there is no future there,” Mondragon said.

Ramirez said the draw was not only the prospect of work in Minnesota, where two of his brothers milk cows on a ranch. He was also excited about the idea he might be able to do it legally.

“My brothers said there is plenty of work there, and that it looks like they will start giving (work) permits,” he said.

Many of the migrants also are being driven by a desire to get into the United States before the likelihood that lawmakers further fortify the border.

Since the United States tightened security at the main crossing points in Texas and California in the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of migrants have turned to the hard-to-patrol, mesquite-covered Arizona desert, risking rape, robbery and murder at the hands of gangs and now facing armed U.S. civilian groups.

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