Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Daily Herald: Exodus from Mexico

Daily Herald: Exodus from Mexico

Risking it all for the promised land
Mexican immigrants trek through dangerous desert, leave families and home towns for promise of better life
By Natasha Korecki
Daily Herald Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2003

An infant Mexican girl lies listless in her mother's arms after they were discovered hiding in a toolbox compartment of a construction truck. Border agents processed the mother as an illegal immigrant, but also helped make sure her baby was kept cool and hydrated after suffering in the 102-degree heat.
GAYTAN, GUANAJUATO, Mexico - Tears are streaming down his cheeks.

With his head bowed, he is kneeling on the hard, concrete patio outside the kitchen of his parents' home.

His mother's right hand rests on his shoulder as she recites a prayer of protection:

"El Senor Dios, todo poderoso, vuelvas sus hojos a ti. Tenga piedad de ti."

"(All-powerful God, keep a watchful eye over him. Have mercy on him.)"

It's 1997 when 16-year-old Edgar Gonzalez steps inside a station wagon and slams the door shut.

As his mother sobs behind him, Edgar doesn't turn to look, doesn't wave, doesn't mutter a goodbye.

He stares straight ahead as the car pulls out to the gravel road.

It's easier that way.

• • •
The Sonoran Desert's isolation sprawls in the Tucson sector over an area larger than Illinois and part of Indiana.

Temperatures climb to 116 degrees on summer days and drop to 20 degrees in winter.
Edgar Gonzalez enjoys a game with Anna CarteÒo of Mt. Prospect during a youth group class at his new church, Mission San Juan Diego in Palatine. Since coming to the United States illegally several years ago, Edgar has maintained a job, made new friends and continues to send money to his family in Guanajuato, Mexico. He has yet to return to see his family.

It's 1998. Amid these dusty desert sands, Betty Vasquez walks with 29 others.

Soft-spoken with dark brown hair, Betty barely stands 5 feet tall and weighs 89 pounds.

She is the only woman in a group that travels to Agua Prieta in the Sonoran state of Mexico, opposite Douglas, Ariz.

Her final destination: a place called Wheeling, Ill.

As she walks briskly, her mind wanders.

What is she leaving behind?
A group of illegal immigrants line up to be processed by border agents at a detention camp just north of the Arizona-Mexico border, southwest of Tucson. The group was discovered hiding in a construction truck several miles north of the border. About 10 were beneath blankets in the truck's bed; the rest were crammed into toolbox compartments along the side of the vehicle.

With every step, a gulf grows between her and her mother, who was left to care for a brother dying of polio in a remote village in Oaxaca. Eight of her nine siblings still live in Mexico.

Betty searches for security and finds it in her pocket; a card with a photo of the Virgin Misericordia.

Clasping it tightly, she whispers prayers as she walks.

"Please let me see my sister," she pleads. "Let me get to the United States."

• • •
Edgar Gonzalez and Betty Vasquez are part of a flood of immigrants; a mass exodus from Mexico to the United States.

The exodus is rooted in a nation of 100 million people, sinking under the weight of unemployment, low wages and extensive poverty.

Mexico shares a 1,950-mile border with a world super-power rich with jobs and political influence.

In a decade's time, the population of undocumented Mexicans in the United States grew more than twofold, from 2 million in 1990 to 4.8 million in 2000, according to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Nearly 290,000 Mexican immigrants moved directly to Chicago's suburbs, a Roosevelt University study found.

The economic distress in Mexico, the U.S. demand for low-wage workers and limits on foreign-born allowed in, combine to create a wave of hundreds of thousands moving northward.

Most of them come illegally.

In 2002, more than 333,648 people were caught trying to cross in the most dangerous Tucson sector, one of nine border areas. That's more people than the populations of Naperville, Schaumburg, Gurnee and Elgin combined.

Though hundreds of miles separate Edgar's home in Gaytan from Betty's in San Juan Bautista Suchitepec, smugglers took them both through Agua Prieta, 121 miles southwest of Tucson.

Their journeys north, like thousands of other Mexicans, unfold in a series of stops reminiscent of the days of the underground railroad.

• • •
As 16-year-old Edgar leaves Gaytan, images of his life flicker outside the car window, like film slowly passing through a projector.

The basketball court where he would play with friends. Lush green fields with tall, leafy stalks of corn. He started working those fields at 12, earning 40 pesos, or $4, for eight hours' work.

It's all so familiar, but with every rotation of the tire, the scenes fade further into the past.

His trip, like so many, starts after dusk with a group of 15 others. They blend into the shadows, guided by moonlight.

Edgar twice says he needs a rest stop. He walks away from the group and cries.
BORSTAR agent Paul McKenna handcuffs a suspected smuggler after finding him pretending to sleep beneath a tree. McKenna said he recognized the man as a smuggler apart from the others in the group because of his clothing. Because smugglers are often armed, extra precaution is taken when detaining them.

"Why am I doing this?" he asks himself.

His answer comes with the memory of one of the worst times for his family, when they ate eggs at every meal for seven straight days.

His parents tried to earn money by weaving wool blankets, with bands of black or red. Edgar would wash, then brush out the wool that feels as coarse as a Brillo pad.

The blankets didn't bring in much money.

At 8, he remembered wiggling his toes through the thready fissures of his leather shoes.

He didn't want the same for his little brother.

"That's what got me through," he later recalled. "I said, 'I'm doing this for them.' "

• • •
Betty's group moves toward a tiny boarded-up house to wait for the next "coyote," a name for smugglers paid to escort illegal migrants.

Just as Betty is about to step in, five men walk out.

They're bandits.

Swinging sticks, they pull out handguns.

Searching for hidden cash or drugs, the robbers order the men to disrobe and remove their shoes. Betty tries not to look; men in the group are naked all around her.

Two bandits approach her.

(Seven out of 10 groups traveling through the desert are robbed at some point, border agents say. Men often ask women to carry valuables, thinking they're less likely targets.)

The barrels of two cold pistols push against Betty's temples.
Two illegal immigrants sit handcuffed behind a border patrol truck in the desert southwest of Tucson.

"One man said, 'Give it to me. Si no (if not), I'll kill you.' "

She has only 100 pesos, about $10, she remembers telling them.

"Take it, take it, that's all I have," she says, pointing to her bag.

They mock her, rifling through her things, pulling out a maxi-pad and shredding it in front of her.

They find her beloved photo of the Virgin and rip it to pieces.

Still, the pistols are pressed against her head. Her entire body trembles.

She closes her eyes and prays.

They find nothing and leave.

Still shaking, Betty bends to gather pieces of the Virgin. Half remains intact.

She walks into the stash house, where it is safer, and pats her left leg.

Underneath her blue jeans, $750 in cash is strapped around her thigh with duct tape.

• • •
Stepped-up security in areas that border California and Texas has pushed migrants into the desolate and dangerous Arizona desert, critics say.

The result is more immigrant deaths. Tucson sector agents recovered 137 bodies this year, accounting for 40 percent of the 339 total deaths along the entire border.

Border officials blame coyotes for indulging in a lucrative trade that treats humans as cargo, forcing them into peril.

Migrants dole out $1,000 to $2,000 for a smuggler's services.

Meanwhile, those who want to slow immigration say Americans need reminding that Mexicans who sneak over the border, like Betty and Edgar, are lawbreakers.

"They're not victims, we're the victims," said Dave Gorak, the executive director of the Lombard-based Midwest Coalition to Reduce Immigration. "We have to pay to support them."

Gorak's group wants Congress to limit the number of foreign-born citizens admitted in the United States to 300,000 a year. In 2002, more than 1 million people were granted legal permanent residence, the citizenship bureau reports.

"We're just saying, 'Look, we've got too many people coming in,' " he said.

• • •
In the desert night, Edgar's group hears a truck approaching. It's probably la migra, border patrol.

They run to a bridge. Edgar lifts a 6-year-old girl struggling to keep up. Running with her on his shoulders, he doesn't see the single wire strung taut a few inches above the ground. He trips, smacking the dirt.

The girl tumbles and cries, but he picks her right back up. He and the others hide in a trench behind some bushes.

For a moment, the only sound is their breathing.

Then, crunching footsteps.

"Oigan. Salgan afuera," an agent calls. "Hey, come on out."

Flashlights stab the darkness and Edgar feels the light on his face. He holds his breath. No one moves.

One of the agents crouches, and Edgar can see traces of his body through the brush, but the agent doesn't react. He leaves.

That's as close as it gets in the desert. But there are hours ahead.

Edgar climbs inside a car, where he and another man contort their bodies sideways, legs entangled, so they fit entirely on the backseat, beneath window view. Two more men scrunch in the leg space below.

They ride like this for about five hours, legs cramping.

Edgar is on his way to family in Round Lake Beach.

• • •
Betty and the men traveling with her face trouble created by the bandits.

The thieves took the men's shoes and jackets, leaving her group to battle cactus needles in their socks.

It's common to find clothing along the immigrant trail.

Before they cross into the new world, migrants shed what they've carried so they don't stand out. Sometimes they slip on "USA" shirts or baseball caps.

A look around the Arizona desert landscape is like getting a glimpse into a vanished civilization.

A few steps in from the road, a tube of Colgate toothpaste is squeezed and dried out. A little farther, a sun-faded, purplish-blue shirt drapes from a tree branch. Several backpacks, some of them newer-looking, form a ring around a tall, prickly cactus.

Farther in, the trash is more condensed.

Gallons and gallons and gallons of empty water jugs. Bottles of electrolyte, a Fiesta grape soft drink can, a tin can lid encrusted with refried beans. More than 60 empty, 40-ounce brown beer bottles.

During Betty's journey, several migrants drop their backpacks before making the run to a waiting car.

Betty falls behind. Climbing to the top of a hill, she panics. On the other side, the only man in the group she trusts is getting inside a car.

"Please stop! Please stop!" He doesn't hear.

The hill is so steep, she won't make it down in time walking.

She throws herself down and hits the ground, log rolling like a child down a steep front yard.

She lands hard, knocking the air out of her body.

But she makes it.

As the car pulls away, she checks her pocket.

The last remnants of the Virgin card are lost.

• • •
Six years after his son's dangerous crossing, Edgar's father, Humberto, works on the same kind of woolen blankets he wove before his son left Gaytan.

Inside a doorless, musty room, he ties string to a loom passed down from generation to generation.

Humberto and his wife, Elena, talk about the separation from their son.

As Elena remembers the day her son left, her black eyes well up, but a tear never falls.

"He was still just a boy. We know he carried us with him, right here," she says, touching her heart.

After the pain, comes reality.

Jobs and money are still so scarce that the best Humberto can get for his work is beans and rice - dinner for his family.
Border Patrol agents take down vital information from a group of Mexican men found trying to cross the Sonoran Desert into Arizona.

He takes to selling livestock for extra money, but it doesn't bring much in.

The family is forced to depend on Edgar's U.S. earnings from landscaping, construction and odd jobs.

He earns $20,000 a year. He sends $3,000 or more of it home - that's all he'd earn in a year if he had stayed in Mexico.

Money sent home means a $1,200 new bathroom. It's a full separate room, where only a half-step divides the shower and toilet. It replaces a bleak hole in the ground, inches from the sheep and goats.

In 1997, Edgar's aunt in the Chicago area had sent money to pay for his border trip. In return, Edgar spent his first year in America giving her one-third of every paycheck.

When he arrived in Round Lake Beach, Edgar was adamant about learning English. He cut back his work hours to take a free night class. Today, he speaks fluently.

• • •
After rolling in time to catch a car ride, Betty spends five days at a house in Phoenix. She's given one bowl of soup a day to eat.

She and the others await the next segment, the next coyote.

The smugglers come after New Year's Day, bringing a three-day trip in a car with no heat.

She begs the coyotes to buy her food. She needs every dollar on her to pay them $750.

"I couldn't tell them I had money," she said later. "Coyotes will leave you where you are once they're paid."

After staying in a cheap hotel for the night, they drive through a massive snowstorm. Finally, Betty makes it to her sister's apartment in Wheeling.

The two hug for a second, but her sister must leave for work.

With no car, no job and no inkling of the English language, the alienation consumes her.

As a storm dumps snow outside, Betty sobs inside her sister's apartment.

• • •
Betty and Edgar traveled vast distances to end up 21 miles apart in the Northwest suburbs.

Today, they sit just pews apart at the Mission Juan Diego Catholic Church in Arlington Heights. Betty works in the retail shop there at night. Edgar works with teens and teaches Sunday school.

As they tell their stories, the two turn to each other in astonishment, not realizing how much they had in common.

Betty doesn't like to talk about crossing. At times, she shakes her head, struggling to continue.

The dream of a better life isn't what she imagined.

"It is so spread out here," she said. "You need a car to do anything."

She spent the first year walking an hour to and from work. Still, it is better than what she left behind.

She lives in a modest Wheeling apartment but has a job she loves, working as a nanny in a home on a sprawling, wooded lot in Inverness.

One day, she'll return to Mexico for good. It's her home, where she's mastered the language and knows everyone.

First, though, she wants to earn enough money to send home.

"If I stayed there, I wouldn't be who I am today," Betty says. "(God) always has a plan for us. I am a much bigger, better person today for what I endured."

For his part, Edgar tries to walk a balanced path.

He's had a girlfriend or two and likes nightclubs.

With each night out, he feels serious guilt. The $10 or $15 cover, the beers, the dinner in Chicago; each dollar would mean so much to his family.

"But I'm young. I want to do young kinds of things," he said.

Then there's that beckoning, the old country, where his devoted parents still wait and work the loom.

He wants to visit his parents, but he's still illegal. If he's caught, he might never return.

So one year turned into two; two years turned into six.

Every year around Christmas, his mom brings it up, forcing him to think about something he wants to avoid.

"When are you coming home?"

The question hangs in the silence.

They already know the answer.


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