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For migrants, new law is just another challenge

As strict as Arizona’s new immigration legislation may be, it happens to be child’s play compared with what many illegal immigrants regularly endure on their way to the north.
Image: Two women sat near the border with the United States in Nogales, Mexico, after being detained and deported by American border officials.
Two women sat near the border with the United States in Nogales, Mexico, after being detained and deported by American border officials.Monica Almeida / The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

Despite its intent to “discourage and deter” unlawful entry to the United States, Arizona’s tough new immigration law is not what prevented Verónica from sneaking into the state without papers. After all, she had already endured a harrowing train ride, escaped dangerous drug traffickers and eluded Mexican authorities who were after the money she had stuffed in her underwear.

Verónica did not make it to the United States, she said glumly, simply because she got nervous. Her palms got sweaty and she slipped off the pole she and others in her group were shimmying up to get over the border fence and into Arizona.

It was a long fall and Verónica, a Honduran immigrant who declined to give her last name out of fear that it might hurt her chances of migrating north in the future, was bruised and limping when she recounted her failed border crossing. She was pregnant, too, and worried about how her fetus had handled the trauma.

As strict as Arizona’s new immigration legislation may be, prompting the Mexican government to issue a travel alert warning that “any Mexican citizen could be bothered and questioned without cause at any moment,” it happens to be child’s play compared with what many illegal immigrants regularly endure on their way to the north.

“If they think the migrants will stop coming, they’re wrong,” Rafael Limón Corbalá, head of the regional migration office for the Mexican state of Sonora, said of the Arizona legislators who approved the law. “There’s still jobs over there, and many people will still have their eyes on getting across.”

If a migrant can pay enough, heading north can be as simple as waiting in line at a border crossing, handing a forged identity document to a border guard and, if it works, strolling into the United States. But it is more likely to be a nightmarish trek through the Mexican countryside and then across the Arizona desert.

Either way, migrants pool significant sums, anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000, to make the passage. That is enough in many of their hometowns to build a basic home or start a small business, but it is widely viewed among migrants as a worthy investment.

'We work for the people of Arizona'
Arizona’s new law — which calls for police officers who have “reasonable suspicion” of a person’s immigration status to demand proof of legal residency — was uniformly disliked by the many migrants interviewed in this border town on the Mexican side. The criticism seemed the same among those preparing to cross, those who were deciding what to do next after being deported and those in the midst of crossing who spoke as they trudged nervously north.

“We work for the people of Arizona and now they don’t want us,” fumed Miguel, who said he was part a group of several dozen people caught by the Border Patrol in the desert this week and bused back to the border. He said he would be making another attempt — his eighth in recent years — soon.

Relatively few migrants said the law would keep them from crossing, though they planned to steer clear of police officers even more than they did before.

While the new law is expected to give local law enforcement officers more power to detain illegal immigrants, that already occurs, migrants said. Take the case of Salvador, who like others declined to be fully identified. He said his deportation last year was prompted by an arrest for jaywalking.

He said that after living in Phoenix for 20 of his 23 years and graduating from high school there, he was crossing a street last year when a police officer took him in. Checking his records, it was discovered that he had an unpaid speeding ticket. His immigration records were then checked, he said, and when it was determined that he was in the country illegally, he was sent to Mexico, which he had left when he was a toddler.

“I should have crossed at the light,” he said.

Claudia, too, said it was a routine traffic stop and an expired vehicle registration that led to her deportation. She said she was bused back to Mexico with scores of others on Tuesday with a dazed look on her face and no firm plans for how she planned to reunite with her husband and two children, who live in the other Nogales, in Arizona.

Migrants start their treks in numerous countries and employ a dizzying array of schemes to slip across the border, making no two migrations the same. Mexicans, though, generally have it easier than Central Americans, who are often preyed upon by Mexican authorities even before reaching the increasingly fortified border.

“Riding precariously on the tops of freight trains, many are met with discrimination and xenophobia, targeted by people smugglers and prey to kidnapping by criminal gangs,” Amnesty International said in a report released this week.

“Every year thousands of migrants are ill treated, abducted or raped,” the human rights group said. “Arbitrary detention and extortion by public officials are common.”

Amnesty International gave the government of President Felipe Calderón some credit for improving the plight of migrants crossing its turf. Conditions at detention centers have improved, the group said, and migrants who are caught crossing Mexico spend less time in custody pending their repatriation.

In addition, the state government in Chiapas, where many migrants enter Mexico, established for the first time a special prosecutor for crimes against migrants. As a result, five members of an elite local police unit were arrested for assaults on migrants.

But Mexico has been much more vociferous in criticizing the United States on immigration than in setting model practices itself, Amnesty International and other groups have found.

In Mexico, it is supposed to be federal immigration officers and the federal police who verify the legal status of migrants. But anybody with a badge is liable to do it, a situation that several migrants said prepared them well for what they might face in Arizona.

As night fell one evening this week, a nervous smuggler who helps migrants get to the United States stood on a hilltop just feet from the border, barking out orders into his handheld radio. He had lookouts tracking the movements of the Border Patrol on the other side and confederates with a car parked just across the border waiting to pick up the migrants who had paid extra. He was not concerned about business drying up.

“They’ll keep coming,” he said confidently.

Elisabeth Malkin contributed reporting from Mexico City.

This story, "For Migrants, New Law Is Just Another Challenge," originally appeared in The New York Times.