Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
CIUDAD JUÃREZ – Alex left behind sugar cane fields in Guatemala, traveled for two months by foot, bus and freight train to Ciudad Juárez with nothing but a plastic bag of clothes and a destination in mind: Santa Fe, where he hopes an aunt and a job await him.
He is one of a new wave of illegal immigrants either crossing or planning to cross at the New Mexico border. This year, alone, apprehensions by Border Patrol in New Mexico have surged to 18,500 people in the 11 months through August, compared with 11,216 in all of fiscal 2015.
Many of the migrants are from Central America like Alex, a 30-year-old farmworker.
About 7,900 of the migrants apprehended this year in New Mexico are classified by Border Patrol as “other than Mexican,” mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and, lately, Brazil – and they have accounted for much of the increase.
The strength of the U.S. dollar, which makes basic goods more expensive in Latin America; stagnant wages and few job opportunities; and endemic violence, murder and extortion by criminal organizations continue to drive families from Central America.
An improving U.S. economy and a perception that Central Americans seeking asylum may be allowed to remain in the country while their cases wind through the courts contribute as “pull” factors.
“What drives immigration is the violence and poverty in those countries,” said Tristan Reed, lead analyst with Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based intelligence firm.
What attracts migrants to cross at the New Mexico border – even when they don’t plan to stay in the state – is more complicated.
In interviews with migrants at the Casa de Migrante shelter in Ciudad Juárez, a way station for those who are headed north and those who have been deported, and at a Border Patrol station in Santa Teresa, migrants say their decision to cross the line at New Mexico is a mix of chance, force and crime dynamics on the Mexican side.
One Mexican woman in Border Patrol custody said she had no idea where she was crossing; she paid a coyote, or smuggler, who made the decision for her. Others, like a 33-year-old Mexican man also in custody, crossed alone from Ciudad Juárez into New Mexico “because people told me it was easier here,” he said.
Alex said he was less worried about getting caught on the U.S. side of the border than the dangers he might face in Mexico, and this area seemed a safer bet compared with Mexico’s Tamaulipas state, bordering South Texas, where the brutal Zetas criminal organization dominates.
“The risk we run is that the narcos get us,” he said. “They kidnap you, force you to carry a backpack (of drugs) and walk. Here it is a little less dangerous. At other borders, (the narcos) are forcing people to carry the backpacks.”
Migration patterns across the Southwestern border ebb and flow. Overall illegal immigration has plummeted over the past 15 years, if apprehensions are an indicator, dropping to about 331,000 apprehensions last fiscal year from more than 1.6 million in 2000.
In New Mexico, Border Patrol agents say, the desert around Deming – a hotbed of illegal traffic 10 years ago – is quiet. Backpackers carrying loads of marijuana make up most of the illegal crossings in the Bootheel, while the area around Sunland Park and Santa Teresa has had a rush of Central American and Brazilian migrants, dozens per day.
“A lot of traffic is concentrated to the eastern end” of southern New Mexico, Border Patrol spokesman Ramiro Cordero said.
Apprehensions of family units began climbing again this past year, nearly doubling to 68,080 borderwide.
Many Central Americans claim asylum and are “paroled” into the United States, meaning they can stay with a family member while awaiting a court hearing. Due to a backlog, it could be years before hearings are held.
Two other men at the Casa de Migrante, a 48-year-old Honduran named Gerardo and a 26-year-old Guatemalan named Manuel, said poverty and gang threats drove them out.
The situation in Honduras is “deplorable,” said Gerardo, who has tried three times in past years to cross the U.S. border and is this time headed for Canada. “The government does nothing to stop the gangs.”
Manuel, who wants to reach Kansas, described the “evil” that has gripped the community where he raised corn and beans; extortion by gangs made it impossible to earn a living.
Back home, Alex has a wife and two sons to support.
He isn’t sure what his aunt in Santa Fe does for a living or what jobs he might find there – only that he might earn more than the $7 a day he earned back home. He hopes she will send him money to pay a coyote, but if she doesn’t, he says, “I’ll cross alone.”