KRUGERSDORP, South Africa — A few peered out the grimy windows. A few others wiped away tears. But the 480 passengers--all men except for four young women and an infant--sat in silence as the train jerked to a start.
All had been declared illegal immigrants. And all were being expelled from Africa's richest country to one of its poorest, neighboring Mozambique.
"Say goodbye to the land of milk and honey!" a beefy policeman shouted as shrill whistles blew and police dogs barked.
Salim Mohammed Ali, clutching a loaf of bread as his only luggage, shook his head sadly as the train clattered down the track.
"I'll be back in two days," he whispered.
Not if President Nelson Mandela's government can help it. Barely 2 1/2 years after South Africa ended apartheid and opened its long-closed borders, the new democracy has launched a concerted crackdown against illegal immigrants.
More than 157,000 people were deported last year, a 75% jump from 1994. Even more are expected to go this year. Most are arrested in police raids, random ID checks and 24-hour military patrols on the border--tactics once used to fight anti-apartheid guerrillas.
Immigration officials have also tightened entry laws and sought to cut government-funded benefits for illegal immigrants, including barring their children from attending public schools.
But it's a losing battle.
From Angola to Zaire, the huddled masses on the world's most blighted continent have poured across South Africa's 3,000-mile land border. Some are refugees fleeing nations beset by war, disease and disaster. But most are economic migrants, seeking a promised land of jobs and hope.
"Nelson Mandela is our Statue of Liberty," said Vernon Seymore, director of the Center for Southern African Studies, a research institute in Cape Town. "People come here to pursue their dreams."
But the new arrivals are a nightmare to some.
Police blame illegal immigrants for rising crime. Labor unions say foreigners steal jobs and undercut wages. Government officials complain that newcomers strain limited resources for housing, health care and other critical services.
Critics argue the opposite. They say illegal immigrants are more likely to be victims of crime than to cause it, are exploited by unscrupulous employers, take menial jobs South Africans won't accept and avoid government officials and most services for fear of being caught.
If the debate sounds familiar, it is.
"I think we have a very similar problem to America," said George Orr, head of admissions and alien control in the Department of Home Affairs, which regulates immigration. "Except you people get all charged up about it."
Americans may argue the ethics and economics of California's Proposition 187--the ballot initiative now enmeshed in the courts that denies most publicly funded benefits to illegal immigrants and their children--and of more recent proposals in other states and the U.S. Congress to curb aid to illegal immigrants.
Politicians here have gone another route. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, minister of home affairs, simply asked his Cabinet colleagues in a letter last February to stop "rendering government subsidized services" to anyone without proper documents.
"The schools, clinics, hospitals, universities, all those institutions that are [funded] by government, have been requested not to provide services to these people," Orr said.
The impact is difficult to determine. The request was not publicly announced and may have been ignored by local officials. In any case, many immigrants use forged identity papers.
"In some cases, parents have come to schools and asked teachers not to accept children of immigrants," said Maxine Reitzes, an immigration expert at Johannesburg's independent Center for Policy Studies. "And some principals say they exclude children of immigrants. But then these kids adopt South African surnames, and it's very difficult to tell them apart."
Still, immigration is a political and diplomatic minefield.
Mozambique, Zimbabwe and other sympathetic African governments gave sanctuary and support to Mandela's African National Congress when it was banned during the long battle against white rule, as well as to other anti-apartheid groups.
The ANC is now in power, and the bonds of solidarity remain strong. So does pressure from African governments whose economies depend on remittances from migrants.
"These countries gave us a base and asylum, food and resources during our struggle," Mandela said in a recent interview. "Now we are free. We cannot treat them as hostile people. But welcoming illegal immigrants will aggravate our unemployment. We have to find a balance."
At first, his government appeared to tolerate outsiders. Streets in Cape Town and Johannesburg filled with foreign hawkers peddling baskets from Botswana, wire toys from Zimbabwe, dyed cloth from Nigeria and carved masks from West Africa.