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Mexican Agency Helps Find Loved Ones in U.S.

Those who have lost touch with relatives who crossed the border have someone to turn to.

September 08, 2003|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

TIJUANA — Filled with worry and holding aging photographs, Mexican families from throughout the country show up in Patricia Valladares' office, just steps from the border.

They bring old phone numbers, scraps of paper with addresses -- anything offering a clue to the whereabouts of relatives somewhere in the United States.

Valladares, who works for Mexico's Secretariat of Foreign Relations, unravels the mysteries of what happened to the son or daughter who hasn't written in months, the husband who stopped sending money or the sister who simply disappeared.

In the first eight months of this year, she resolved more than half of the 56 cases that came across her desk, with the help of Mexican consulates throughout the U.S.

Most families lack the money and necessary visas to cross into the United States to search on their own. So they fill out forms, providing as much information as they can -- where their relatives crossed and where they were headed, any addresses or phone numbers left behind -- and put their faith in Valladares.

Sometimes the missing have not made it out of Mexico. So Valladares and her staff post fliers, work the phones and go door-to-door. If the person has crossed into the U.S., Valladares calls the consulates and starts the process. "It's difficult, but it's not impossible," she said.

Sometimes, Valladares discovers the worst: that the relative died while trying to cross the border. Other times, she finds the person in a hospital or jail.

"The mothers come in and say 'I just want to know if they are alive,' " she said. "Even if they are detained, at least the mothers know where they are."

Maria Asuncion Sedano, 52, came to the Tijuana office in July after her son, Rodolfo Ruiz, didn't come home from work. He was not trying to migrate to the U.S., but he did cross the border daily for work. Ruiz worked for a car dealer who bought vehicles at U.S. government auctions and sold them in Mexico.

Asuncion tried calling her son on his cell phone after he didn't come home as expected. Ruiz answered, but all he could say before a police officer took the phone away was that he had been detained at the border. Asuncion said none of her five children had ever been arrested, so she didn't know what to do. She had no idea where he was or when he would be coming home.

"Every day that passed felt like an eternity," she said.

Asuncion couldn't legally cross into the U.S., so she went to the Mexican Consulate in Tijuana, the migrants rights organization Group BETA, and finally came across the foreign relations office. Within a few days, Valladares was able to figure out where Ruiz was being held and when his next court date was scheduled. She also told Asuncion that her son was in good health.

"She was like a light in all this darkness," said Asuncion. "She was moral support."

Ruiz, 24, had been arrested as he crossed into the U.S. after drugs were found in one of the cars he had purchased at an auction. Back at home in Tijuana, Ruiz said the drugs were not his, but that he had pleaded guilty to felony drug possession so he could go home. He was released Aug. 27.

U.S. authorities took away Ruiz's visitor's visa, which Ruiz said was fine with him. "I never want to go back," he said. "I don't want to have any more problems."

Valladares encourages all Mexicans who migrate to the United States -- legally or illegally -- to register with the consulate as soon as they cross the border. That makes looking for them infinitely easier, she said.

Not everybody, however, wants to be found, she said. Some who cross the border cut off contact with relatives back home because they have started a new family or simply don't want to return to Mexico.

Alberto Lozano, a spokesman for the Mexican Consulate in San Diego, said the consulates in the U.S. work closely and share information about Mexicans who have crossed into the United States. "We are here for that reason -- to help Mexicans," he said. "We are helping them keep the hope in trying to find their relatives."

U.S. immigration critics say they don't have a problem if Mexicans simply want to track down lost family members.

But Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, said he believes what the Secretariat of Foreign Relations is doing could lead to more illegal immigration if family members then try to join their relatives living in the U.S.

Mehlman said he questions the motivation of the Mexican government in offering the service. The government "tends to become more concerned about their citizens once they leave the country," he said. "It's in Mexico's interest to encourage people to come here."

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