TIJUANA — Border Patrol union officials say President Bush's plan to allow guest workers in the United States is fanning a massive demand among Mexicans to cross the border.
But at migrant camps and shelters in this border metropolis, shelter directors, taxi drivers and immigrants themselves say the president's plan has encouraged few who were not already planning to immigrate.
Many would-be immigrants have not even heard of the plan. In any case, they say, they are driven by forces far more powerful than the promise of limited legal status: the simple lure of a better life and a decent wage.
"There are no other alternatives for me but to go to the U.S.," said one such worker, Gerardo Barita. "There are no jobs in Oaxaca."
On a recent cold, damp morning, Barita and his 18-year-old son got off a bus at the Central de Camiones, the city's main bus terminal, after a grueling three-day ride from Oaxaca. The bus station is often the first stop in Tijuana for migrants who plan to enter the United States.
Barita's eyes were red and bleary. He and his son carried only the clothes they were wearing. Barita, 42, said it would be their first attempt to enter the United States illegally. They hoped to make it to Fresno, where a friend said he could get them farm jobs. He had not heard about the guest-worker proposal.
The White House has been careful not to call the guest-worker plan an amnesty program, but the leadership of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents about 9,000 Border Patrol agents, considers it just that -- an invitation for migrants to stream into the country.
The plan would allow undocumented immigrants to work legally in the United States for at least three years if they registered with authorities. The plan has yet to be approved by Congress.
Border Patrol union officials warn that hundreds of thousands of immigrants will mass at the border to enter the United States illegally to capitalize on Bush's proposal.
Officials at the National Border Patrol Council Local 1613 in San Diego were among the harshest critics of Bush's plan.
Last month, Local 1613 spokesman Shawn Moran said agents have reported "a significant increase" in apprehensions along the California-Mexico border since Bush made his proposal. But Moran refused to provide numbers to back his claim, citing "operational concerns."
Border Patrol Agent Gloria Chavez, spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection in Washington, said apprehension figures for the Southwest border do not show a dramatic spike in illegal immigration since Bush unveiled his proposal Jan. 7. Between Jan. 1 and Jan. 29 of this year, agents apprehended 85,676 illegal immigrants along the border from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego, Chavez said. For the same period in 2003, there were 80,710 apprehensions.
Officials at the Tijuana agencies that provide shelter for those who use this city as a springboard into the United States said the demand for services is brisk, but no more than usual.
"Nothing has changed. Warnings of massive immigration [are] an exaggeration by Border Patrol agents because they oppose Bush's plan," said Gilberto Martinez, administrator at the Casa del Migrante, a men's shelter run by the Scalabrini Missionaries, a Roman Catholic order devoted to helping immigrants and migrants.
One recent day, Martinez said, there were 70 men at the Casa del Migrante, and only a handful said they had come to Tijuana because of Bush's proposal. About 60% were deportees from various California cities, he said.
Oscar Escalada Hernandez, director of the Casa YMCA, a shelter for juvenile migrants, said he had heard news reports of the Border Patrol union's warning about a new wave of illegal immigration, but said he had seen no sign of it.
"We can accommodate 30 young people here, but at the moment we only have four young men," said Escalada. "If what the Border Patrol said was true, we would have more residents."
There are some who say the president's announcement of a proposed guest-worker program -- or at least their interpretation of how it would work -- was the jump-start they needed to head to El Norte.
Among them is Miguel Angel Hernandez, whose dream of immigrating to a country he was certain would offer a better life was kindled by Bush's plan. But on a recent evening, with America only minutes away, Hernandez said the country seemed little more than a distant dream.
His first attempt to cross the border ended in failure the night before. He was unable to navigate the high tide near Imperial Beach, across the fence from the Playas de Tijuana. He and seven others had squeezed through an opening in the steel border fence that stretches 100 yards into the Pacific and literally dropped into American territorial waters.
But Hernandez cannot swim. He panicked as the waves tossed him back and forth in the chilly surf. Another group of men waiting their turn to sneak in came to his rescue.
Now, standing outside a migrant shelter with other forlorn men, Hernandez's face had a look of desperation. His eyes glazed by defeat.
Hernandez left his $30-a-week job as a jitney driver in Mexico City after hearing of President Bush's proposal to allow guest workers in the United States. "I understand it is amnesty for three years. If I get a job in the U.S., I know I can be deported after three years," he said. "But that is better than staying in Mexico without hope."
Another would-be immigrant, Benito Arguelles, 22, said he was traveling from Veracruz to San Francisco to live with relatives. Arguelles had impulsively tried to sneak into the United States two nights earlier but was immediately apprehended.
"The migra [Border Patrol] asked if I knew about Bush's proposal, and if I was in the U.S. because of it," said Arguelles. "I told them it did not matter to me. I will try to enter the U.S. with or without Bush's permission. I need a job."