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The Long Road to the Other Side

How Willie Ramirez stepped across the Mexican border 17 years ago as an illegal immigrant and ultimately found the path to U.S. citizenship

December 10, 2006|Don Bartletti

The Border Is Broken! Adios Mexico! Amnesty Now! America Is a Nation of Immigrants! We Pick Your Fruit and Vegetables! Migration Fractures Families! Business Exploits Immigrants! Got Papers? Why Can't They Be More Like Us?

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I've heard a lot of slogans and rally chants this year--often shouted in the most venomous way--from those on both sides of the immigration debate, on both sides of the border. I've jotted down these sayings in my notebook, making for a strange catalog of contentious feelings.

And then, looking at this litany one day, it hit me: These cries could well be chapter headings in a diary of the Ramirez family, a clan I've been chronicling in pictures for 17 years.

Theirs is a story nearly as old as America: Like millions of poor people, yearning for something better, they made their way to this nation's doorstep. And like many, they were too weary to knock once they got here.

Adios Mexico!

The Ramirezes' roots run deep in and around Tonala, an agrarian pueblo of about 7,000 in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Wilfredo Jr.--Willie, as everyone calls him--remembers growing up in this broad, fertile valley. His father, Wilfredo Sr., supported his family by selling goats in the weekend market. From sunup to sundown, he scampered up and down the stony hillsides of Tonala whistling and yipping at his herd of 150, which foraged amid the cactus and scrub. At night, far from home, he'd simply lie down under a mesquite tree.

But Wilfredo's heart ached to be under a roof with his wife and three children. When an opportunity arose to buy a neighbor's milpa, or corn patch, he sold most of the goats and bought two acres near the irrigation canal. The deal included two bulls. He commuted an hour from his adobe house to the field on his donkey. The bulls pulled the plow through the farmland, and Wilfredo planted corn, as well as beans, chili peppers and squash. And he came home every night with bundles of alfalfa for the pigs in his corral.

Things, though, didn't pencil out. Gradually, over the next six years, produce sales and profits dwindled as the population of Tonala did the same. Many in this valley, crushed by Mexico's collapsing economy, were joining a steady exodus to the fields of California.

Amnesty Now!

By 1981, Wilfredo Sr. realized he couldn't cultivate another summer in Tonala.

That spring he bought a ticket to Tijuana on the Tres Estrellas de Oro bus line. Two days later he walked into the U.S. via the "Soccer Field," the U.S. Border Patrol's name for one of the crossing points south of San Diego that seemed to defy enforcement.

Several hundred men, and fewer women and children, huddled every evening on this foot-beaten expanse, just on the California side. Despite the field's moniker, the only game here was migra y pollo--what everybody called the cat-and-mouse contest between border agents and illegal immigrants who could scatter in an instant. Enforcement was breathtakingly inefficient.

The border was vaguely defined by a dirt road used by residents of Colonia Libertad, a Tijuana neighborhood. Smugglers and veteran border jumpers, such as Wilfredo Sr., could simply step across the line anytime they wanted to. When the moment was right, multitudes of people would follow dozens of footpaths through the coastal scrub to a ridge above San Ysidro.

One evening while I was there, a northbound crowd of illegal immigrants easily overwhelmed a Border Patrol Ford Bronco that gave chase across the rutted hillside. Some migrants sprinted back across the border. Some halted in their tracks, yielding to the bullhorn demand: "Stop where you are! You can't get away!" Most people simply disappeared over the ridge, deeper into the U.S.

Wilfredo Sr. knew the routine well. His usual destination was 70 miles from Tijuana, in San Diego County, where he had no trouble finding work picking gladiola flowers or tomatoes. Living in Carlsbad, he trimmed his rent to zero by sleeping in el monte, the hills where he lived in a tiny handmade hut camouflaged with chaparral brush. Scores of makeshift squatter camps in canyons throughout agriculturally rich North County were home to thousands of migrant farmworkers. (Today, many of those canyons are filled with subdivisions as agriculture yields to sprawl. And where multimillion-dollar houses surround the tomato fields, many homeowners are suspicious of their farmworker neighbors.)

For eight seasons, Wilfredo sent his profits back to Mexico. The money helped his eldest son, Willie, move out of Tonala to the coastal city of Salina Cruz, where he tailored his high school curriculum with an emphasis on accounting. He was the first in the family to graduate.

In 1986--following another heated period of debate--Wilfredo Sr. qualified for amnesty through the Immigration Reform and Control Act. With his new green card, he could now cross the border at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. He no longer needed the "Soccer Field."

The Border Is Broken!

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