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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

On the Border, in a Fix

Nogales, Mexico, feels overrun by migrants: the ones booted by the U.S. Officials say they boost crime, fill shelters and strain services.

July 19, 2006|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

NOGALES, Mexico — Ana Arredondo knows who broke into her car on a downtown street and stole her stereo the other afternoon. She's sure it was one of the immigrants who crowd the byways of this teeming border town.

"Look at the type of people you see in the streets here," Arredondo, 26, said with disgust. "Almost all of them end up committing some kind of crime."

A Mexican city may seem an unlikely place for a backlash against immigrants. But Nogales has been struggling with the costs of illegal immigration in ways that few U.S. cities can imagine.

Up to a dozen times a day, a white bus pulls up across the border from Nogales and unloads migrants the Border Patrol in Arizona has caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally. The deportees flood the city's shelters and strain public services as they try to raise money for another illegal crossing. Increasing numbers of them have come from southern Mexico and Central America, drawn by rumors of amnesty.

Last month, the deployment of the U.S. National Guard on the border made it even tougher to cross illegally, compounding problems for the city. The deportees engender suspicion and resentment from longtime residents.

"Our crime rate has been going up because the only thing they've got is the clothes on their back," said Mayor Lorenzo de la Fuente. The cost of illegal immigration "keeps going up and up.... We can't handle it.

"If it gets harder to cross and they ship back more people," de la Fuente said, "well, that's what I'm afraid of."

On this stretch of the border, illegal immigration is a larger problem in Mexico than in the United States. A wall has kept unauthorized crossings from creating much of a headache in Nogales' namesake in Arizona.

"Illegal immigration is a minor irritant to Nogales," said Ignacio Barraza, a city councilman in Nogales, Ariz., (population 20,800). "It makes more of a splash in Nebraska and Iowa."

About 500 people are deported daily to Nogales, Mexico. City officials estimate that 10% eventually give up on trying to emigrate illegally to the United States. The deportees become part of a city that's in such disarray that no one can even agree on its population -- the government census says 150,000, but local officials and academics alike say that's an extreme undercount. City Hall puts the number at about 300,000.

Immigrants have taken over the shantytowns that crowd the knobby, mesquite-coated hills that surround the town. Women and children who've been deported from the U.S. beg downtown. Newspaper headlines sometimes memorialize the latest family to die while attempting to sneak across the border.

"Nogales is the result of bad decisions made by both governments," said Francisco Trujillo, who runs the Mexico office of the nonprofit group BorderLinks, which conducts educational tours along the border. "We can feel it right here because we're at the edge of both countries."


The two Nogaleses were built as railroad towns in the late 19th century in a notch between scrubby desert hills 71 miles south of Tucson. While the American town is still a sleepy outpost, its Mexican neighbor has become a commercial hub. The transformation began in the 1960s, when the first border factories, or maquiladoras, opened.

Assembling parts for telephones, missile systems and cars, factory workers earned relatively high wages for Mexico. The maquiladoras attracted migrants from the country's impoverished interior. Nogales and other border cities with maquiladoras began to boom, and then the migrants, searching for higher pay across the border, began crossing illegally into the United States. When NAFTA was ratified in 1993, it forced small farms in southern Mexico to compete unsuccessfully against international agribusiness. A steady stream of out-of-work farmers began traveling north to cross illegally.

That year, so many undocumented immigrants poured into Nogales, Ariz., that the U.S. government created a barrier between the city and Mexico out of military surplus metal. Two years later, the government built the wall that exists today. The 14-foot-high corrugated metal wall -- crowned with mesh tilted toward the Mexican side -- runs through the two cities, over hills and through canyons and far-flung neighborhoods. The wall pushed migrants farther west into the uninhabited desert to attempt their illegal journeys.

On the American side, the wall is blank and forbidding. In Mexico, Spanish words meaning "Borders: Scars on the earth" are spray painted onto the dark metal, which also is covered with white crosses marking migrants who died crossing the desert.

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