TECATE, Mexico — It does not matter much, when you are on this side of the fence, whether there will be a path to citizenship or something short of it.
The path that matters is the one up and over the canyons and ridges of “La Rumorosa,” the Whisper Trail, one of the last places left along the California border where someone with no money and a little desert smarts has a decent shot of getting back in.
Which is why Lazaro Limon, 44 and recently deported for the fifth time, was back at the migrant shelter in Tecate this past week, waiting for rain. Border Patrol agents do not like to get out of their warm SUVs in a downpour, Limon figured, at least not to chase a solitary migrant.
“My family called yesterday,” he said. “My daughters told me, ‘Go for it, Dad.’ “
Limon was one of a few here who had heard the talk in recent weeks of U.S. immigration reform, on Telemundo newscasts or secondhand, and he said it had added extra urgency to get back into the States. The finer points of the faraway debate were not particularly relevant. But if the Americans were finally going to change their laws and offer a chance to stay, no one wanted to be stuck on the wrong side of the border.
“I think President Obama is going to give preference to people like me, whose children are American, who have never taken welfare and who don’t have criminal records,” said Limon, who has spent the past 21 years cutting grass and clipping topiaries in the beach towns south of Los Angeles. His oldest daughter, 13, is among the top three students in her seventh-grade class, he said, repeating that part of his story twice.
Limon said his only offense over the years has been unlawful reentry, meaning he has been caught multiple times by the Border Patrol after being deported, serving months in federal prison.
How many violations?
“Thirty,” he said.
He was one of nine men at the cement-block shelter last week, a place that can hold 60 guests but that is almost always empty now. Built by the Mexican government and run by the Catholic church, these shelters were once packed with people streaming up from the south who headed across the border and, more often than not, made it through.
Not anymore. Today they are halfway houses for the freshly deported and disoriented, men trying to return to wives and kids and car payments in Southern California and beyond.
A U.S. immigration overhaul bill, whatever form it takes, will have little to entice new migrants to try crossing illegally, the men here predicted. Legal U.S. residency – or a “path to citizenship” – would require evidence of prior presence in the United States, such as tax and property records, and a clean record.
What is less clear is what new immigration laws would mean for recidivist deportees who the Border Patrol picks up again and again.
“I’ve got no DUIs, nothing. My son is in the Army. My daughter is in the Navy. But I’m here,” said Arturo Zuarez, a 45-year-old mechanic and five-time deportee trying to get back to Los Angeles.
For years, the stretch of border here and in Tijuana was a big, illegal boulevard into the United States. In the 1970s and ’80s, you could walk over for a soccer game or a shopping trip, locals say. There were holes under the fence and holes right through it, well-trod walking trails through the mountains and cheap rides waiting on the other side.
That’s when many of these men crossed over for the first time, in their late teens or early 20s.
Today the area is perhaps the toughest part of one of the most heavily guarded and closely watched international boundaries in the world. The Department of Homeland Security has doubled border security and immigration enforcement spending since 2006 to $18 billion a year, deploying sensors, cameras, fencing, surveillance drones and federal agents.
The immigration overhaul proposals from Congress and the White House promise to harden the border even more.
The Department of Homeland Security does not estimate how many illegal migrants make it across, but researchers and the migrants themselves say the odds of getting caught are greater than ever.
Since 2005, the United States has doubled the number of Border Patrol agents deployed along the Mexico boundary to 18,516, an all-time high.
Once overwhelmed, the average agent now makes fewer than 20 arrests a year, with apprehensions of illegal migrants along the southwest border at their lowest levels in four decades. Immigration experts point to tougher enforcement and widespread fears of criminal gangs on the Mexican side, as well as a tighter U.S. job market and better opportunities in Mexico.
Along the Border Patrol’s San Diego sector, extending 60 miles through desert and mountains down to the Tijuana beach, where the fence extends into the surf, the number of illegal migrants arrested each year has plunged from a peak of more than 628,000 in 1986 to 42,447 during fiscal 2011, the most recent period for which figures are available. Arrests in the San Diego sector have dropped 75 percent since 2008.
“Barely anyone tries to cross here anymore,” said Pablo Morales, a state human rights official who works with deportees in this small border city, shadowed by the giant fermentation vats at the eponymous beer brewery.
Tecate is known as a difficult place to cross because of the terrain and tight security, but it’s considered far safer than the Texas border, where kidnappings are routine and the fearsome drug cartel known as Los Zetas has carried out horrific massacres against migrants.
The Arizona desert east of Nogales remains the most popular place to attempt a crossing, and there migrants say the Sinaloa cartel charges a $150 “toll” to cross but enforces its own security – no robberies, no kidnappings allowed – with lethal efficiency.
If you can’t pay that, Tecate is one place to cross.
But it’s not a good place to get caught. Often, migrants who are picked up in California are released thousands of miles away in Mexican cities such as Nuevo Laredo – Zeta country – along the Texas border.
Church shelters there often lock deportees inside all day to protect them from abductions, the men here said. Charities will pay bus fare for the trip back to Tecate.
Having enough bed space used to be the main worry of the nuns who run Tecate’s only migrant shelter, Our Lady of Guadalupe. Now their biggest concern is sorting the migrants and deportees from the addicts and homeless who pretend they’re preparing to cross but really have nowhere else to go.
When the shelter opens at 5:30 p.m., Reina Ines Bahena, the mother superior, takes photos of new arrivals with a digital camera and records their documents. No one is allowed to stay longer than four nights in a row. Only the clean and sober are welcome.
“This is a dangerous place,” Bahena said. “Some of the men who come here are rapists, killers, thieves. We’ve had extortion threats and armed men with AK-47s trying to break in.”
She and three sisters serve dinner, then barricade themselves behind a locked gate for the night while a male custodian supervises the men.
Some openly admitted to drug addiction. One said he was a former meth user and gang member in Los Angeles who fled to Guadalajara two years ago to lay low. He wants to return, he said, because those who were trying to kill him are in prison.
“I came to the States when I was 9 and had never been back to Mexico,” said Manuel Marquez, 33, in unaccented English.
Now drug-free and newly devout, he said, he has two kids and a welding job waiting for him in the Reseda area of Los Angeles.
“Mexico was beautiful,” he said, “but man, it sucks to be poor.”