February 13, 2013

Immigration reform: Change brings a sense of urgency

If the U.S. is really changing immigration laws, no deportees want to be on the wrong side of the fence.

By NICK MIROFF/The Washington Post

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.

MEXICO BORDER
click image to enlarge

A man from Sinaloa, Mexico, waits at his camp near the U.S. border. He has tried 14 times to return to his family in Los Angeles since being deported.

Photo for The Washington Post by Javier Manzano

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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