The us-mexico border: dividing nations, families, and opinions

Photo: Shelley Dennis

Photo: Shelley Dennis

Paulino Hernandez knows the risks of crossing the US-Mexico border, but he is not worrying about Donald Trump. He has bigger problems. Kidnappers, for instance. And bandits. And fake coyotes. Plus, the cartels, the desert, dehydration and rattlesnakes. If he survives all that then he may worry about Trump.

“The danger starts here, on this side,” said the 38-year-old, speaking from a migrant shelter in Tijuana. Days earlier he had been abducted and held hostage by a gang which tried to extort a ransom from his wife in San Diego. A burly former soldier, he escaped by bulldozing past guards but left behind his phone and cash. “I don't know how but I need to find a way to San Diego. There are many obstacles.”

Hernandez is one of the thousands of people without documents who roam the 2,000-mile border, seeking a way in.

Trump won the White House by claiming the border was wide open, allowing an invasion of “illegals” to rob, rape and pillage the US. He promised to stop them with a “big, beautiful” wall, on which construction may begin soon.

In reality it has never been harder to cross. Bill Clinton launched a big expansion in border security which accelerated under George Bush and Barack Obama. There are 700 miles of fencing plus a beefed up Border Patrol force with new bases, checkpoints, aircraft, sensors, and cameras.

Surveillance tower on the US-Mexico border. Photo: Jeff Gouldon

Surveillance tower on the US-Mexico border. Photo: Jeff Gouldon

Mexico's drug wars have spawned additional hurdles. In the old days, you paid a modest fee to a “coyote” – a guide-cum-smuggler – to spirit you across. Now the cartels control the flow of people as well as drugs.

They levy exorbitant fees – ranging from $4000 to $40,000, according to migrants – and have networks of enforcers, informants, and lookouts to make sure everyone pays. Kidnappers, bandits, con-artists, and crooked cops also prey on migrants, especially foreigners from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador who ride north clinging to the roofs of freight trains collectively known as as “la bestia”, the beast.

The result is a perilous, expensive odyssey. That combined with the US's unpredictable economy and Mexico's falling birth rate has pushed illegal border crossings to historic lows. The number of annual apprehensions – a barometer for overall crossings – averaged 523,000 in the 1970s, 990,000 in the 1980s, 1.26m in the 1990s and 1m in the 2000s. The average for the past six years is 401,000.

In recent years the net flow of Mexicans has actually reversed – more are leaving the US than entering, according to the Pew Research Center.

San Diego, California, USA - July 4, 2016: International Border wall between USA -San Diego, and Mexico. Photo: Stella Levi

San Diego, California, USA - July 4, 2016: International Border wall between USA -San Diego, and Mexico. Photo: Stella Levi

But, visit migrant shelters along the border and this is what you find: some determined souls, often with families in the US, who will risk anything to cross; and many who could not bypass the many obstacles involved for US entry.

Hernandez, a construction worker, is originally from Oaxaca in southern Mexico. He has lived illegally in San Diego since 2000. Last year, he returned to Oaxaca to visit his mother and siblings and is now in Tijuana separated from his wife and children in California. He is now penniless after his run-in with kidnappers posing as coyotes. “Coming back was a mistake” he said, “I didn't realise how hard it would be to get back in.”

“Migrants are exceptionally vulnerable”, said Father Pat Murphy, a Catholic priest who runs the Tijuana shelter. “It is difficult to know whom to trust. They face enormous risks.” As a response, the shelter posts photos of known kidnappers and thieves on the walls.

Similar stories echo along the border. In Nogales, in the Sonoran desert, a Honduran named Gerson Rayas, 34, said he had been robbed, beaten and stabbed travelling through Mexico. He had worked as an electrician for 11 years in Sacramento until he was deported last year – falsely accused of robbery, he said – and was resolved to return. He was broke, suffering from a cold and slept in a graveyard but said he was working on a plan. “There is nothing for me in Honduras, nothing.”

Playas de Tijuana, Mexico - January 28, 2017: Mexican families living in Tijuana visit with family members living in the United States by meeting at the border wall in Playas de Tijuana. Photo: Shakzu

Playas de Tijuana, Mexico - January 28, 2017: Mexican families living in Tijuana visit with family members living in the United States by meeting at the border wall in Playas de Tijuana. Photo: Shakzu

If you cannot afford a cartel-affiliated smuggler, one alternative is to haul a backpack with drugs in exchange for “free” passage. An option solely for the young, fit, and truly desperate. It is a gamble. The Border Patrol catches about half of crossers, so the chance of ending up in jail is high. Cartels send some mules into the path of Border Patrol as decoys to distract from more valuable shipments.

A 28-year-old Honduran, “José”, said he was waiting for his brother in New York to wire payment to coyotes. Trump's talk of a wall unnerved him: “I want to try now before he’s there, while there’s still time.”

Trump accused Obama of providing a welcome mat to “illegals” yet along the border Obama is known as the “deporter-in-chief”. His administration officially deported a record 2.5m people, far more than his predecessors.

Some managed to make “la brinca” - the jump – back into the US. Plenty did not- you find some at soup kitchens, mourning their lost life in the US and their inability to build a new one in Mexico.

“I'm too old to hike through the desert,” said Sergio Cisneros, 61, waiting in line for beans and tortillas in Nogales. He used to build freeways and owned a home in Oxnard, he said. Now, he rents a room. Ismael Mendoza, 59, a former handyman, sleeps rough, forages for food in bins and laments unspecified “mistakes” that banished him from the US. “This is my life now,” he said, indicating a doorway with two men curled up against the cold.

If the biggest winners from the proposed $30bn wall turn out to be Mexican, it would be one of the great ironies of the Trump administration. Construction consultants and investment banks think geography and wage differentials will oblige the US federal government to use Mexican suppliers, labourers, and construction companies.

“No matter who builds it, migrants will always find a way under, over, or through any barrier,” said Nogales resident, Andres Solano,  “We have ladders in Mexico, you know.”