Do or Die

For most Mexicans who're flooding our borders, it's a life-or-death choice

Francisco Valencia's home in San Isidro, Sonora, would be heaven if it wasn't in Mexico. He lives under a grove of pomegranate trees on a farm along the cottonwood-lined valley of the Rio Magdalena where his four grandsons run wild most every sun-baked afternoon of the year.

He walks with his children and grandchildren every Sunday to Mass in the 300-year-old Mission of Magdalena, the loveliest in the archipelago of great missions built by Padre Kino in what are now northern Sonora and southern Arizona.

Like most men here, he has never wanted to leave.

A cross near Altar, the staging area for Mexicans 
entering the United States, commemorates those who have died during the perilous journey.
Peter Scanlon
A cross near Altar, the staging area for Mexicans entering the United States, commemorates those who have died during the perilous journey.
Luis Gallego cuts the membrillo into bricks to be sold in area markets.
Peter Scanlon
Luis Gallego cuts the membrillo into bricks to be sold in area markets.

Unlike most, though, he only had to leave once.

That was 1967, during the heart of the old Bracero Program. His daughter Carmen was gravely ill. He needed money for her heart medicine.

He made his way to Los Angeles, then to fields outside Sacramento. It was an easy trip. He worked for 45 days, then returned to San Isidro with enough money for the cure.

Valencia is 77. He is strong for his age, but he is hunched now with legs bowed like ice tongs. If he were younger and healthier, he says, he would again return to work in America.

Things are finally that bad again.

"There is pain all around," he says. "These are very difficult times."

So difficult that an estimated half a million Mexicans last year paid smugglers between $500 and $2,000 to drive them from Altar, about 60 miles west of here, up 60 miles of dirt roads to the U.S. border where they embark on a four-day hike through a searing knife-flora gauntlet of desolate Sonoran Desert toward the goal of a minimum-wage job in the United States.

More than 2,000 have died making that trip -- some reduced to nothing more than racks of bleached bone along the way. Many more have been robbed, held hostage, raped, kidnapped and otherwise brutalized. Tens of thousands more have been caught and sent back by an increasingly aggressive and effective U.S. border patrol, as well as by the new Immigration and Customs Enforcement group under the Department of Homeland Security.

In 2004, the trip into Arizona, usually to Phoenix, was far more expensive, far more dangerous and far less likely to succeed than at any time in history.

Still, with the intensity of the fabled Oklahoma Land Rush -- and for many of the same reasons -- migrants push out each day from the staging town of Altar for the U.S. border near the tiny U.S. border town of Sasabe.

There, they cross the border with the help of smuggling organizations that U.S. immigration enforcement officials say are now larger, more sophisticated and more violent than ever before. Federal agents who spoke to New Times estimate there are now about 50 major smuggling groups with as many as 300 employees each that operate out of Phoenix.

And these groups are much richer. Federal agents estimate that more than half a billion dollars in payments were wired last year to human smugglers in the Phoenix area.

For most Americans, the idea of risking so much for what seems like so little is insanity.

"But it's a very simple thing," Valencia says. "For many, you go, or you don't live."

Basic economics.

Even more so now. Especially now.

It's the drought, which hits a Third World country such as Mexico harder. It's the Mexican government. It's the promise of a better life in the United States. It's a new story that's as old as Mexico, as old as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

New is the severity of the drought, the baked mud in the diversion canal above Valencia's field that brings no water from the weed-choked bed of a meandering sand bar called the Rio Magdalena.

Valencia could not plant crops this year. He can't afford the 50,000-peso government permit for a deeper well. Pinch the faded leaves of his fruit trees and they crunch and crumble like corn flakes.

New is the tariff-free produce from the massive, corporate farms in America, against which small local farmers can't compete. Soon, thanks to more late-activating clauses in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, even more products, most notably American wheat and corn, will come here without tariffs. The Mexican farmer -- working land unfed by a Salt River Project or a Central Arizona Project and unsubsidized like his American counterpart, working land unnourished from an SRP or a CAP -- is without hope on even more fundamental levels than ever before.

An estimated 1.5 million Mexican farmers have been forced from their land since 1994. Basically, farmers here won't be able to compete with American produce prices, even if they are ever able to grow crops again.

Now, the lifeblood of this Sonoran valley is the American-owned factory, known as a "maquiladora" or "twin plant," that pays five dollars a day. Two of Valencia's children work there.

Many of Sonora's other American-owned factories, especially in the textile and electronics industries, already have moved for cheaper labor elsewhere.

Still, it would take a worker two days of labor at EDS International to pay for a breakfast buffet across the street at El Toro Restaurant, which is usually empty.

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