Has governor’s emergency declaration discouraged immigrants? Depends on whom you ask

By Kate Nash
Tribune Reporter

LAS CHEPAS, MEXICO — Migrants about to jump into the United States from Mexico still stop in at Ignacio Juarez’s homefront grocery store, a last chance before the U.S.-Mexico border for a frosty drink, toilet paper or a chance to reconsider the danger in the desert ahead.

Juarez and his wife, Erlinda, still take in the badly injured, the dehydrated and the tired.

With its rare electric and phone lines in this remote parcel of northern Chihuahua state, the Juarez’s casita is a place where Mexicans compare notes on getting past the Border Patrol and making it into the United States.

But Juarez and others who live and work in northern Mexico say Gov. Bill Richardson’s 6-week-old declaration of a state of emergency along the border has discouraged some immigrants from crossing over.

Ranchers on the U.S. side disagree.

This outpost, a migrant staging area abandoned but for 30 people, looks emptier today. Mexican police last week plowed down 32 buildings where immigrants hid as they prepared for their journeys.

It’s quieter than it was. More Border Patrol agents, Luna County sheriffs and New Mexico State Police are working to deflect wouldbe crossers from the border, a quarter-mile from the Juarezes’ home.

On a recent night, Carlos Sanchez, an agent with Grupos Beta, a division of the Mexican federal government charged with helping migrants along the border, says he has never seen so many Border Patrol vehicles.

The SUVs are perched on lookout points along the main road into Las Chepas from Palomas, Mexico.

Sanchez, a 12-year veteran of the agency, estimates the number of migrants trying to leave Mexico has been cut in half since mid-August.

U.S. Border Patrol statistics show a slight drop in the number of apprehensions, but not by 50 percent. In July, agents caught 11,569 immigrants in the El Paso sector, which includes two west Texas counties and all of New Mexico. In August, 12,104. As of Tuesday, with three days left in September, the number was 9,212.

Sanchez and colleague Marcos Armenta say the true number of migrants trying to leave Mexico doesn’t make a big difference to them.

Dressed in day-glo orange uniforms, the agents are busy, talking to the migrants who want to cross. Just five minutes into their shift on a recent evening, they pull over a nine-passenger van on a dirt road heading into Las Chepas. Nearly 20 migrants are jammed into the van.

“I’ll take a job in whatever there is,” says Puerto Vallarta resident Ernesto Garcia, who trims hedges and pulls weeds for a living.

As Garcia talks about his goal to earn more than $5 a day, Sanchez and Armenta stick their heads in the van and hand out fliers that explain immigrants’ rights if they are apprehended in the United States and outline perils of the landscape.

If you are going to go, keep drinking water, they say. Watch out for snakes. Don’t sleep in the arroyos. Don’t leave anyone behind.

The pair give the same advice an hour later, when they come across 15 men ducked behind a cement and stone wall, waiting for night to turn the sky black.

Guerrero state native Alfonso de Jesus Viviano says he can’t be afraid of what might happen in the next few days. He’s got to get to a place where he can earn enough to feed his wife and three kids — anything more than the $7 a day he makes as a butcher.

“Better fear for now than hunger later,” he says.

While the agents try to persuade immigrant countrymen to turn back, few do.

As he drives along the border, Armenta points to the landscape, New Mexico’s Luna County on his right, a blank chunk of Chihuahuan desert on his left. “Look at the Johnson ranch,” he says, his hand pointing north to a lush green field dotted with red stripes. “There’s money and water, and they are growing chile, onions, watermelon.”

“Over here,” he says, “We’re growing chamisa.”

Earlier this summer, Joe and Teresa Johnson estimated that 500 immigrants crossed their 102,000-acre ranch a day. This week, Joe Johnson said it’s hard to estimate how many are crossing. But he believes the number is increasing, perhaps as much as 40 percent, since Richardson declared the emergency Aug. 12.

The Johnsons have long struggled to keep immigrants from tearing apart their fence, eight miles of which runs along the border. They’ve fought to make sure cattle aren’t scared from their water troughs by bathing immigrants.

“We are seeing more Border Patrol, but they (immigrants) are still trampling over the top of us,” Joe Johnson says. “I just hope we keep getting more agents or military. We have a positive start, even though it’s getting worse.”

Old school buses that leave from the town center in Palomas and drop riders in Las Chepas, where they wait to enter the United States, now make a third stop at the southern edge of Johnson’s property.

“We do applaud the governor’s efforts,” Johnson says. “We just need more help.”

About 15 miles northeast of the Johnson place, rancher Steve Allen has a theory about what he says is an increase in immigrants coming through his ranch.

“It’s like they said, ‘If we’re going to cross, we better do it now,’ ” Allen says.

The immigrants he sees these days hustle faster through the mesquite and creosote that decorate the landscape. He thinks word got out about the state of emergency, and an expected influx of Border Patrol agents, and immigrants rushed to the border to avoid having to cross with increased patrols.

One hundred five new agents started work earlier this week in the Deming and Lordsburg areas, doubling the number of agents assigned to the Deming station this fiscal year.

The El Paso sector is slated to receive 305 new agents by the next fiscal year.

Officials say that staffing increase is unrelated to the emergency declaration and part of a long-term border security plan.

While the stepped-up law enforcement near Columbus and Deming includes more mobile checkpoints on local roads, some of what the $1.75 million in emergency declaration money will buy has yet to arrive.

Columbus Mayor Martha Skinner says her village of 2,000, three miles from Mexico, will hire three new police officers in as soon as six weeks.

That will more than double the local police force. Skinner is grateful for the help.

“Of course, (the money) just lasts a year,” she says. “We’re going to try and do it for a year and see what happens.”

Published Sept. 30, 2005.