Agency says message isn’t reaching those who need it most – poorest residents of rural Mexican villages.
By SHERYL KORNMAN
The U.S. government’s efforts to discourage illegal border crossers do not appear to be reaching some of the Mexicans mostly likely to risk their lives in brutal desert heat – the poorest residents of rural villages.
The Border Patrol plans changes to its campaign next year, but it will be fighting a massive and highly organized smuggling network that spreads lies to lure desperate and naive people, said Andy Adame, an agency spokesman.
Next year, the agency will buy airtime rather than relying on Mexican media to broadcast free public service announcements, he said.
Officials hope the rural poor “who watch a soccer game on the weekend at the village community center – where there is a TV” will learn about the risks of illegally crossing the border to find work, he said.
The Border Patrol also is looking at launching its annual campaign in April instead of May in an effort to get the word about deadly summer heat to southern Mexico earlier.
Though the plan to buy airtime sounds good, it still won’t stop many illegal immigrants, said border activist Robin Hoover.
“Some know the dangers and come anyway,” said Hoover, director of Humane Borders. “They have no experience being in temperatures anywhere near these. It doesn’t sink in, even though they’ve been told. And there are others who are totally ignorant,” Hoover said.
Low-powered radio may be a better way to reach them, he said.
“You can go from one small village to the next and find that in one village, someone knows all about the deaths in the Arizona desert, and in the next village over, nobody knows.”
When a migrant lands in 115 degree heat in Altar, a key staging point in Sonora, from his tropical home in Acapulco and is told he’ll be in a hotel in Phoenix by afternoon, he believes it, Adame said.
Gerardo Galvez Ramirez, 27, was told the walk to the Phoenix area would be about 20 miles, he said in an interview Monday with the Tucson Citizen.
Instead, his group walked for three days after crossing the border. Five died and one is missing, authorities said.
Adame said the smuggling operation is threefold, and highly organized.
In the first step, recruiters in Mexico make a pitch and transport hopeful villagers to the border.
People such as Galvez, who have no money to pay smugglers upfront, are herded north to jobs by smugglers who take their payment later, after the migrant has started a job in the California fields or in major cities such as Chicago and New York, Adame said.
Adame said migrants are told sympathetic Americans will be posted in the desert handing them sandwiches and water.
At the border, “they sell these people like merchandise to the second organization, the guides that bring them across the border,” Adame said.
The guides deposit migrants at safe houses in the Phoenix area, where they are sold to the third organization, which houses them, takes them to U.S. destinations and sometimes holds them for ransom in extortion schemes.
If a promised load of migrants drops from 10 to five, because some died or ran off, the remaining five must pay double what they agreed to pay the smuggler, Adame said.
Migrants who have contacts in big migrant communities, such as Chicago and New York, are held until somebody pays their “fare” – or someone reports the smuggler to authorities.
“Migrants stay in drop houses months at a time,” Adame said. “There’s rape of women in these houses. There’s 20 men and one woman.”
This spring, the Border Patrol stepped up efforts to catch illegal immigrants in southern Arizona.
“We hope a result of that is they’ll go back and say, ‘It’s too tough. There’s immigration (agents) everywhere.’”
“Eventually they will get the message,” Adame said. “People are learning the hard way.”