In Mexico, work program greeted with guarded optimism

Thursday, January 8, 2004

GENERAL BRAVO, Mexico -- After lifetimes spent finding ways to sneak into the United States, Mexicans are excited over a new plan by President Bush that may allow them to cross legally for work while maintaining a life in Mexico.

But many worry they will have to compete with a flood of new foreign applicants. Others, jaded by a U.S. immigration system that seems set up to work against them, believe the program could be a trick to catch and deport family members already living in the United States.

Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez welcomed the proposal Wednesday, but said it was "the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end." He said the United States needed a more concrete plan to help migrants and U.S. and Mexican officials would "work out the final details" during the Summit of the Americas meeting next week in the northern city of Monterrey.

Dangerous crossings

At the same time, illegal crossings have become more dangerous as smugglers try to circumvent heavy security measures.

The program is good news for this tiny town, an hour's drive south of the Texas border. The only permanent residents here are those too young and too old for the trip to the United States. The rest shuttle back and forth, many paying smugglers to get them across the border in sealed trucks or through snake-infested deserts.

But 20-year-old Alejandro Chapa, sweeping General Bravo's town square for $36 a week, wondered who would qualify for the new program.

"Don't you think it is going to be tough?" he said. "Right now it is really hard to get papers."

He believes that migrants living in Mexico won't be able to qualify because it's hard to find jobs without traveling to the United States and usually immigration officials want you to show you have enough money to support the move.

"They ask for too much. They even ask that you have money in the bank, and poor people like us don't have anything," he said.

Many Mexicans are also wary of U.S. immigration officials, seeing them as a sure route to deportation. Many complain the requirements to get even a tourist visa to see relatives in the United States are too stringent. Some have spent years without seeing brothers or even parents.

Others simply aren't going to wait for the program, which must be approved by Congress. Chapa already has a job lined up at a Mexican restaurant in San Antonio, Texas, and plans to cross illegally with three friends on Monday. The four will pay a smuggler to help them.

They dream of the day when they could simply apply for papers and cross a bridge over the Rio Grande, entering the United States legally and being protected under U.S. labor laws that are often ignored for illegal workers.

Being able to travel back and forth -- a key element of Bush's plan -- is something many Mexicans would welcome.

For 21-year-old Jose Guzman, the freedom of travel would mean he could earn dollars in the United States, but live in Mexico -- where a U.S. minimum wage salary can buy a house, a car and many other things still out of reach for many poor Mexicans.

"I would work anywhere to be able to come home with something," he said.

Some fear the new program will prompt a flood of Mexican applicants trying to enter the United States.

Cruz Salinas, 69, said half of the young men from General Bravo are working illegally in the United States already, and the rest are trying to find a way to follow them. If the new program is approved, "all the young people here are going to want to go."

Priest Esteban Ramirez, who runs a migrant shelter in the border city of Reynosa, across from McAllen, said the program would clear the way for many Mexicans to finally return home. Many migrants stay in the United States for years because they fear they won't be able to return.

Still, he feared the program would impose a lot of requirements most could not met.

"The problem is in the details," he said.

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