For Illegal Immigrants, Jobs Down, Deportations Up

Map of Reynosa, Mexico
Alyson Hurt/NPR

At a ramshackle homeless shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, on the south bank of the Rio Grande, a group of men stand in the suffocating heat all day. From behind a low cement wall, they stare across at the country where, until recently, they lived, worked and raised families. But the sluggish river might as well be an ocean.

The distressed economy is squeezing illegal Mexican workers out of their low-wage jobs in the United States. And under pressure from Congress, federal agents are moving aggressively to remove illegal immigrants who have committed a crime.

On The Border

Manuel Cantero is among the men at the shelter. He's a 54-year-old laborer originally from Nuevo Laredo. For the past 29 years, he lived quietly in Miami, worked odd jobs, married and had three kids.

"But work began to get scarcer; my wife got into drugs. They deported me. I lost my children. And here I am," he says.

Cantero was deported to Mexico last week. He's still bewildered at his reversal of fortune. He says he was simply walking down the street when they picked him up.

For decades, down-and-out Mexicans like these have gathered at the border trying to raise the money and the moxie to sneak over into el norte. But clearly, times have changed. There are more federal agents, more helicopters, more cameras and now, a border wall. Apprehensions along the Southwest border are down 27 percent in the past four years — a reflection, the government says, of how fewer people are trying to cross illegally.

And deportations are up. In recent years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been partnering with local police to find and remove illegal immigrants who commit crimes, even misdemeanors. Last year, 114,000 "criminal aliens" were deported. The largest number — 85,000 — were Mexican nationals, like Vidal Garcia.

'Trying To Change'

"I've been here several months," Garcia says. "But when they deported me, the situation was critical. Work was dropping a lot. In the old days, with a fake Social Security number you could get work. But for about a year, every company now checks your Social Security card and your green card."

Garcia, 29, is a landscaper from Oaxaca, recently of Gainesville, Ga. He, too, got caught in the tightening immigration dragnet. Garcia, with a crew cut and sad eyes, says he was deported for drinking and brawling.

"They're deporting people for whatever reason," he says. "I came from Georgia, and there's a law that they can grab you for not having a license, for drinking a beer, for whatever reason they'll deport you."

But he doesn't blame U.S. authorities for his woes; he blames himself.

"I'm here reading the Bible, trying to change because when I was in the U.S., I was an alcoholic. Now I'm in this church trying to change," he says.

Enthusiasm Fading

The Center for Christian Support is a cluster of scrap-wood structures built around a simple church. It's located on the site of a former garbage dump in Reynosa. There are 110 people here on this day, most of them men. Some of them have lost their enthusiasm to go north again, especially after a tragedy last week: The deportees watched as three men tried to swim the Rio Grande. Only two made it.

Cantero, the laborer from Miami, says they jumped in the river to save the third man, but they were too late.

Several men say they're picking up day labor around Reynosa — for around $13 a day — to earn bus fare to return to their homes in the interior of Mexico.

"Up there, there's almost no work anymore," says Francisco Sanchez, a friendly 24-year-old in a sleeveless T-shirt. "Maybe you can find two or three days of work in construction, but not like before."

Sanchez says he was arrested in Queens, N.Y., for public intoxication and deported to Reynosa in April. He left behind a wife and 5-month-old son.

After he was deported, he swam across again, was caught in McAllen, Texas, and sent back to Mexico a second time.

"Now I'm thinking about returning to my home in Veracruz," he says. "I want to go back to my wife and child in New York again, but I tried. It's not possible."

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