In Mexico, An Eritrean Man Sets His Sights On U.S.

Despite the economic downturn and diminishing job opportunities in the United States, impoverished people from around the globe continue to try to make the trek here. One man on Mexico's southern border has spent two years moving from his home country, the African nation of Eritrea, to the edge of Mexico. His ultimate goal? Washington, D.C.

GUY RAZ, host:

Now, on this side of the Atlantic, diplomacy between the United States and Mexico has focused squarely on our shared border. Miles and miles of fences have been built, crossings have been fortified, border guards scour the land. But on Mexico's other border in the south, it's a completely different scene; a place where aspiring immigrants from as far away as Africa come to chase their dreams.

NPR's Jason Beaubien has the story.

JASON BEAUBIEN: The Pan-American Highway crosses from Guatemala into Mexico at Ciudad Hidalgo. A bridge over the Suchiate River leads into a Mexican customs and immigration post. But just a few hundred yards upstream, within sight of the official crossing, dozens of men ferry goods and people across the river in makeshift rafts. Each raft is fashioned out of boards strapped to a pair of tractor tire inner tubes.

Sugar, coconuts, boxes of toilet paper move from Mexico across this international boundary without regulation.

Mr. IRVING GONZALEZ(ph) (Boatman): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: One of the boatmen, Irving Gonzalez, says it cost 40 or 50 pesos to cross, roughly three or $4. Migrants coming up from Central America who don't have or can't get a Mexican visa can cross here. Gonzalez says there's basically a don't ask don't tell policy at the river.

Mr. GONZALEZ: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: I work here to live, to survive, to get by, he says.

While Mexico's northern border has been fortified with night vision cameras, remote sensors and triple fencing, its southern border remains wide open. Further into Mexican territory however, there are immigration checkpoints; police roadblocks and ruthless gangsters that terrify undocumented migrants.

(Soundbite of music)

BEAUBIEN: Twenty-five miles north of the Guatemala border is the city of Tapachula. Tapachula has long served as a staging ground for Hondurans, Salvadorans and Nicaraguans trying to get to the U.S. It's also home to Mexico's largest immigration detention center. Arrested migrants are held for a while in Tapachula and then, depending on their citizenship, many are offered a 30-day transit visa to leave the country.

Until last year, thousands of Cubans used this month-long pass to scurry up to the Texas border. Mexico however now repatriates most captured Cubans. Migrants from Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa who are granted the 30-day visa are released onto the streets of Tapachula.

Mr. INES MARTIN TARALAL(ph): My name is Ines Martin Taralal(ph). I come from Eritrea.

BEAUBIEN: This 25-year-old says after being forced to do years of national service in the Eritrean army, he fled without shoes or a passport to Sudan, and thus began his two-year long odyssey to try to get to the States. First, he drove a rickshaw and did odd jobs in Khartoum.

Mr. TARALAL: From Sudan to South Africa, you know, with these fake passport, fake.

BEAUBIEN: With a fake passport?

Mr. TARALAL: Fake passport. Is my friend, it's like that is arrange it.

BEAUBIEN: The thin, light-skinned African would pass through 10 countries before getting to Mexico. He flew from South Africa to South America. He worked, borrowed and begged his way, he says, across Venezuela, Ecuador and Columbia.

A woman and colleague named Maria(ph) promised to arrange a flight to Mexico but she disappeared with his money.

Mr. TARALAL: And that's why Maria is a thief. My money is it.

BEAUBIEN: Eventually, Taralal raised more cash and paid a smuggler two and a half thousand dollars to take him from the Columbian Port of Cartagena to Nicaragua. He says he and 50 other migrants were packed shoulder to shoulder in open fishing boat crossing the Atlantic.

Mr. TARALAL: After three days, the boat is probably in the center of Atlantic Ocean. No drink, no eat, you know? Suddenly, you know, a big, you know, a big wave like this and break the (unintelligible).

BEAUBIEN: From Nicaragua, he traveled by foot, bus and car to Guatemala and then entered Mexico on one of the inner tubes on the Suchiate River. In Tapachula, he surrendered to the Mexican authorities, was held for 12 days and then given his 30-day visa to leave the country.

Eritrea is on exactly the same latitude as Tapachula, except it's on the opposite side of the globe. Taralal could have tried to go to Europe; it would have been much closer. But America remained the land of his dreams. He's got a book in Spanish tucked under his arm on how to speak English.

After two years on the road, two years eating strange food, finally, he's close to his destination. He wants to get to Washington, D.C. where he has some relatives. As he's leaving, he asks me one more question: Which is closer to Washington, Tijuana or Texas?

I draw him a map and he heads off into Mexico.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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