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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

These are tough economic times for Americans, and even harder ones for illegal immigrants who are trying to make a living but stay in the shadows. A distressed economy is squeezing Mexican workers out of many low-wage jobs. And what's more, under pressure from Congress, federal agents are moving aggressively to remove illegal workers who have committed a crime.

NPR's John Burnett visited a homeless shelter on the Mexican border and sent this report.

(Soundbite of conversations)

JOHN BURNETT: All day men stand in the suffocating heat at this ramshackle indigent shelter in Reynosa, Mexico. It's situated on a bluff on the south bank of the Rio Grande. 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.

Manuel Cantero is 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 children.

Mr. MANUEL CANTERO: (Through translator) The work began to get scarce. My wife got into drugs. They deported me. I lost my children. And here I am.

BURNETT: Cantero was deported to Mexico last week. He's still bewildered at his reversal of fortune.

How did they catch you?

Mr. CANTERO: Walking in the street. Yeah, just like that. Walking, they asked me for I.D. - had no I.D. And so he checked me in the computer, I had some, you know, driving with license (unintelligible)

BURNETT: 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 last 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 so-called criminal aliens were deported. The largest number, 85,000, were Mexican nationals, like Vidal Garcia.

Mr. VIDAL GARCIA: (Through translator) I've been here several months. 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.

BURNETT: Vidal Garcia is a 29-year-old landscaper from Oaxaca, recently of Gainesville, Georgia. 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.

Mr. GARCIA: (Through translator) They're deporting people for whatever reason. 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.

BURNETT: But Garcia doesn't blame U.S. authorities for his woes. He blames himself.

Mr. GARCIA: (Through translator) 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.

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

Again, Manuel Cantero, the laborer from Miami.

Three people tried to swim across?

Mr. CANTERO: Yes, swim across over that side.

BURNETT: And one of them drowned?

Mr. CANTERO: Yeah, two make it. We jumped the river, get the guy, but he's die already.

BURNETT: Several men said 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.

Mr. FRANCISCO SANCHEZ: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: 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 it's not like before.

Sanchez says he was arrested in Queens, New York for public intoxication and deported to Reynosa in April. He left behind a wife and five-month-old son. After he was deported, he swam across again, was caught in McAllen, Texas, and sent back to Mexico a second time.

Mr. SANCHEZ: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: Now I'm thinking about returning to my home in Vera Cruz, Sanchez says. I want to go back to my wife and child in New York again, but I tried. It's not possible.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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