RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When the U.S. government deports hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants back to Mexico each year, it drops most of them just south of the border. Traditionally, many of them would immediately try to sneak back into the United States. Now the migrants face heightened security along the border and an economic downturn in the U.S., so an increasing number are no longer trying to return. As part of our series on the evolving U.S.-Mexican border. NPR's Jason Beaubien has this report.
JASON BEAUBIEN: The streets of Nogales, Sonora, just across Arizona's southern border, are crawling with deportees. Some of them are covered in prison and gang tattoos. Others are down-on-their-luck men who used to do construction work in California or wash dishes in Chicago. Many are sleeping on the streets. Forty-year-old Roberto Reyes is originally from Honduras. He'd been working for five years in a restaurant in Miami, he says, until he got arrested for drunk driving. He was deported in September. Reyes says he immediately tried to cross back through the desert.
Mr. ROBERTO REYES: (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: I walked for six days, but I didn't make it across, he says. Now I've just returned. He got caught by the Border Patrol and deported again to Nogales. Reyes has two young daughters and a wife in Miami, but he says getting back to them in the States right now is too difficult.
Mr. REYES: (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: There are a lot more border guards, and it costs a lot more to cross than in the past, Reyes says. And the risk is that you could die in the desert. For the last few days, Reyes has been sleeping on the streets in Nogales. He says he hopes to get some work here so he can buy a bus ticket back home to Honduras.
The Mexican government offers limited assistance to deportees. On this day, the dusty office of Grupo Beta in Nogales is overflowing with migrants. The Mexican government agency patrols the nearby desert and provides water to would-be crossers. It also offers discounted bus tickets to migrants who want to go back home to their villages. Enrique Enriquez Palafox, the coordinator of the office, says in the past many migrants would spend a few days or maybe a week in Nogales before trying to cross into the U.S. again. Now Enrique says far more are heading south.
Mr. ENRIQUE ENRIQUEZ PALAFOX (Coordinator, Nogales Grupo Beta Office): (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: In 2007, Enriquez says, they helped 689 people return home in the whole year. So far in 2008 they've helped more than 6,000.
Mr. PALAFOX: (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: They're seeing that it's more difficult, he says. There isn't as much work in the United States. There are fewer possibilities to cross. And they're saying, hey, I'm going to go back to my city, I'm going to go back to my family. But there are also those who say staying in Mexico is not an option.
Unidentified Man #1: I was raised in the United States. They took me when I was five years old to California. I'm 45 years old right now, and I just got deported.
BEAUBIEN: This man is sitting about 20 yards from the rusty metal fence that's keeping him out of Arizona. He doesn't want to be identified because he's waiting for an opportunity to break the law and jump the wall.
Unidentified Man #1: I have to go back. I have to go back with my family. I don't have nothing here in Mexico. All my family is in California.
BEAUBIEN: You have children?
Unidentified Man #1: I have five children. I have two children in Iraq right now, fighting for their country, which I believe is my country too, because I was raised up there.
BEAUBIEN: He used to paint houses in San Bernardino, east of Los Angeles. But business wasn't going so well. He got deported, he says, after police came to his house over a domestic dispute.
Unidentified Man #1: So I was losing my house, and I got depressed. And I started arguing with my wife because of the bills and everything. And that's when my neighbor called the cops on me.
BEAUBIEN: He denies hitting his wife and says the police never pursued the domestic violence charge, but they did hand him over to the immigration authorities. Originally he was deported to Tijuana. After he tried to cross there, the Border Patrol bused him 500 miles east, here to Nogales.
Miles and miles of the new border fence stretch out from this rough border town into the desert. Border Patrol agents guard the frontier in a parade of four-wheelers from massive Ford Excursions down to one-man, all-terrain vehicles. They have night vision goggles, high-tech cameras, remote sensors, and motion detectors.
Unidentified Man #1: Well that's what they're doing, and it's very hard right now. But I mean, you're going to have to keep on trying and trying if you want to be with your loved ones. Just keep on trying, no matter what, no matter what it takes.
BEAUBIEN: Last year the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, ICE, deported 350,000 illegal immigrants. This was a 20 percent increase from the year before, and most were deported just across the border into Mexico. A thousand miles east of Nogales, the Mexican city of Reynosa sits opposite McAllen, Texas. At the Casa del Migrante in Reynosa, dozens of deportees say Grace before dinner.
The shelter is run by nuns. It used to offer a meal and a bed to men heading north. Now it's overflowing with people heading south. The shelter has space for 40 people, but lately two to three times that many have been sleeping here. Twenty-three-year-old Juan Garcia was released into Reynosa from ICE custody earlier in the day.
Mr. JUAN GARCIA: We're just going over here - we're just going over there to work, and they think we criminals, everybody is criminals.
BEAUBIEN: Garcia was picked up in April during an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid on a chicken processing plant in Arkansas. Agents fanning out across five states arrested several hundred illegal immigrants working at Pilgrim's Pride facilities. Under a relatively new ICE practice, most of the migrants swept up in the workplace raids, including Garcia, were charged with identity theft and other crimes. Garcia served a six-month sentence in an Arkansas state prison. He says he has three kids who are all U.S. citizens.
Mr. GARCIA: My older one is going to be - he's going turn seven in December. My second one, she just turned five in September. The other one is three.
BEAUBIEN: The kids are with his mother-in-law in Arkansas. His wife died a year ago in a car accident. Now he says his kids are without parents. Garcia came to the U.S. with his father when he was 13. When he was caught, he had been packing chickens for three years in a job that paid 6.75 per hour.
Mr. GARCIA: (Through Translator): The Americans doesn't like the job that we do. They only have the easy jobs and they are well-paid. And we took any job that they have for us.
BEAUBIEN: A six-month prison term, an order to leave the country, a new fence that stretches for miles and miles along the border - Garcia says these things aren't going to stop him. Eventually, he says, he'll be back in Arkansas with his children. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And tomorrow we hear from Border Patrol agents at a place where they're really busy - Nogales, Arizona. And we hear from the kind of person they're trying to catch.
Unidentified Man #2: Me and my friend, we're going to come back tonight. We start walk about 11 o'clock when the immigration moves. That time, the immigration moves, so we get the chance to walk, walk. We're going to walk two nights in the desert.
MONTAGNE: You can see photos of key locations across and along the border through an interactive map at our Web site, npr.org.