McALLEN, Texas- If Gulf Coast Americans had Hurricane Katrina, Central Americans had Hurricane Stan. Though just a footnote to many during the record-breaking hurricane season, Stan spun ashore on the Yucatan Peninsula on Oct. 4, causing massive mudslides and flooding, killing more than 1,000, and destroying tens of thousands of homes, businesses, ranches, and farms.
Against that backdrop William Jovani Rivas Sanchez and three of his closest friends came to America. "The hurricane destroyed all the jobs," he said. "I'm the oldest in my family. I have to find a way to find money." To that end, Mr. Sanchez and his three friends spent just more than a month and thousands of dollars to come to the United States to earn money for their families back home.
To achieve his dream, Mr. Sanchez needed to be caught. Just minutes after rafting from Reynosa, Mexico, across the Rio Grande and onto the banks of the United States south of McAllen, Texas, Mr. Rivas and his three friends climbed the levee bank and were spotted by the U.S. Border Patrol.
In a welcome most Americans would find unfathomable, Border Patrol agents gave the illegals water and a bologna sandwich. None in the group had eaten in two days. And, because of a legal and logistical loophole, neither the 25-year-old man from El Salvador nor his three close friends and traveling companions could be deported.
Mr. Sanchez and hundreds of thousands like him understand U.S. immigration policy better than most Americans. Each year, they use that savvy to gain entry into the United States that, while dangerous, is easier than the legal process.
Geography makes McAllen the Ellis Island of illegal immigration. In the first 35 days of the 2006 fiscal year (which began Oct. 1), agents in the McAllen region had already caught 10,722 illegal immigrants. Of those, 6,400 were classified in Border Patrol lingo as OTMs or "Other Than Mexicans"-2,650 from El Salvador, nearly 2,000 from Honduras, 800 from Guatemala, and the rest by hundreds from Brazil and elsewhere.
Nearly 80 percent of OTMs caught by the Border Patrol in October and early November were simply released.
How do 5,000 illegal aliens get such an easy ticket into the United States? Juan A. Lopez, patrol agent in charge at McAllen, points to overcrowded Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, where agents are supposed to deliver OTMs for deportation hearings. They have been full for at least 18 months. Illegals and their smugglers know this, too. That means migrants caught from any nation without a special deportation agreement with the United States are simply given a court date and released. For many migrants, this is the fast lane into the United States. "There's no challenge" to catching illegals, said Supervisory Agent Bobby Martinez, because they want to be caught. "All you hear is them shouting the name of their country."
Migrants from El Salvador and Guatemala, whose nations do not have expedited removal programs with the United States, are generally safe once across the border. Brazilians, and recently Hondurans, are sent back if caught. The recent addition of Honduras to the expedited removal program caught many immigrants off guard. Three Honduran women, caught at the same time as the Salvadoran men, thought they'd be set free like the others. The women said they were traveling to America to join their husbands. Ruth Fajardo, 22, held a toddler and leaned against a Border Patrol vehicle, explaining that her husband works in New Orleans and sent her the money to make the trip: $2,000 to pay for her and daughter Dianada.
More than likely, Mrs. Fajardo may go free because children cannot be deported under the expedited removal program and agents don't separate parents from children, Mr. Martinez said. The other two Honduran women will be quickly deported.
As complicated as the system of exchanges and payoffs to smugglers seems, many immigrants believe it is simpler than legal immigration.
If Mr. Sanchez and his friends immigrated lawfully, they would need to apply for an H-2B, or temporary work visa for unskilled non-agricultural workers. In order to apply, Mr. Sanchez would first need a passport. To get the passport, he needs his birth certificate, and birth certificates, he said, are hard to come by in El Salvador.
Assuming he could, in a few weeks and at some cost, compile the paperwork, he would still need to fight through immigration bureaucracy and would need an immigration lawyer, ultimately paying practically the same in legal fees that he pays a smuggler.
Even then, there's no assurance of success. The United States accepts a limited number of unskilled workers on temporary visas each year. Mr. Sanchez says he just wants to find a job. But that might not be good enough for immigration officials. Migrants have a better shot at earning a work visa if they have proof a job is waiting for them in the United States. Few actually have real plans.
If migrants understand the process and cost of illegal entry, most underestimate the danger. Mr. Martinez, a 22-year Border Patrol veteran, answered a distress call from an agent patrolling the river to discover a scene he says is all too common. A Honduran family of four-including a woman, her two children, and her brother-in-law-had just been robbed at 5 p.m. by smugglers rafting them across the river.
Once on the American side, the river smugglers-called bandits by the Border Patrol-forced the man and two children to strip naked and searched them for money. The Border Patrol agent arrived as the bandits began to strip the woman. Later, she told Border Patrol agents the bandits said they planned to rape her, and she believed they would have if the agents had not arrived.
Bandits are becoming more dangerous. Smugglers called coyotes act as general contractors, hiring under-age bandit kids to raft migrants across the river. Even if the Border Patrol catches them, those who are minors cannot be prosecuted.
From across the river, the bandits hurl insults at agents. Sometimes it's not only words. Last month Mr. Martinez says the bandits hurled rocks across the river with crude catapults, eventually opening up a bloody gash on the face of an agent. Finally, agents opened fire, wounding one of the bandits. Since then, the callow youth have taunted the Border Patrol for firing back: "Asesinos," -or "assassins"-cries one from across the river after the rape is foiled.
"Why don't you pay for the medical bills?" shouts another who sits on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande drinking a Miller Lite and waiting for the sun to go down and another night's work to begin.