Cover Story

The other side

Illegal immigrants feel the animosity that some Americans have for them, and they give it right back. But the opportunities offered by the rich neighbor to the north are too much to pass up

Issue: "Don't fence me out," April 21, 2007

San Luís Potosí, Mexico- "Listen," Hilario Uvalde said, dropping his voice like he was confiding a secret, "don't let them fool you. It's as easy now as it was then."

His audience was rapt. The 44-year-old laborer, temporarily enjoying rock-star status, was regaling a group of young men in the San Luís Potosí bus station with his lengthy repertoire of border antics.

It all started when someone brought up a headline in La Reforma, a salacious national newspaper: "Dan paliza a ex 'migra'" ("They beat the former Border Patrol agent"). The story was about inmates who kicked Ignacio Ramos with steel-toed boots just weeks after his high-profile incarceration for shooting Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, a drug-smuggling illegal alien. The attack had come shortly after America's Most Wanted aired a profile of him.

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A roughhewn man from the bus-station group blurted: "I'm glad they finally got that [expletive]." Others nodded-they could picture themselves shot at while crossing the border illegally. Here, Uvalde started telling stories of how he has entered the United States illegally more times than he has fingers.

The only time he lost the game came about 20 miles past Tucson-well beyond the Border Patrol's frontlines. His friend's Ford Aerostar van was moving at a swift but lawful clip toward Flagstaff. "I was asleep, but the other guys all of a sudden started yelling, 'Oh no! Lights! Police lights!'" Uvalde recalled. "A state trooper stopped us for an expired inspection, and he found the vehicle full of mojados [wetbacks]."

Border Patrol agents showed up and took Uvalde and others back across the Arizona line to Nogales, a town teeming with soon-to-be mojados. Two days later Uvalde tried again-and made it all the way to Miami. He returned voluntarily to his home state of Chiapas six months later, at the end of 2004. Uvalde hasn't tried to cross since; he said the Virgin of Guadalupe has granted him luck, but he's aging.

Soon the conversation deteriorated into halfway-joking arguments for why George Bush should be dropped by plane somewhere in the Sonoran Desert and why Mexican President Felipe Calderón should be starved to death with stacks of tortillas just beyond his reach ("Romancing the corn," March 10).

By cheap económico bus line would-be illegal immigrants make it from Mexican interior villages to border towns-their readying rooms. They often negotiate the coyote (smuggler) fee, if there is to be one, right in the bus station. A ritualized pact-forming process happens here under fluorescent light, amid rows of plastic seats: Handshakes make allegiances binding, and traveling partnerships form between slurps of coffee.

Then those making the attempt head to coyote hideouts in the borderlands. Shouldering small packs, they breech la línea, the longest border in the world between the First World and the Third. An estimated 3 million illegals try to cross this line each year, looking for the fabled American Dream. And they are persistent: One crosser is caught for every three or four who make it, and one in 3,000 dies, but most of those who are caught try again.

As the United States frets over how to handle the ordeal, Mexico slowly has come to embrace it as a glorified pilgrimage and a cultural pillar, deepening the divide between two important trade partners that share 1,950 miles of border.

Most Americans feel that illegal immigration is out of hand. Many say it increases crime, drains taxpayer dollars, undercuts wages, and may be Balkanizing the Southwest if the immigrants, who tend to retain their allegiance to Mexico, don't attempt to assimilate. A poll last year by Time showed 51 percent of Americans thought the United States would be "better off" if all illegals were deported and the border sealed; 56 percent supported erecting a fence along the entire border.

The prevailing opinion of Mexicans is the opposite. Eight or nine out of 10 Mexicans object to a fence. They feel it's another example of how the United States uses them to scapegoat its problems. Felipe Portillo, a student in Monterrey, said it would do Americans good to have compulsory viewings of A Day Without a Mexican, a satiric 2004 movie in which Californians wake up one morning and find that a third of their state's population has disappeared.

Mexicans interpret the echoes they hear back home of the U.S. debate on immigration. On a bus from Mexico City to Querétaro, Cristina Zavala, 31, voiced one popular Mexican refrain: "Americans hope all illegals die crossing into their country." These rumors fuel animosity, especially among the poor. "I heard there is going to be a test [to get into the United States], and you have to pass it in English," said 25-year-old Lucas Ortiz, who consequently has started saving for English lessons. "Calderón is going to help the Americans build the wall," a man named Martín Pereira announced in the bus station.

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