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Modern migrants pose new challenges to Mexican border towns

The US deported record numbers of immigrants over the past four years. Although Mexico provides some basic services, the influx of migrants in border towns means good Samaritans and nonprofits are having to step up.

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Two men illegally cross the border fence separating Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, July 2010.

Jae C. Hong/AP/File

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A forlorn Graciela Severiano sits silently at a church soup kitchen, surrounded by recently returned migrants, each cast adrift in this sprawling town on the US-Mexico border.

The migrants – arriving hungry, tired, and often with blistered feet to the long, wooden tables at el comedor – are among a record number of people being deported from the US to Mexico. During President Obama's first term, his administration deported 1.5 million immigrants from various countries, according to US government figures. In 2011, close to 300,000 deportees were Mexican nationals, and nearly all of them ended up in Mexican border towns, like Nogales.

Although national and local governments in Mexico provide some basic services, it is mostly good Samaritans and religious organizations who feed, clothe, and house migrants until they move on, perhaps trying to cross the border again, or attempting to build a new life in a country, that despite their citizenship, no longer feels like home. Viewed with suspicion in the US for their accents, skin color, or illegal status; Mexican migrants also face indifference and resentment from many in their home state.

"The [Mexican] government has not yet made the necessary adjustments to care for this population," says Jorge Durand, a professor of anthropology at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico.

Some Mexicans look down on migrants for leaving Mexico in the first place, and shame those who come back speaking better English than Spanish after growing up in the US, says Mr. Durand, who has studied Mexico's migration patterns for years.

"It's a complicated situation," that merits careful study and attention to help returning migrants reintegrate into Mexican society, he says.

Complex makeup

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Although migration over the border has been ingrained in Mexico's sons and daughters for generations – first blowing up in the early 1900s during Mexico’s revolution and decades later during the US Bracero program that employed Mexican agricultural workers on US farms – the increasingly complex make-up of modern migrants poses new challenges, Durand says.

Returning migrants are no longer solely men who cross the border back-and-forth to work the fields, ebbing and flowing depending on the season. They now include single women and families with children who have carved out a life for themselves in the United States and have little incentive to return to Mexico.

Ms. Severiano walked two days through the rugged Sonoran desert, which spans both sides of the border, in an attempt to reunite with her US-born children. They live with an aunt in Ohio, and have been there since December. Severiano and her two boys traveled from their US home to Mexico some months ago to visit her mother in Michoacán state. Severiano had not seen her mom once during the 11 years she lived without proper documentation in the US.

The boys returned to Ohio with a family friend, and in early February, Severiano followed a smuggler across the border in an attempt to reunite with her sons. Her voyage was cut short by an encounter with US Border Patrol.

But despite her deportation, Severiano says she will no doubt try to enter the US again: “My children are waiting for me.”

The daily stream of returning migrants swells the population of Nogales, Mexico which, like much of the country, is unprepared to deal with the influx of people, says Durand.

Of the 74,341 migrants removed from the US to Sonora state, across the border from Arizona, nearly 55,000 were deported through Nogales. Sonora had the third highest number of deportees, behind the states of Baja California and Tamaulipas, according to Mexico's National Migration Institute.

Nogales is not only faced with a larger population to support in terms of permanent and short-term housing, but school enrollment and social services as well.

The official 2010 census counted a population of 212,500 in Nogales, Mexico. However, Nogales officials say that's an extreme undercount and rarely includes migrants who put down temporary roots, or many of the workers who come seeking employment at the city's US-owned factories.

'More awareness'

Nurse Norma Quijada Ibarra says that although she has lived in Nogales her whole life, she knew little about the migrants who passed through her town until she started providing first aid through the Kino Border Initiative. The organization gets financial support from the Catholic Jesuits to aid the thousands of migrants whose first stop after deportation from the US is Nogales.

"Migrants were never discussed much," says Ms. Quijada, even though thousands arrived every year in Nogales from the US, as well as from throughout Mexico and Central and South America with plans to cross the border. "But that's changing somewhat."

Programs have sprung up in recent years to assist migrants locally, and they are gradually bringing visibility to the transitory population, Quijada says.

But more needs to be done, says Maria Eugenia Robles of the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist.

"We have to address the reality of Mexico's migrants," says Sister Robles, who plans to do just that on local radio talk shows beginning in early March. She will be a guest, speaking for about ten minutes every few weeks about the needs and realities of the migrant population. 

"We have to bring more awareness about a problem that has deep roots in Mexico and involves many factors, such as the economic system and a lack of education," Robles adds.

Longer periods in the US

At el comedor, Alma Isais Aguilar and other nuns offer spiritual comfort and basic necessities to about 200 migrants a day. The biggest change Sister Aguilar has noticed in recent years is the influx in Mexicans returning home after long periods in the US.

"Many of those we see nowadays have lived across the border for 10, 20, 30 years," she says. "They are in shock when they get here because they no longer have anyone or anything [in Mexico]."

"We are seeing a high number of individuals being deported from the US interior as opposed to those being caught in the desert," says Luisa Ledford of the Kino Border Initiative, a cross-border humanitarian effort based in Nogales, Ariz, which may also imply the migrants have been in the country more long-term.

That changes the dynamics of service at el comedor, Aguilar says.

Their hunger satisfied, the migrants line up to make a free phone call to the US, within Mexico, and to other countries. They ask relatives for money to help them survive on the border. Food and shelter are temporary and, after a few days, migrants must decide whether to embark on yet another illegal crossing, or return to their native states in Mexico's interior.

Although the government helps pay for bus fare home, many migrants choose to head north again. Staying in the streets too long means risking being picked up by police or falling victim to criminal organizations that prey on deportees.

Jose Gallego, waiting for his turn to call family in Phoenix, didn't quite know what he would do next. After 18 years in the US, he was arrested at a traffic stop and later deported.  He must leave the Nogales migrant shelter soon to make room for others and has no money to rent a room. The pull north, to his wife and two US-born children, is strong.

"I'll have to make a decision soon," Mr. Gallego says.

Severiano plans to leave as soon as her two older brothers join her in Nogales. They remain in US detention after being caught with her for illegally crossing the border.

"I'm a little scared, but I have no choice but to try again."


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