Why have millions of people from Mexico illegally crossed the border into the United States? The answer is almost universal — to earn a living. The immigrants say decent jobs and economic opportunity are in short supply at home. News21 reporter David Kempa traveled to the border and deep into southern Mexico to tell the story of a town struggling to keep its young people from migrating and one man on a mission to provide them hope.
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By David Kempa
Jesus Hernandez Arias lay in the Arizona desert, half-blind and freezing.
Dawn was approaching on March 11, 2006. It was cold –- no more than 45 degrees -– and winds upwards of 35 mph only added to the discomfort brought on by obstinate, unrepentant rain.
Hernandez, a 43-year-old diabetic, had by now lost almost all feeling in his extremities, and his vision amounted to nothing more than varying shades of black. He worried about his blood glucose level, the possibility of paralysis or death.
Hernandez had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border the night before with 17 others who, like him, could not afford a pollero’s guidance. He’d formed this group in Altar, a northern Mexican town where crossers from all over Latin America converge before running the desert gauntlet into the United States.
Among those in his group was Erica, the Venezuelan who claimed to have crossed twice before and –- more or less -– knew the way, as well as a Poblano wearing high-heeled cowboy boots. Hernandez recalled warning the Poblano that he’d never be able to make it out of the desert with such big heels, but the man stood by his choice in footwear.
These 18 men and women were just a drop in the deluge of unauthorized immigrants crossing into the United States. A 2008 study by the Pew Hispanic Center reported an estimated 11.9 million immigrants living in the United States illegally, although nearly half of this number did not cross illegally: They overstayed visitor, worker or student visas. U.S. Census data shows these men and women make up four percent of the U.S. population as well as 5.4 percent of the American workforce.
Pew reports that a majority of unauthorized immigrants — 59 percent — come from Mexico and that 11 percent of everyone born in Mexico now lives in the United States.
Most of those in Hernandez’s group were crossing for the same reasons: to find work and send money home to impoverished families, to start new lives in the United States or simply rejoin relatives.
Hernandez’s reason, however, was a bit more complex: He was crossing the border so others wouldn’t have to.
But altruism cannot dictate the delicate balance of a diabetic’s blood sugar.
* * *
Hernandez, divorced and the father of a young daughter, had moved four months earlier to Veracruz, Mexico, where he’d met numerous coffee growers while on an earlier vacation. He was impressed by their work ethic but alarmed by their impoverished living conditions.
This incongruity, Hernandez soon found, was due to the fact that the growers had no local market. Unable to sell locally at a reasonable price and too poor to transport their beans to locations with high coffee demand, the growers had no choice but to sell to coyotes, who bought the harvested beans at low prices and resold them to large coffee companies for exorbitant profits.
This had been going on for decades, and the poorer the growers grew the more insoluble their plight became.
Then, in the 1970s, some of the area’s young men began traveling to the United States to work and send money home. Soon, families of those who had found employment on the other side began to enjoy luxuries others could never afford: American-made vehicles, extra bedrooms and glass windows in their homes.
Remittances –- money sent home from workers abroad -– are Mexico’s second-largest source of foreign income behind oil revenue. Although the weakened U.S. economy has severely impacted remittances to Mexico in recent months, Mexico’s central bank reported that $25 billion was pumped into its economy in 2008 from far-flung workers, mostly in the United States.
In the first five months of 2009, $9.2 billion was sent home, an 11.3 percent drop from the same period a year earlier, underscoring the urgent need for job creation in Mexico.
But home-grown jobs are few and low-paying. The allure of higher-paying jobs in the United States continues to prompt people to look north.
In 1970, the Mexican-born population in the United States hovered around 760,000. By 1980 Mexico boasted the largest foreign-born U.S. population at 2.2 million. And the Pew Hispanic Center reported in 2008 a record 12.7 million Mexican immigrants (both legal and illegal) living within U.S. borders -– a 17-fold increase from 1970.
Crossing over became something of a rite of passage as countless young men said goodbye to their families to face the dangers that came with crossing the border illegally: unforgivable terrain, unreliable polleros and an unstable border peppered with drug cartels and American vigilante groups.
Unsettled by the risk he saw young people taking, Hernandez decided the answer was organizing growers so they could start their own coffee cooperative. As their own bosses, he reasoned, growers would enjoy the profits they deserved, their standards of living would rise dramatically and their sons might no longer be tempted to gamble their lives on the border.
Hernandez had training in agronomy, but the growers needed money to organize, and the majority had nothing to spare for the cause. Not even Hernandez, who was living on his savings, could afford to invest in the project.
Determined to pull these growers out of poverty, Hernandez turned his gaze northward. He decided working in El Nortewas the best and fastest way to finance the collective.
* * *
Hernandez’s group ran across the border on March 10, 2006, at 7 p.m., entering the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, which stretches 262 miles from Yuma County, Ariz., to the New Mexico state line. This is the nation’s busiest region for illegal border entries. It is also the harshest in terms of climate and terrain.
They ran all through the night, hoping to find shelter from the weather and a place to hide from Border Patrol agents before daybreak.
It grew cold. Then it began to rain. Then snow.
Each year hundreds of immigrants crossing illegally die in the unforgiving Arizona desert. The Coalición de Derechos Humanos, a civil rights organization for Latinos in the United States, reported in July that the remains of 124 immigrants had been recovered just since the previous October.
In the year of Hernandez’s crossing, the remains of 205 immigrants were reported found.
Hernandez was among the first in his group to react to the elements -– due, perhaps, to his diabetes and the lack of proper food. His black clothes, meant to hide him during the night from Border Patrol agents, were soaked. He began to freeze.
Then, as the small party neared the town of Arivaca, Ariz., Hernandez’s vision started failing. Towering cactuses blurred together, small plants disappeared into the trail before him and his companions turned to 17 shuffling specters.
One shadow (he did not know whose) took Hernandez by the hand, guiding him through the desert. Others helped, too.
“This way; that way,” they said. “Careful for that; don’t trip. There’s a bunch of thorns over there –- get to that side.”
Somehow he moved on.
By 3:30 a.m., as a result of the cold, his high blood sugar or both, Hernandez’s arms and legs had grown so numb that he could no longer continue. His body had given up.
As he began to ease himself to the ground, Hernandez saw a shadow approach. It patted him on the back.
“How’s it going?” said the shadow.
It was the Poblano.
“Very bad. I can’t see,” said Hernandez. “On top of that, I’m growing cold. I’m freezing.”
The Poblano helped him sit down.
“No more. I’m going to stay.”
“I can’t take it anymore, either,” said the Poblano. “You were right about these heels.”
He sat down next to Hernandez, and the two waited.
Little by little, in a time span that could have easily been five minutes or five hours, Hernandez lost feeling throughout his body. He slipped in and out of consciousness, catching portions of conversations the Poblano could only have been holding with himself. Conversations about la migra. About going back home. About God.
As the cold took Hernandez, his mind went hundreds of miles south, to his 7-year-old daughter.
* * *
Jesus Hernandez Arias is scarcely more than 5 feet tall. He has brown, somewhat leathery, skin, dark eyes and a thick mustache. He smiles rarely with his mouth -– though often with his eyes. When he does open his mouth, he displays a couple of missing teeth, like many people in rural southern Mexico.
He speaks calmly of crossing to the United States, though with reined emotion, as if retelling a poignant scene from a movie he once saw.
He remembers waking up in a white bed: “I couldn’t articulate words. My jaw wouldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I could feel nothing. The only thing I could feel was the cold.”
Although he did not know it at the time, he had just woken up in St. Mary’s Hospital in Tucson, Ariz.
Hernandez didn’t remember how he had gotten to the hospital. Had he been picked up by an Arivaca resident or perhaps by a member of a humanitarian organization? Who knows -– it might even have been la migra.
The Poblano was not there with him, although he must have seen to Hernandez long enough to make sure his belongings were safely stored beside his hospital bed. Perhaps it was the Poblano who had carried him to safety.
Within days, Hernandez was contacted by Sarah Roberts, a nurse and No More Deaths volunteer, who took charge of his care after his week-long stay at the hospital.
No More Deaths, an organization dedicated to humanitarian aid and civil rights for illegal immigrants, began in southern Arizona in the spring of 2004. Volunteers monitor U.S. operations on the border and supply immigrants with water, food and medical assistance. Hernandez decided to volunteer with the group while figured out his next move.
One day, a fellow volunteer approached Hernandez, saying he had heard of his mission to help the growers in Veracruz. He mentioned Just Coffee, a co-op with a similar objective: to organize coffee growers and give them economic control over their product.
Hernandez joined the co-op, agreeing to return to Mexico to work at the company’s coffee roasting and packaging facility in Agua Prieta, the border town facing Douglas, Ariz.
But, as luck would have it, somewhere along the short stretch of highway between Tucson and the Douglas border crossing, Border Patrol agents pulled over the vehicle in which Hernandez was a passenger, taking him into Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.
He may have been heading back to Mexico, but he was still in the United States illegally.
And so Hernandez became one the 185,431 undocumented immigrants removed from American soil in 2006. Since then, according to ICE, the numbers have grown: 276,912 people were deported in 2007 and more than 350,000 in 2008. This happened even as Pew reported a drop in the number immigrants trying to enter the country.
Hernandez’s experiences in ICE custody and his subsequent deportation only reinforced his resolve to create choices for impoverished Mexican farmers who feel that migrating to the United States is their only option for a better standard of living.
He went to work for Just Coffee at its Agua Prieta and Salvador Urbina locations before returning to help the growers he’d left behind in Veracruz set up their own branch of the co-op.
Then, about a year ago, Hernandez realized that while he was helping dozens of farmers with Just Coffee, he could be helping thousands of impoverished Mexicans under a larger, more organized system.
Today, Hernandez works for AGIRabcd, a nonprofit organization based in France that puts retired workers with specialized skills to work helping others. He promotes agrarian projects and grower-owned commercialization all over Latin America.
He is focusing his efforts in southern Mexico’s Campeche countryside, where he is collaborating with local fruit producers and French AGIRabcd volunteers to build a juice manufacturing plant outside of a small town, aptly named Emiliano Zapata.
Hernandez has not lost his quixotic selflessness and does not feel he ever will.
He recalls a day back in Tucson when he was approached by a No More Deaths volunteer whose family did not approve of her involvement with the group.
“I’d like to know: What’s your secret?” she said. “How are you able to maintain the way you are, doing the work that you do?”
He spoke to her at length about injustice against the marginalized lower classes.
“That drives me to despair,” he said. “I’m a person who cannot see injustice. I’m an enemy of injustice. I’m an enemy of all the people who try to abuse those who have nothing.”
It is that drive that led him to Emiliano Zapata.