Mexico Becomes World's Anteroom
Immigrants From Around Globe Seek Back Door Into U.S.
By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
MEXICO CITY, June 6 -- Rawa sat on a cot in her underwear, covered modestly
by a thin blanket, and explained why she and her family fled Iraq for the
States and ended up in an immigration detention center in Mexico.
"Because it is miserable in my country, and I want to live like a different
person," said Rawa, 20, a university graduate from Baghdad who has been
confined here for
more than a week. While she spoke, her mother, 64, wept quietly and pressed rosary beads to her head in the next bunk over.
Rawa said her family -- her father and brother are here, too -- sold
everything to pay $30,000 to an Iraqi smuggler who told them Mexico was
the best way to reach
the United States, then abandoned them in the Mexico City airport. Tugging at her T-shirt, as the smell of sweat and detergent hung in the air, Rawa said: "I have only
As a flood of people from around the globe try to reach the United States,
and as more and more human smuggling organizations set up shop here, Mexico
become the world's waiting room for illegal immigrants hoping to sneak into America. A rare visit to Mexico's main immigration detention center was a glimpse into
the globalization of people trafficking: Nearly 400 people from 39 nations were being held -- 85 from Ecuador, 84 from India, 26 from Cuba, 25 from China, and
others from Albania, Russia and Ukraine, from Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Togo, from Yemen and Jordan and Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
The flow of undocumented Mexican immigrants to the United States is
well known. It rocketed into the headlines again recently when 14 of them
died in the Arizona
desert. But less noticed is the growing number of immigrants from all over the world who are trying to use the U.S.-Mexico border as an illegal back door into
"Mexico has become the corridor for everyone in the world," said Gilberto
Palmerin, who runs the Mexican National Immigration Institute's main detention
the southern Mexico City neighborhood of Iztapalapa.
Mexican authorities deported 152,000 illegal foreigners last year, almost
all of them trying to reach the United States. Another 28,000 were caught
by U.S. officials
after crossing the border. Countless thousands more are believed to have made it through.
So while the United States spends billions of dollars keeping undocumented
Mexicans out, Mexicans spend millions keeping other immigrants from using
to cross illegally into the United States. The bright shining lure of the United States costs Mexico more than $9 million a year: the price of catching, housing, feeding
and deporting illegal immigrants. Mexico is about to spend $5 million more to double the size of this detention center and expand 20 smaller ones around the country.
"We have a lot of problems in our northern cities. These people have
no jobs and no money. They are sleeping on streets," said Felipe de Jesus
chief of the National Immigration Institute.
The main detention center was designed to hold 150 people but sometimes
houses 600, with bunks added everywhere to accommodate the overflow. Interpreters
for dozens of languages are needed. Just about every embassy and consulate here has been called on to help. There are lines for everything: to register when a new
bus arrives, to see the doctor, to use the telephones.
As a busload of illegal immigrants pulled in to the overcrowded center,
out came crying children, young men from the Middle East and two Guatemalan
had dyed their hair blond in hopes of fitting in better in the United States.
Once detained, many immigrants seek refugee status, especially those
from Iran, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Pakistan, Somalia and Colombia, who argue
that it would be too
dangerous for them to return home. Officials representing the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees visit the detention center twice a week to assess those requests.
Isabel Najera Franco, a commission officer, said that 266 applications
were made last year and 78 were granted -- and the numbers are increasing
this year. She
said that once the United Nations grants refugee status, the people are allowed to remain indefinitely in Mexico and can seek naturalization after five years.
Najera said Rawa's family has applied for refugee status but no decision
has been made. Rawa said her family cannot return to Iraq; she drew a finger
throat to show what happens to those who try to flee the country under President Saddam Hussein. Her family asked that their last names not be used because they
fear reprisals against relatives still in Iraq.
Rawa said her family had hoped to start a new life in San Diego, where
her brother lives. She said they walked four days through mountains into
Turkey, where they
hid for nearly a month while a smuggler arranged fake passports and flights to Mexico. But he disappeared when they landed and they spent more than a day in an
airport cafeteria before suspicious police picked them up.
Now Rawa passes her days and nights in a room with her mother and a
dozen other women who share two sinks and a toilet. "It's miserable here,"
she said. "The
Mexicans are all nice. But how can I get to the United States?"
Another man, who said he was a refugee from the civil war in Sierra
Leone, said he came here by ship after seeing his mother and two sisters
murdered before his
eyes. He is also seeking refugee status. Like many people here, he greeted outsiders with a plea: "Can you help me?"
A Cuban couple and their two small children, who have not been to school
in two years, sat in a corner near a bank of phones. The 12-year-old boy's
fell out, his mother said, explaining that everyone's nerves are shot.
"I don't want luxury. I just want us to live a calm life," said Valentin Pupo Moraga, the father.
He said his family fled Cuba two years ago and wound up in Honduras.
From there, they eventually boarded a bus to Mexico, with the aim of going
to the United
States. In his hand he held a list of U.S. telephone numbers and names of organizations he hopes might help him. But at a checkpoint in southern Mexico, his bus was
stopped and officials discovered the family had illegally entered Mexico. Now they are here, unsure of what lies ahead.
In one small room at the center, a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization
Service (INS) officer from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City interviewed
a group of Chinese
men who flew here and were trying to get into the United States. One by one, they filed in, giving birth dates and names. Asked why they wanted to go to the United
States, they all answered the same: "To find a job."
"I don't care what kind of job, whatever is offered. I just want to
go to New York," said Liu Yilian, a thin 22-year-old man who was abandoned
by his smuggler at
the airport in the resort city of Cancun.
The United States pays to deport some immigrants in other countries,
such as Mexico, when those immigrants are "clearly intending" to come to
the United States.
INS officials said the U.S. government paid to deport 950 people from Mexico last year, including many from China, India and Sri Lanka. Returning people from
those distant nations would be an "extraordinary expense" for Mexico so the United States pays, INS officials said. The United States has paid similar costs in other
Latin American and Caribbean nations.
INS officials said the program saves money for the United States, because
it avoids detaining those same people in U.S. facilities and defending
against lengthy and
costly legal appeals.
As U.S. officials arranged a flight for two dozen Chinese here back
to China, several of the men talked about what they faced upon return:
a fine, and if they did not
have the money, several months in jail.
Some of the Chinese men said they paid a smuggler $4,000 each for the
aborted trip. Others said they agreed to pay the smuggler $40,000 from
future earnings in
the United States.
Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, national security adviser to President Vicente
Fox, said Mexico's main concern is the increasingly powerful gangs that
through Mexico. Smuggling syndicates have become more organized and well-connected throughout the world, increasingly offering services not just to Mexican farm
hands but also to businessmen from Asia and the Middle East.
Aguilar Zinser said that the serious mistreatment of immigrants has
been reported, especially along Mexico's southern border with Guatemala,
where illegal immigrants
from all over Latin America cross on their way to the United States. Mexico has tightened security along its southern border, partly because of Fox's agreement to
help stem the flow of immigrants to the United States.
Since Fox took office six months ago, there has been a massive shake-up
at the immigration agency. Aguilar Zinser said that "major irregularities"
there were being
corrected. The irregularities include the recent case of a smuggler who bribed at least 20 immigration officials and police to get them, with their uniforms and official
documents, to help illegal immigrants.