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Latin Immigrants Race For U.S. Border Fearing Crackdown

by Diego Cevallos

"Real ID" Proposal Threatens Asylum Seekers

(IPS) MEXICO CITY -- Ignacio, a 22-year-old Mexican, has decided to move up the date of his departure for the United States, after the "coyote" who has promised to get him across the Mexican-U.S. border warned him that the trip could be more difficult and costly come April or May.

Word has spread among the "coyotes" or "polleros," as migrant smugglers are called in Mexico, that the United States is preparing to further tighten its border controls.

"It's their business, so they have to be well informed," said Valentin Contreras, a volunteer with a migrants' rights group in the Mexican border town of Tijuana.

On Feb. 9, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill known as the "Real ID Act" which would further limit the rights of undocumented immigrants and give the green light for extending the walls erected along the Mexican border. The bill enjoys the support of the Bush administration in Washington and must now be passed by the Senate to become law.

A number of other anti-immigrant initiatives have been put forward in recent months by lawmakers and citizens groups alike, although they have yet to be officially debated.

Most of these initiatives are similar to Proposition 200, approved by voters in the state of Arizona during last November's presidential elections, which demands proof of legal immigration status for access to services like health care and education.

Republican Party senators in the state of Arkansas tabled a bill in January that is also aimed at denying public services to undocumented immigrants, while a civic organization called Defend Colorado Now is pushing for a plebiscite to adopt legislation similar to Proposition 200 in that state.

Another citizens group in the state of California is promoting the "Save Our License" initiative, to oppose the granting of driver's licenses and other public benefits to undocumented immigrants.

In the meantime, like-minded groups in Georgia, Idaho, Nevada and Utah are also pressuring their lawmakers to adopt anti-immigrant measures.

"We are seeing a severe crackdown" with regard to anti-immigration policies in the United States, according to Joel Magallan, director of New York's Tepeyac Association, a non-governmental organization devoted to defending the rights of Latino immigrants.

There are 39.9 million people of Latin American birth or descent living in the United States, the majority of whom are Mexican-American. Of that total, roughly five million are undocumented.

Valentin Contreras, who works at the Youth Shelter for Migrant Minors in Tijuana, told IPS in a telephone interview that migrant smugglers are now urging would-be U.S. immigrants like young Ignacio to speed up their trips. "They know it will soon become more complicated and expensive, so they want to leave as quickly as possible," he noted.

Prior to 1993, when Washington began to beef up controls along the Mexican border with a greater police presence and the building of walls, it cost $150 to hire a "coyote" to get safely across the Mexican border into the United States.

But now that crossing into U.S. territory is more dangerous and difficult, the same trip costs over $2,000.

The state-run National Migration Institute of Mexico estimates that there are at least 100 migrant-smuggling rings currently operating in this country of just over 100 million.

Metal or concrete walls have been constructed along 112 kilometres of the 3,200-kilometer-long border between Mexico and the United States. The rest of the border is protected by natural barriers or smaller fences, all of them heavily guarded.

Most emigrants to the United States cross the border along the least heavily guarded stretches, although these tend to be the most dangerous because of the geographical terrain or extreme weather conditions. Between 2000 and 2004, an average of 400 Mexicans a year lost their lives while attempting to make the trip north.

As was the case with Arizona's Proposition 200, the "Real ID Act" has met with vocal protest from human rights groups and the Mexican government of President Vicente Fox, who view it as an attack on immigrants' rights.

If the Senate passes the new bill into law, which is almost certain to happen, the U.S. will permit the extension of the wall already separating Tijuana and San Diego, California by an additional 22 to 27 kilometres.

The new legislation would also demand proof of legal immigration status in order to obtain a driver's license, which some states currently do not require.

In addition, the "matricula consular" ID cards currently issued by Mexican consulates to nationals living in the United States and accepted by some states for opening bank accounts and a number of other official procedures would no longer be recognized.

This new legislation does not contribute to establishing more orderly immigration, which is why Mexico does not support it, said Fox.

According to the state-run but independent National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) of Mexico, the bill will fuel intolerance and violence against immigrants and obstruct diplomatic dialogue.

The Bush administration, however, has announced its backing of the bill, claiming that it will help to keep terrorists from entering the country.

CDDH president Josˇ Luis Soberanes accused the U.S. government and lawmakers of "criminalising" immigration, something that "undermines the friendship that should exist between two neighboring countries."

Mexico and the United States have held ongoing talks since 2001 aimed at establishing an immigration agreement. Mexico is pushing for the legalization of the status of undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States, but Washington is only willing to go so far as issuing temporary work permits.

The two sides have not been able to reach a mutually satisfactory compromise as of yet. In the meantime, however, the United States has been moving forward with initiatives that will serve to even further limit immigrants' rights.

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Albion Monitor February 18, 2005 (

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