May 21, 2006

“I’m Mexican, really,” say Central America migrants

By Tim Gaynor

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico (Reuters) - Non-Mexican Hispanics
entering the United States illegally are studying up on Mexican
history and geography, even learning to whistle the national
anthem, to beat U.S. plans to fly them home.

As part of a proposal to overhaul immigration laws and
tighten border security, President Bush pledged last week to
increase deportations of illegal immigrants from countries
other than Mexico caught crossing the U.S. border.

Mexicans, who make up most of the almost 1.2 million
immigrants detained crossing the border illegally in 2005, are
given a criminal background check and then sent over the
frontier, usually within a day. Many often try crossing again

But so-called Other Than Mexican, or OTM, illegal
immigrants mostly from Central America, are increasingly being
flown back hundreds of miles to their home countries, which can
effectively end their dream of entering the United States to
earn a better life.

So, many pretend to be Mexicans.

"We heard we could be sent back to our own countries, so
many of us are trying to pass ourselves off as Mexicans,"
Honduran Jorge Alberto Carvajal, 38, said as he stood with a
group of Central American migrants outside a shelter in this
sweltering city south of Laredo, Texas.

"A lot are learning the Mexican national anthem and the
names of the states, and even the names of the state's
governors," said Carvajal, a former street trader from the city
of San Pedro Sula.

Central American migrants say their journey north through
Mexico to the border, often riding train box cars, is so tough
they are willing to lie to U.S. agents about their nationality
to avoid being flown back.

"I suffered a lot on the train journey. I was thirsty and
hungry, and had to sleep in stables with animals," said
Guatemalan father of five Jose Posadas, 34, as he prepared to
cross the Rio Grande to McAllen, Texas, 140 miles east of Nuevo


Previously, illegal Central Americans apprehended on the
U.S. side of the border were routinely served with a notice to
appear before an immigration judge at a later date, after which
most just melted into the United States and disappeared.

The majority of the 155,000 OTMs nabbed last year were
freed onto the streets of U.S. cities. Bush called that
so-called catch-and-release policy unacceptable.

A new strategy to detain the non-Mexican immigrants and fly
them home was imposed on the 2,000-mile (3,200-km) border last
September, although it has been applied only patchily.

The program started in several areas of the border, notably
the Del Rio and McAllen sectors in Texas, which had become
swamped by OTMs. It covers citizens of Brazil, Honduras,
Guatemala, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said some 70,000
non-Mexican immigrants have been caught crossing from Mexico
since October 1, down 11 percent from the same period a year

At present, a decision on whether to send OTMs home in many
cases depends on whether there is detention space to hold them
pending repatriation flights.

Border Patrol spokeswoman Maria Valencia said it was common
for agents to encounter OTMs attempting to pass themselves off
as fellow Spanish-speaking Mexicans, and said some agents might
be successfully tricked.

"Definitely ... Some might fool us to believe they are
Mexicans, especially when we are overwhelmed and we are trying
to process a large, large group," she said by telephone from

Agents were skilled at picking out impostors from their
Mexican neighbors, Valencia said, but migrants like Posadas
said they are now going to great lengths to try and beat border
police and avoid deportation.

"I told (the Border Patrol) I was from the Zaragoza
district of Reynosa ... I studied the streets of the area, and
even had the names of my Mexican parents worked out," said the
restaurant worker from Escuintla, Guatemala.

"They caught me ... and now I'll try again."