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Undocumented migrants rush to Ariz. border in anticipation of legalization

Associated Press Writer

SASABE, Mexico- Undocumented migrants are rushing to the Arizona border, encouraged by the prospect of a guest-worker program in the U.S. and anticipating a toughening of border security that would make a dangerous journey even more perilous.

Detentions by the U.S. Border Patrol in south-central Arizona, the busiest migrant-smuggling area, are up by more than 26 percent this fiscal year _ 105,803 since Oct. 1, compared to 78,024 for the same period last year. Along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, arrests are up by 9 percent.

Many migrants say they are being encouraged by relatives in the United States who are betting on the approval of a bill in Congress that would legalize some of the 11 million undocumented migrants in the United States.

Francisco Ramirez, a 30-year-old factory worker, recently passed through the border hamlet of Sasabe, a one-road town on the Arizona border that is a magnet for crossers, with dreams of heading to Minnesota, where two of his brothers milk cows on a ranch.

"My brothers said there is plenty of work there and that it looks like they will start giving (work) permits," he said.

Maria Valencia, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said more detentions don't necessarily mean there are more people crossing. She said an increased number of Border Patrol agents has meant a greater proportion of crossers are getting picked up.

"We've sent more technology and agents there, and I think that's had an impact," she said.

But Francisco Loureiro, who has managed a migrant shelter for 24 years in the nearby border town of Nogales, said many more migrants are heading north. In March, an average of 2,000 migrants stayed at the shelter _ 500 more than in March 2005.

Loureiro said he saw a similar spike in illegal migration in 1986, when the United States approved legislation allowing 2.6 million undocumented migrants to get U.S. citizenship.

"Every time there is talk in the north of legalizing migrants, people get their hopes up, but they don't realize how hard it will be to cross," he said.

Ramirez, who earned about US$80 (euro66) a day in the central state of Michoacan making rebar, spent an entire night walking through the desert with his wife, 29-year-old Edith Mondragon.

When her legs cramped up, their smugger abandoned them and the couple turned themselves in to U.S. authorities. They were deported, but said they would make another attempt to reach the United States after a couple days' rest.

"We want to try our luck up there," Mondragon said. "We can't go back to Michoacan because there is no future there."

While U.S. Congress is sharply divided on immigration reform, most lawmakers appear to want to fortify the border _ an idea that has prompted many migrants to try to reach the United States before the crossing becomes even more dangerous.

Since the U.S. tightened border security at main crossing points in Texas and California in the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants have been funneled to the hard-to-patrol, mesquite-covered Arizona desert, risking rape, robbery, murder and now facing armed U.S. civilians.

About 2,000 people a day pass through Sasabe, which consists of a few dozen homes and a Western Union office, according to Grupo Beta, a Mexican government-sponsored group that tries to discourage migrants from crossing and helps people stranded in the desert.

On a recent afternoon, at least 40 vans overflowing with migrants arrived in the desert near Sasabe in less than an hour. The migrants and their smugglers waited for nightfall before embarking on a journey that would involve up to a week of walking in baking heat during the day and biting cold at night.

Grupo Beta agent Miguel Martinez mans a checkpoint 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of Sasabe, where he warns migrants of the dangers of crossing through the desert and of the presence of volunteer border-watch groups in Arizona.

"Right now there are migrant hunters who are armed, and you should be careful," Martinez told a group traveling in a rickety van that was missing some windows.

The migrants' trek is also often violently interrupted by border bandits armed with knives or guns who order their victims to strip naked, rob them and sometimes rape them.

Raul Gonzalez, 44, walked for five days before turning himself in when the blisters on his feet started bleeding and his left leg became swollen. Like most migrants interviewed for this story, Gonzalez said he was robbed at gunpoint just after crossing into the United States.

"The guides and the robbers are all the same," Gonzalez said. "The guide told us to put our money in the mayonnaise jars to hide it, but the robbers took that, too."

The first time Gonzalez sneaked into the United States, he did it through Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, California. He worked illegally at a printing shop in Chicago for 15 years but got homesick before he could settle his papers.

Despite the robbery and his failed trek, Gonzalez said he would try again once his feet heal. His bricklayer's salary of about US$60 in the western state of Jalisco simply isn't enough to provide for his four children.

"It's hard to cross," he said. "But it's harder to see your children have little to eat."

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