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Getting caught doesn't deter migrants bent on finding work in U.S.

ALTAR, Mexico—It has been months since Juan Hernandez and his four friends left their town in Mexico's Chiapas state, nearly 2,000 miles away, to try to get to the United States and a job that pays more in an hour than they could earn in a day back home.

They are still trying.

"The gringos don't want us. When they catch us, they dump us on the Mexican side," he said. "But we'll go back again and again until we get in."

Hernandez's tale is like those of thousands of Mexicans desperately seeking to enter the United States. He and his buddies hitched rides and walked north to Altar, 60 miles south of the U.S. border. From here, they crossed the Sonoran Desert to Sasabe, on the border with Arizona.

That's as far as they got.

Caught twice and deported, they trekked for two days without sleep back to Altar, a former mining town of 1,500 that survives on humble migrants like Hernandez, selling them the supplies they'll need for the trek north.

Eyes sunken, dehydrated, their clothes and tennis shoes torn and soiled, Hernandez and his friends had no money, water, food or hats. In town, they bedded down at the only migrant shelter, run by the Rev. Rene Castaneda Castro.

Still, they planned to try again.

"We have to help our families back home," said Tomas Garcia, a 19-year-old Tzotzil-speaking Maya from a farm around San Juan Chamula, near the Chiapas colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas. Like the others, he left behind parents and siblings who live in huts with small plots where they grow corn, beans or coffee.

"We can't survive. We barely have food and we're going to die or get sick unless I find a job in America, any kind of job, to send money back home," Garcia said. "That's worth risking our lives."

As he spoke, dozens of migrants gathered, telling sad tales of being robbed and beaten, frantically talking simultaneously. Most haven't heard of increased border security. They don't know that 50 emergency water stations exist on and near the border, placed since 2001 by Humane Borders, a Christian organization from Tucson that advocates legalization of undocumented workers and guest-worker programs.

They don't know the Red Cross trailer across the plaza has maps showing the locations of the water stations. They don't know where most migrants die.

But they've heard of possible amnesty and a guest-worker plan that President Bush announced in January. Although neither plan has gone through, it's drawing more migrants.

In mid-June, the Tucson Border Patrol enacted a volunteer program to fly apprehended illegal Mexicans to Mexico City and then bus them to their hometowns. There are two Aeromexico flights a day. About 300 people a day take up the offer. When it ends in September, the Border Patrol hopes to have repatriated 30,000 to Mexico.

But for many, the program shows American naivete. A recent editorial cartoon in a Sonora newspaper showed two men talking.

"Hey, this is great. A free trip to Mexico," one told the other, who responded: "No kidding. We get to see our family, get some money and we'll be back here in a week."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-BORDER

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