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Mexico's role as way station complicates immigration issues

CORDOBA, Mexico—On the floor of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish, an exhausted Central American man with a farmer's tan sleeps deeply on the cement floor. He's endured days in the blazing tropical sun atop a cargo train, and at the parish he can rest for three days, shower, get a free change of clothes and depart well fed.

Nearly 1,000 weary Central American immigrants like the sleeping man will seek shelter here during the year, according to the parish priest, Father Margarito Flores Munoz. Most are on their way to the United States.

And so Our Lady of Guadalupe and Father Flores have become another point of contention in the long and acrimonious search for a solution to illegal immigration to the United States.

The Bush administration wants Mexico to crack down on transiting Central Americans before it supports legislation in Congress that would make it easier for Mexican migrants to work legally in the United States. The issue is expected to be among those discussed when President Bush meets with his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, in Cancun next week.

U.S. officials note that U.S. immigration officers now apprehend more Central Americans than Mexicans. So far this fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have apprehended 791,973 Central Americans in the United States. Only 595,084 Mexicans were caught in the same period.

But there's little inclination among average Mexicans to do much to stop the flow. Many see themselves in the lives of the desperate Central Americans.

Joshue Balacazar Altamirano, a 20-something store clerk, said he has family in the United States. He gives the Central Americans money to help them. "The situation they had to pass through is so sad," he said. "We must help."

Others, too, give what they can. "All they want is to earn some money," said Genaro Lopez, who for the past 40 years has sold fruit juices by the Cordoba railroad terminal. When travel-weary Central Americans ask, he obliges with a free drink.

Angelica Antonio Francisco also helps, even though she barely squeaks a living out of selling chili peppers, carrots and nopales, an iron-rich cactus that Mexicans boil to eat.

"When they ask for a peso, ask for fruit, we try to give what we can," she said. "If we have a peso to spare, we try to help them."

Cordoba's role as a way station is due largely to its place alongside railroad tracks that stretch from Central America north. Hundreds, if not thousands, of men and women from Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador pass through Cordoba daily atop cargo trains that begin their northward trip at Tenosique, in the state of Tabasco, on the border with Guatemala.

The Central Americans squeeze together on tank cars and freight cars, sometimes 60 or more per car.

Like migratory birds, some stop here for a bit.

"Immigrants know about this place," confirmed Luis, a shy Honduran who sought shelter at Our Lady of Guadalupe after he and his travel partners could go no further. "We were disoriented; we needed to rest."

Weeks earlier, Luis left his small Honduran village of Paraiso, or Paradise. His village grows mostly bananas; he's hoping for a better life in California.

"In our country, we can't earn enough to get by," he said.

Occasional efforts to stop the flow sometimes make headlines. Last week, Mexican police and immigration agents tried to dislodge 300 or so Central Americans from a train at Tenosique. In the ensuing melee, shots were fired, but by whom is unclear. There were no reports of injuries.

The trip is often arduous and full of danger.

Luis, who agreed to talk as long as his surname and the location of the California farm where a job awaits weren't used, recounted how police at the Honduran border with Guatemala stripped him of his money. Mario, his 19-year-old traveling companion, said they'd seen rapes and robberies.

"You can't imagine this. But it happens," he said solemnly.

Others tell of brutality at the hands of local police and gangs, who sometimes rape migrant girls.

But in Cordoba there are also many willing to help. "People here have such a good heart," Mario said. "When we have hunger, they rid us of it."

Father Flores says he doesn't even think about whether the immigrants he shelters have a legal right to be here—or to travel to the United States.

"Here, we dedicate ourselves to their needs," he said. "We don't get involved in politics or give our opinion."

Just about daily, an immigrant rattles the gate of Edith Martinez's humble home alongside the railroad tracks near Cordoba's rail terminal. Her home's about the size of a garage in the United States, but she keeps it neat and tidy. She wonders at the wealth she enjoys in Mexico.

"They come by here looking for clothing, food or shoes," said Martinez, who often provides a quick meal or snack.

"We do it from our heart," she explained. "It makes me so sad to see them, when you see all that we have here in Mexico."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060320 IMMIGRATION

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