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A Perilous 4,000-Mile Passage to Work

May 29, 2001


A Perilous 4,000-Mile Passage to Work


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Midway through his second night in the Arizona desert, Eduardo Cervantes began to hallucinate. The stars turned red and fluttered like moths. His stomach was empty. His throat ached and his eyes burned with dust.

But he and the other Mexicans kept on across the desert, through the cactus and nettles, toward an unseen highway where their guide said would be the ride that would take them farther from the border and the poverty of home. So when the highway could finally be seen in the distance, a joy came over Eduardo Cervantes and the men.

They were on their way to Farmingville, a town on eastern Long Island with jobs paying $15 an hour. They carried a grim view of Farmingville, where, they knew, people took an unkind view of them. Still, they went. There was money there.

So they crawled under a cattle fence and crossed over the highway and under another fence. There, waiting, stood two Mexicans with pistols in their waistbands. They were not frightening to Eduardo Cervantes, who, at 19, had been through this drill before. Bandits who prey along the illegal immigrant trail are part of Mexican life, like the police there who hold out their palms if you want to park near your church.

"Take off your clothes," the bandits ordered in Spanish. They rifled through the pockets and checked the linings for money. The air was biting and the near-naked men clutched at themselves. One clever guy had his money taped to his scrotum. Another had it hidden in his hair. The bandits told them to dress, leave their bags, and walk back to where they came from. "Half an hour," the bandits said.

When the migrants returned, they gathered their belongings off the desert floor. They had missed their ride, the guide told them. They would have to camp and walk a third night, another 25 miles, to the next pickup spot. The men took shelter beneath a spiny tree, wrapping themselves in garbage bags to hold in the heat that never came.

"I'm so cold," said Eduardo. He was thin and frail and his teeth rattled. "I told my father I didn't want to do this."

"You're a Mexican," said his friend Mario Huerta. "What else can you do?"

Faced with that same question, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans attempt to cross the border into the United States each year. Not all of them make it. Last week, 14 people died of exposure on a desolate stretch to the west in the Arizona desert, one of the deadliest illegal crossings in recent years.

The two friends making the crossing last month had come from San Lorenzo Tezonco, a poor district in the southeastern section of Mexico City. They would cover 4,000 miles before reaching Farmingville. There they would stand on street corners with hundreds of other Mexicans, waiting for an American contractor to give them a job building a house, or maybe landscaping a yard.

The people in Farmingville feel as if their town has been invaded. Some videotape the migrants on Fridays and picket them on Saturdays. A proposal in March to create a hiring site with a portable toilet was rejected by the Suffolk County Legislature after it turned neighbor against neighbor.

Last year, two white men hired two brown men on a Farmingville corner with the promise of work. But instead, the Mexicans were taken to an abandoned building and beaten with work tools. News of the attack made it all the way down to San Lorenzo.

For their part, the Mexicans sneer at the Americans, call them lazy, point out that Long Island has Mexican fingerprints all over it. The hedgerows in the Hamptons are groomed with Latino hands. New houses in the nicer parts of town are built by Mexicans. And down in San Lorenzo, you can count the houses being built by Farmingville money. Mr. Huerta is building one. So is the Cervantes family.

The villages are linked by dependence, resentment and a crooked obstacle course of corrupt Mexican policemen, dusty border towns, gangsters, barbed wire, immigration agents with infrared glasses, bandits, oily used-car salesmen, interstate highways and New Jersey troopers.

They are also linked by a man named Lalo Cervantes.

A Clever Man Named Lalo

Lalo Cervantes, the father of Eduardo, is a slick man with the dark copper skin of an Indian and a black mustache. He stands 5 feet 4, no more, and is 38 and street-savvy. He speaks English well and is directly responsible for bringing 50 men from Mexico City to Long Island. Those men, in turn, have brought perhaps 200 more. Mr. Cervantes knows the contractors on Long Island. He knows which used-car salesmen in Phoenix will speed the migrants on their way. He knows where to get legitimate birth certificates for illegitimate purposes.

It was April, late in the season for a migrant worker. Farmingville was already full up with them, some just 15 or 16 years old. The word of the good Long Island money had drifted home, and anybody coming after May could not be guaranteed work.

Lalo Cervantes slammed down the pay phone at an Exxon station in San Antonio. He was fed up with his son. Eduardo was supposed to be waiting at the Mexican border town of Agua Prieta, separated by a 12- foot steel fence from Douglas, Ariz.

"He's at home watching American movies on the VCR and making out with his girlfriend on the bunk bed," Mr. Cervantes said. Then he peeled away in his four-door Ford and headed south for Mexico.

In Comes Money, Up Go Houses

The barrio of Lopez Portillo in the district of San Lorenzo is a swamp filled in with earth and stone. The streets are dirt; the people keep cows, or horses.

There are perhaps 25 new homes being built with money earned in America, and they are made of gray brick. Most of these houses are unfinished and they give the barrio the look of an eroded sand castle.

The Cervantes home is impressive. It has seven support studs, is made of red brick and has curved windows. There is a steel door, a half-finished chimney and an unfinished roof. There is no plumbing yet and the family bathes from plastic buckets.

"You know, man, when I die they can't say bad things about me," Lalo Cervantes said as he stood outside and smoked reefer, a deep habit of his. "I built this. I did something good."

Angel Hernandez was drinking in front of his own house, a place haphazard with chickens and cactus. He had been drinking all day and he would drink all evening until he passed out. His children had no shoes. He still works at the carwash that he and Lalo worked at as teenagers. He never made the trip north and he has nothing.

"You really did something with yourself, Lalo, that's good," Mr. Hernandez said. He had seen his old friend on television last summer when the two Mexicans had been beaten on Long Island. Mr. Cervantes had told the television reporters that, of course, the Mexicans don't pay taxes. But they don't cause problems, he said, and the American economy could never function without them. People in the barrio saw that interview and considered Lalo Cervantes some sort of freedom fighter or human rights activist.

"Have a drink with me, cousin," Mr. Hernandez said. But Lalo Cervantes was embarrassed for his threadbare friend. He waved him off and went to bed.

A Coyote and His Chickens

So many men from the barrio go to the United States every year that the government has put a sign near the highway that reads: "Welcome Home Paisanos!" Mr. Cervantes and his son, headed the other way, motored toward the border town of Agua Prieta, 1,200 miles north.

With luck, the entire journey to Long Island would take two weeks. Lalo Cervantes would not make the crossing on foot. He would drive over the border. He has been in the United States, on and off, for the past 15 years. He has an agricultural work visa that expires in 2003. It is his visa and his street connections that make the smuggling endeavor possible. He usually does this for what he calls a nominal fee.

As they pulled out of the barrio, he explained to his son that he was going to show him the ropes, show him how to make a double life in America and introduce him to the right people. Lalo Cervantes also planned to bring his sister, brother, cousin and brother-in-law to Farmingville. They had already sneaked over the border and were waiting for him in Phoenix.

"After this," he said, "I'm retiring."

The transmission of the car smoked and made a bad sound. "Whir, whir, whir."

Eduardo had blond streaks in his hair and wore a lazy expression. He was tall and infirm, subject to nosebleeds. He had left school at 14 and had few prospects besides the carwash. He had put on his best clothes the night before and did not come home until morning. He looked tired and bored in the passenger seat and had a hickey on his neck.

They stopped for Mario Huerta, a round 25-year-old with an easy sense of humor and a pregnant wife. Between them, the men had the car and about $2,000.

Eduardo had been to Farmingville before. He came for a few months a few years ago and didn't like it much. On the way across the border, he had gotten lost when his group was attacked by bandits. He wandered for two days without water before the smuggler came back and found him.

His brother had worked in Farmingville last year and he told Eduardo about the poisonous feelings there, about the stinking life with 20 men in a house.

"My father told me someone up there is sleeping in my bed," he told Mario with a face. "It doesn't sound too good up there."

After two days on the road, the Ford rolled into Agua Prieta around midnight, the brakes squealing and the transmission burping thin smoke. The strip was lit with neon beer signs and lined with skid row motels and men with new trucks and cell phones and clean white shirts.

Agua Prieta is a dusty city that doubled in size, to 100,000 people, over the last five years as American companies opened factories there, and the United States Border Patrol, with an increased budget and a renewed sense of purpose, all but shut down the routes along the traditional border- jumping towns of San Diego, El Paso and Laredo, Tex. Arizona is now the bottleneck where the most illegal immigrants make their way into the United States. According to the Border Patrol, there were 272,397 arrests of people crossing through the Tucson sector in 1997. Last year, that number nearly tripled.

And roughly one person a day died last year trying to cross the border from Mexico, 17 of them around the Douglas area, officials say. The 14 deaths in western Arizona last week illustrated the fact that with greater police presence, people are willing to try increasingly risky and more inhospitable routes across the border.

All along the avenues of Agua Prieta were run-down guest houses that shelter the hopefuls before they make their walk across the desert. There were also good hotels and bars fed by the underground economy. Outside those bars, cocaine and pills were sold and teenagers sniffed fumes from paper bags. Inside were mean-looking women for sale and men dressed like cowboys.

The town is quiet compared to last year, when thousands meandered the streets. So far this year, there have been about 25 percent fewer apprehensions by the Border Patrol in southern Arizona than last year, and nationally, arrests of illegal immigrants are down 22 percent. The reasons, officials say, are varied: from increased manpower and better technology to high expectations among Mexicans that their new president, Vicente Fox, will curb corruption.

But there is another reason that fewer people are crossing, said Frank D. Bean, a demographer at the University of California at Irvine. Many of the 4.5 million Mexicans working illegally in the United States are not going home.

"It seems to be that people are staying longer because the financial and physical costs of getting in are going higher," he said.

Lalo Cervantes stopped at a seedy hotel and knocked on the door of room No. 4. A man with a shaved head and boils on his neck answered. He was the coyote, the kingpin of the smuggling ring. Pancho. He and Lalo had done business together before.

The price for the trip to Phoenix had gone to $800 from $650 last year. The border police had gotten tougher and the smuggler could no longer take 50 to 100 people at once. He had changed his game, taking 10 to 12 now. It is less conspicuous, he said, but more sure. He promised Mr. Cervantes that he would put his best man on the job, his cousin Placas. "Your people will be safe," Pancho said.

There was a fight going on between the coyote and his guides. The guides do the actual walking across the desert and they are paid $75 a head. With fewer "pollos" -- chickens, as migrants are called -- there was less money for the guides.

So the cartel was starting to crumble. Guides like Placas had taken to stealing some pollos, hiding them in their own houses and selling them back to their loved ones in the United States, Pancho explained to Mr. Cervantes. Since the business works on a cash-on-delivery basis, this cut the coyote out of the picture.

Pancho said the trip would be 50 miles and would take two evenings to walk. It was the long way around the mountains.

Eduardo was scared. "I don't want to do this," he said to Mario outside the hotel. "My heart is pounding."

They drove to a guest house with a dozen awful-smelling beds, a television, a shrine to the Virgin and three toilets. Eduardo and Mario killed four days watching television, sleeping and drinking chocolate milk. A small child kept poking his head out of a room. His mother could be heard whispering to him, "Come in and close the door."

They called her Salada, Hard Luck. She was homely, in her late 30's, and had been staying in the guest house for two weeks. Her money was nearly gone. It is bad for women like that, Lalo said. Sometimes they stay so long, they never leave and become a pillow for the revolving coterie of men.

She was not wanted on any trip by anybody. It was the boy. He was a burden. He squawked like a crow. "She's a stupid old lady," said a short man named Noel, who was trying to get back to his $10.50-an-hour job making sandwiches in Bronxville, N.Y., and was busy erasing his fingerprints with sandpaper. He was caught four times in the last month by immigration and another arrest could mean jail time.

But he was unconcerned. His wife was safe in New York. He had bought copies of legitimate work papers for his wife and his child for $5,200 and they had driven over the border as easy as you please.

"Her man should do the same," he said of Salada. "You can't take a baby through the mountains. Stupid old cow."

The night of the crossing, Mario and Eduardo shared a taxi with another man into the desert about 20 minutes from town. The driver stopped at a turnoff, said, "Good luck," and disappeared.

Without a word, Placas, the guide, emerged from the weeds. The sun was setting. There were perhaps 80 shadows there, and Placas commanded 10, including an American reporter. They all carried plastic milk jugs filled with water. There was a large, unruly group of women and children. Salada was among them, holding the hand of her little crow.

They called him Placas, "Plates," because he looked like a criminal who holds up plates for his mug shot. He was a tall, handsome man of 21, with white teeth and a mop of hair tied up on the crown of his head like a feather duster. He was lean and tough and tattooed. Placas ran his chickens hard, through the dark desert, over railroad tracks, through cactus and thickets that ripped at the skin. One man fell and his jug of water exploded. He turned back. He would never make it without water.

There was no more steel fence this far out in the desert. There were no motion sensors or cameras. The border itself was marked by barbed wire and an eight-foot trench, nothing more. The men climbed through it and ran for the hills. They walked 10 hours the first night over the mountains, groping and injuring themselves and avoiding the spotlights of Border Patrol agents who roamed the frontier in all-terrain vehicles. Eduardo was sure-footed. Mario labored and stumbled, but never complained. The desert was cold. The moon rose and sat in the clouds like a pearl in velvet.

Near sunrise, Placas thought he heard ranchers, men who a year ago held the Mexicans at gunpoint until immigration officials could arrive to arrest them. He told his chickens to take shelter under the scrub and wait out the sun. All around was the detritus of mass migration: clothes, bottles, wrappers, cans. Two paths headed north and you could walk to Tucson if you had to.

Six men were from the town of Puebla on their way to Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, bound for restaurants and delis and corners. They said little. The air was hot and still, the ground dry and baked. There were no birds, no wind. Only the sun and the ants moved.

Eduardo sat under a sage bush and wondered when he would be coming home. November? December? Mario thought about his wife. It's hard being a Mexican, he said. Your own country is corrupt and in the other it is a life of solitude. Mario laughed about the man who fell on his jug.

"That wetback would have made a terrible dishwasher anyway," he said.

Eduardo ate pineapple and stared across the mountains.

Men With Bad Haircuts Arrive

The second night, after they had been robbed, the men took shelter in a cow pasture underneath a spiny tree. There was little food or water. The flies were terrible. There was a mutiny brewing under the tree. They were convinced that Placas had double-crossed them. "How could the bandits have found us in the middle of the desert?" said a man named Felipe.

When Placas awoke from his nap, he helped himself to what remained of the water and food. Then he clipped and filed his toenails. They were black with blood.

"Next time we'll get another coyote," Eduardo whispered. "With this guy it's too much walking and too much talking."

Eduardo doubted the smuggler. It seemed like they were walking in circles. Over the barbed-wire fence, under the barbed-wire fence. When Placas thought he saw the blue lights of the Border Patrol, he took off, leaving the illegals behind.

Late into the third evening the moon rose, casting a bright light down upon them. They crawled through an open field around the sleeping outskirts of Benson, Ariz., and waited for their ride. The men lay on the desert floor, shivering, cursing Placas. If they didn't make it tonight, it looked like jail.

But the truck did arrive. Its windows were painted black and the drivers were Mexican. They had bad haircuts and they drove 100 miles an hour down the country roads. They made it to the highway, avoiding the immigration checkpoints. The men in back were battered, hungry and happy.

Eduardo nudged Mario. "Don't fall asleep," he said. "Keep your eyes open, friend. Be ready for anything." You could see his father's toughness in him.

The truck skidded into the parking lot of a restaurant in southern Phoenix. The hatch flipped open. And there stood Lalo Cervantes, with tears in his eyes.

A Place on the Floor

Instead of paying the coyote $800 a head to drive his people to New York, as many do, Lalo Cervantes went to a used-car salesman he knew in south Phoenix. Most Mexicans do not work their way around the country like this, only the sophisticated ones like Mr. Cervantes. It is men like him who are generally responsible for the colonies of Mexican peasants and barrio dwellers who have settled from Alaska to Alabama.

The salesman was a Mexican too, overweight, doing well for himself. Last year, when Mr. Cervantes brought 25 people to Farmingville, the salesman sold him a van and a four-door Ford on credit. The year before, when Mr. Cervantes brought his first 25 people over, he paid cash.

This time, Mr. Cervantes chose a white Chrysler -- white is preferable, he said, more pure-looking and family-like. The price was $900 cash, including the license plates and a 24- hour head start before the salesman called the Department of Motor Vehicles to cancel the plates. The tires were shot. It took Mr. Cervantes a few days to scratch the money together. "Good luck," the salesman said as Lalo pulled away.

The drive across the United States took three days, mostly because Lalo Cervantes insisted on a circuitous route favored by the coyotes, avoiding Albuquerque, Oklahoma City and St. Louis because, he said, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had checkpoints in those towns. A half-day was spent replacing two blown tires.

The most conspicuous in the group was Lalo's brother Oscar, a scrawny peasant with a sleepy expression that made him look drunk. He wore dirty clothes and wandered stupidly around the gas stations. Lalo's brother-in-law drove erratically and the others were too frightened to drive at all. There was little money for food and Lalo screamed at any misstep.

It was dark in New Jersey, near the turnpike, when the car with Arizona license plates overheated. Mr. Cervantes laid into his brother-in- law as they stood on the side of the highway, staring at the motor. "I told you to keep an eye on the temperature!" he said. "Listen stupid, New Jersey is the worst state in America. The police don't like brown faces here!" With that they drove slowly into New York, spending their last coin on the Triborough Bridge. Two smoking cars packed with illegals.

They reached Farmingville at 2 a.m. Someone was sleeping in Eduardo's bed. The house was full of men, who each pay $250 to the Portuguese owner. Most had stayed the winter rather than try the risky crossing in spring. Christmas dinner for them came in fast-food bags.

Lalo's family slept on the floor.

The next morning on the corner started the way it always starts, at 7 a.m., with 200 men waiting for the chance at some work. The sign on the corner said: "Welcome to Farmingville. Cultural Heart of Brookhaven."

Oscar kept his chin on his chest, his hands in his pockets. "Oscar!" Lalo cursed. "I didn't bring you 4,000 miles to stand there looking stupid. Go earn some money!"

"But this looks bad, Lalo," Oscar said weakly, pointing with his shoulder at the pack of men on the corner.

The cousin and the brother-in-law kicked pebbles with their toes and sucked slowly on someone else's cigarettes. "What's the matter with you people?" Lalo Cervantes said.

Eduardo and Mario Huerta already had prearranged jobs that would start on Monday. They came to the corner to watch.

A landscaper pulled up. Lalo Cervantes negotiated a deal for his cousin and brother-in-law: $10 an hour for a roofing job. By 9 a.m., there wasn't a Mexican man standing on the corner of Farmingville, U.S.A.

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