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Latin poverty, unemployment push refugees north.

TECUN UMAN, Guatemala-Mexico Border - Tired, hungry and seeking refuge in a Tecum Uman church, Nicaraguan couple Socorro and Francisco Ortiz Rodriguez clung to their Bible and prayed for God's help to ease their passage up through Mexico and into the United States.

Barely six hours earlier, the couple crossed the 200-yard-wide Suchiate River, which separates Guatemala and Mexico, in a makeshift raft. They hid in a hut and then leaped onto a public bus heading to the nearby town of Tapachula.

Their journey ended when Mexican authorities nabbed them at a migration checkpoint some 20 miles into Mexican territory and shipped them back to Tecun Uman.

Yet the Rodriguez couple and thousands like them remain firm in their decision to head north.

"It is better to try again and keep going than return to Nicaragua. We have nothing there. We sold everything to make it to the (United) States. We have to continue," Socorro said, with tears in her eyes.

Guatemalan migration officials in Tecun Uman estimate that every day 1,000-2,000 Central and South Americans cross the 930-mile-long border into Mexico. But an average of 200 are deported daily, more than 60,000 per year.

Almost all deportees try again.

As a direct result of this recent clamp-down by Mexican authorities and the strengthening of American immigration laws, border towns like Tecun Uman, plagued with violence and crime, have mushroomed all along the Guatemala-Mexico border.

"They call Tecun Uman the little Tijuana," said Guatemalan migration official Walter Oberdick Garcia from El Carmen, a border point some 20 miles further north.

In February this year the archdiocesan Office of Social Services began a project to aid these desperate immigrants crowding the border as well as migrant workers and displaced people. The office says the migration phenomena "reveals the situation of poverty and marginalization that millions of our brothers Eve as a consequence of injustice."

For the moment, the project is based in Tacana, a border town some 80 miles north of Tecun Uman. Future plans call for expanding the project to other areas.

In recent years, the Catholic church in Tecun Uman, headed by local priest Fr. Jesus Rodriguez, has provided economic aid (25 quetzales or U.S. $5) to the needy deportees.

Yet Rodriguez fears setting up a larger-scale project could create an even larger problem. "If we gave out free food and housing, for example, the problems here could just get worse. Even more people might come here," Rodriguez said.

The floating population is estimated at 7,000 people in a town of 10,000 permanent residents.

"The Tecun Uman population feels like it is being eaten alive, and one day they are just not going to take it any more," Rodriguez added.

The town has become increasingly unstable and riddled with crime and corruption. Flophouses, bars and brothels have sprung up all over town.

"We used to hear marimba here, now we hear bullets," said Hernan Rafael Escobar Barrios, a 75-year-old shop owner whose family has lived in Tecun Uman for five generations.

"It's like Sodom and Gomorrah," Rodriguez said.

Impelled by increasing cycles of poverty in their own countries, streams of hopeful Central and South Americans are likely to continue arriving at the border by way of buses, cars or foot.

"It is not the quantity of money that matters," said 21-year-old Salvadoran Melvin Javier Calix after stepping off the Mexican migration bus deporting him from Mexico, once again. "I just want to find some work so I can send a little money back to my family."

For thousands of immigrants, the prospect of attaining a better life and future - despite all risks - is a driving force in their repeated attempts to journey north.

"The last thing these people lose," Rodriguez said, "is hope."
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Title Annotation:Guatemala-Mexico border
Author:Francke, Carol
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 10, 1993
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