December 21, 2007

Holiday Welcomes and Woes Greet Migrants

In the United States, the mass media frequently reports on holiday flight delays and other nightmares facing millions of air travelers. In northern Mexico, where automobiles and buses are preferred means of transportation, travelers, including many US residents of Mexican origin, also confront numerous troubles in their annual migrations to spend the holidays with loved ones.

In a gesture to reassure the season’s travelers, Mexican President Felipe Calderon personally welcomed drivers passing through the Tijuana Port of Entry on December 17. Members of Calderon’s National Action Party planned to fan out December 18, the International Day of the Migrant, to border crossings in Tijuana, Tecate and Mexicali with pamphlets in hand containing maps and other useful information for visitors traveling south of the border.

Mexican federal and local legislators also got into the act, organizing inspections of border crossings from Tijuana and Matamoros as well as visits to airports in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey. The high-profile, politically-powered welcomes were organized in conjunction with the federal government’s annual Paisano Program, a multi-agency effort aimed at assisting the large number of holiday travelers visiting Mexico. Launched in November, this year’s program runs until next month.

“We aspire to have zero complaints, zero denunciations this year,” said Institutional Revolutionary Party Congressman Edmundo Ramirez Martinez, who serves as the secretary for the border and migrant affairs commission of the Mexican Chamber of Deputies. “Nonetheless, the full weight of the law will fall on public servants who are detected committing crimes or acts of corruption or extortion against our countrymen.”

Despite all the official attention focused on aiding returning migrants, a variety of problems including unsafe transportation, corrupt government officials and even highwaymen still manage to ruin the holiday season for some. In Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, workers at the city’s main bus station recently denounced to El Diario newspaper that holiday travelers, especially people coming from the US, were being shaken down for minimum amounts of $100 by federal customs personnel and tax inspectors. Advised of the reports, the chief of Mexican customs in Ciudad Juarez, Jose Marquez Padilla, said his agency would not stand for abuses by its agents.

“We aren’t going to tolerate the attitude of any person that could result in damages to the image of the Paisano Program,” Marquez vowed.

In December, Ciudad Juarez’s main bus station is a prime plucking ground for corrupt agents. Ricardo Peralta Gonzalez, bus station manager, estimated that 100,000 people depart the bus station for the Mexican interior during the peak travel days. Travel demand is so intense, Peralta added, that dozens of extra bus runs are scheduled.

A calamity of a different sort befell bus passengers who were traveling from Ciudad Juarez to Torreon, Coahuila last week. A so-called pirate bus operated by Gamez Tours of Ciudad Juarez crashed on the inter-state highway in southern Chihuahua state on December 13. The early morning wreck left 35 passengers injured, including six people who were initially reported in grave condition. The first reports indicated that speed was a factor in the accident. Like other similar incidents, the bus driver fled the scene of the crash.

“Thank God, we made it out alive,” said passenger Gerardo Iracheta. “I am going to Torreon for the burial of my brother, who was just murdered. It seemed like they wanted to take me with him.”

While many residents escape Ciudad Juarez for the holidays, others arrive to visit relatives or stop for rest and re-supply on their way south. Holiday travel is an economic boon for local hotels and other businesses that lose out in the cross-border, pre-holiday shopping spending that drives the commercial economy of neighboring El Paso, Texas. A similar phenomenon is evident in other Mexico-US border cities.

Estimates vary of the total number of “paisanos” who return to Mexico from the US during this season. National Migration Institute Commissioner Cecilia Romero predicted more than 1.2 million people will cross the US-Mexico border headed south this season.

A story in the Mexico City daily El Universal reported that 1.8 million people will enter Mexico from the United States during the holiday season. The travelers are expected to bring with them an estimated $5 billion in cash, gifts and other merchandise.

Reprinted from Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico

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