DETROIT – The Motor City is rolling out the welcome mat and it's doing so en español.
An enclave known as Mexicantown on the city's southwest side is putting the final touches on a $17 million welcome center that will greet travelers crossing north from Canada into the United States with a warm "bienvenidos."
"We really want to dispel the myth or the stereotype that people have of Mexicanos or Mexicans, and you do that through culture, through education or edutainment," said Maria Elena Rodriguez, the president of the Mexicantown Community Development Corporation.
But as that Hispanic neighborhood welcomes foreign travelers to America, Border Patrol is working along the nation's only all-water boundary to make sure illegal immigrants stay out of the United States.
"Our primary mission is terrorism," said Kurstan Rosberg, a spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol Detroit Sector. "We continue to advance our traditional mission of illegal aliens, smugglers, narcotics, contraband and so forth."
Though the northern border gets only a fraction of the illegal immigration traffic as that of the south, the northern border presents its own set of challenges, from the size of the border to the number of agents.
"We have 863 miles of international water boundary — gigantic. Nothing on the southern border comes close in terms of miles that we cover international border," Rosberg said. "And when you look at the actual shorelines, it's about 3,800 miles."
In Detroit, agents patrol the streets, shoreline and waterways using a "sixth sense" — honed by mandatory tours of duty on the nation's southern border — to target undocumented immigrants.
Those daily patrols take them along the waterfront and through Mexicantown.
Birth of Mexicantown
Since the 1920s, Mexicans — particularly from the Jalisco region — have made their way to this neighborhood near the Detroit River.
"We just referred to it as La Bagley, and everyone knew that Bagley Avenue was where you went to buy your tortillas," Rodriguez said.
Waves of immigration during the 1940s and 1950s helped businesses such as the Honey Bee and La Jalisciense Tortilla Factory build a loyal following. In its heyday, Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo called Detroit a temporary home.
The building of the interstate sliced the neighborhood in half, but more immigration in the 1970s and 1990s helped keep La Bagley alive. A public relations campaign in the late 1980s redubbed the neighborhood "Mexicantown."
"Immigration is the reason why this part of town doesn't look like the east side," said Margaret Garry, vice president of real estate and development for the Mexicantown Community Development Corporation. "It's been the major economic force for this side of town forever."
Garry estimates that the last wave of immigration conservatively added 20,000 people to the neighborhood.
"If they had a job that would be able to sustain their families in Mexico, there's no reason to come up here, but they do it because they want to make sure they can provide something for their families," Rodriguez said.
The economic effect has been powerful, with Mexicantown drawing Latinos as far away from Pennsylvania, who come to stock up on products from home.
"We had probably 40 percent of our buildings on our main drag, West Vernor, were empty or underutilized," Garry said. "Now everything's full and new buildings are being built."
In 1999, then Gov. George W. Bush made a campaign swing through Detroit, stopping for a photo op with the Republican Gov. John Engler in Mexicantown.
"Even in the immigration conversations, I never hear anything but how pleased people are about the economic resurgence here and the cultural resurgence here," Garry said.
From Bootleggers to 'Urban Jungle'
Like La Bagley, the roots of Border Patrol in Detroit run deep.
The Detroit Sector was the first Border Patrol outpost in the nation's north; El Paso was the first patrol set up in the south. The federal government created the sector in June 1924 to combat bootlegger traffic during the early days of Prohibition.
"This was pure lawlessness after Prohibition," Rosberg said.
Back then, "patrol inspectors" would target bootleggers funneling booze to Detroit over the Ambassador Bridge.
Today the border agents — who are also deputized as state troopers — assist local law enforcement with translation and criminal background checks in addition to patrolling between border crossings.
"This is the urban jungle here," Rosberg said. "This is unique among the northern border. I don't know if there's such a border that's set in such a downtown urban environment."
The Detroit Sector covers four states: Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Indiana. In the city of Detroit, the primary focus is the coastline and waterways that rim the city.
"Being in a big city like this, it makes it a little more interesting for agents that are out on patrol because we get into a whole host of different types of situations that agents that are just working on the southern border typically wouldn't see," said Rick Gordon, a Border Patrol agent.
Blight Meets Flight
Driving through the streets of Detroit on a rainy Friday afternoon, it's easy to see why illegal immigrants might want to sneak in through the north.
Recessions and riots have left their mark. Abandoned buildings with shattered windows and blackened bricks make for hideouts attractively close to a nexus of interstates leading north, south and west.
"There are places on the Arizona border ... it's pure desert, but here, you're on the interstate in three minutes," Rosberg said.
The northern border attracts a higher percentage of non-Mexican migrants. "On the southern border it averages 1 to 2 percent," Rosberg said. "In Detroit, we arrested 26 percent of the people were from countries other than Mexico."
Guatemalans and El Salvadorans are the next highest percentage in the other-than-Mexico category, followed by 52 other nationalities including Chinese and Albanians, which change depending on the smuggling routes.
"Since we don't have the manpower and the resources like the southern border, we have to rely on our intelligence efforts to help patrol the border," Rosberg said.
Programs like Integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBET) allow agents from Canada and the U.S. to share intelligence to help make busts and shut down smuggling routes.
Many immigrants hoping to make it into the U.S. fly to Toronto, where they can get short-term tourist visas.
"Toronto is the decision point," Rosberg said. "Do they go down to Detroit? Do they go to Port Huron? Do they head up to the Sault [Ste. Marie] or do they go to Buffalo or go farther east to say Vermont or New York?"
Agents have caught undocumented workers on railcars coming through a commercial train tunnel from Canada, hiding in abandoned buildings near the Port of Detroit, in boats off the city's parks and in cars off the freeway.
Marinas in north Detroit are "hot" with activity in the summers. A series of canals that connect to residential homes along the city's northern boundary make it simple for anyone to glide into town and hide out until the coast is clear.
"Here, the arrests that we do make, you find people that have been here longer and have established themselves here, as opposed to the southern border: You get what we call 'at entry immigrants,' where you've got them as they're still walking from their initial trip across the border," Rosberg said.
In 2005, the latest figure available, agents in Detroit arrested about 1,800 people, as opposed to 120,000 arrests in San Diego alone. But manpower on the northern border has tripled since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"It usually comes down — anywhere on the border — to finding the right mix of manpower, technology and infrastructure, and that mix is different for each sector," Rosberg said.
'Bienvenidos a los Estados Unidos'
In Mexicantown you will find horchata mix, fresh tomatillos and tortilla presses at the Honey Bee, authentic tacos at anyone of a host of taquerias and colorful window displays on every storefront.
When the Mexicantown International Welcome Center and Mercado opens on Cinco de Mayo, this modern mercado in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge will offer international visitors an array of sights, sounds and flavors from Mexico.
"We have the layers of the history and culture in Mexico that you never see on this side of the border," Rodriguez said.
A 5,000-square-foot State of Michigan welcome center, along with a 13,000-square-foot shopping center, a public plaza and a 30,000-square-foot office center, will provide new visitors to Detroit a positive view of the city, while serving as an incubator to new businesses in the area.
"It's about giving opportunity for brand new start-up businesses to have access to all the people that come to this country every single day and want to buy stuff, want to enjoy Mexicantown and what we have to offer," Garry said.
And in turn show off the best of southwest Detroit.
"The revitalization of Mexicantown is big in the revitalization of the city of Detroit because of our location as the border and that image and because we're a restaurant district that everybody knows about," Garry said. "We really do symbolize the resurgence of what's going on across the city.
"People can see it," she said. "People don't relate to this economic growth as something bad. It's just what it is: It's great."