Mexican Town Takes Economic Downturn With Increased Border Security

This small border town's shaky economy, long fed by the flow of immigrants into New Mexico, is hurting because of their absence.

Palomas is on the Mexican side of the border, directly across from Columbus, N.M. The stretches of border on either side of the two towns have long been known as the busiest corridor for illegal immigrant traffic along the New Mexico-Mexico line.

The Palomas plaza is a traditional meeting place for immigrants and coyotes, or smugglers, looking for paying clients. But it was nearly empty on a recent weekday afternoon.

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The nearby farming community of Las Chepas, a well-established launching point for illegal border crossers ferried from Palomas, is eerily quiet.

People on the Mexican side of the border cite two factors for drying up the flow of undocumented immigrants: a beefed-up U.S. Border Patrol and the arrival last summer of hundreds of National Guard troops.

"Business is way down," said Nydea Chacon, an employee at El Sinaloense, a main street restaurant that served only one table of customers during the lunch hour. "It's a lot more desolate. There used to be a lot of people coming through. Now, even some people in town have left."

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Chacon estimated the restaurant's revenues have fallen about 75 percent since the mid-June launch of Operation Jump Start, President Bush's plan to harden the Southwest border and deter illegal immigration with National Guard troops for two years while the country seeks to hire, train and put into the field 6,000 more Border Patrol agents.

About 700 National Guard troops are assisting the Border Patrol in New Mexico, from Playas east to the Santa Teresa area, conducting surveillance and building miles of vehicle barriers at the border.

Across the street from El Sinaloense at the Restaurant San Jose, manager Maria Navarete said business is just as bad. The restaurant used to employ five waiters. Now, it's down to one.

"Please get rid of them," Navarete joked about the National Guard, the most visible aspect of the beefed-up U.S. security presence.

"I used to get mad, because I'd see all these people [immigrants] in town," she said. "We'd blame them for crime. Now I'm mad they are not here."

Rick Moody — the agent in charge of the Border Patrol's Deming station, which oversees Border Patrol-National Guard operations in the Columbus area — said federal agents also are aware of the reduction in immigrant traffic and the hit to the Mexican town's economy.

The bigger U.S. law enforcement presence on the border obviously was intended to slow the tide of illegal border crossing. The economic blow to Palomas was an unintended consequence.

Since the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, the number of undocumented immigrants Border Patrol agents have apprehended in the Deming corridor has fallen 65 percent compared with the same period last year, said Moody.

Before Jump Start, Deming-based Border Patrol agents caught an average of about 200 illegal crossers a day. Now, the daily total has fallen to about 45.

Jorge De La Cruz of Mexico's interior said he has tried to cross the border illegally four times since arriving in Palomas a month ago. The 38-year-old farmworker has crossed into the U.S. dozens of times since age 13, and he said these are the only times he has not been able to make it.

Now De La Cruz is doing odd jobs around Palomas, including washing windshields for tips, to make the bus fare back home.

"There's a lot of people in my situation here," he said.

Hotel occupancy rates in Palomas have fallen sharply, Moody said, citing Border Patrol intelligence.

The town's lone bank, a branch of Banorte, closed in October.

A grocery store on the town's plaza, Abarrotes Revolucion, which used to sell food and drinks to immigrants, reduced its size by half and rented out the new half to a telephone firm.

"It's killing the town," said 19-year-old clerk Guadalupe Fernandez. "The people who were crossing, they were looking for a place to sleep, a place to eat, something to buy."

A 20-room hotel called Oasis, which often rented to border crossers, closed last fall, said businessman Evarardo Correa, owner of the Hotel San Carlos on the town's south side.

Correa said his hotel was almost always full or near full in the past with a combination of immigrants, merchants and other travelers. But since last summer, Correa is lucky if six to eight rooms are occupied each night.

"There have been other economic hits, but this has been the hardest," Correa said. "I don't want to think about the future. This is going to last a long time."

Several locals said the main problem for Palomas is that, besides the American visitors who come to buy cheap drugs at local pharmacies, the town has virtually no solid economic infrastructure.

Ciudad Juarez, 60 miles east, has hundreds of maquiladoras, or assembly plants, but Palomas has none.

San Jose restaurant owner Ricardo Gutierrez said that while his business has been hurt by the reduction in immigrant traffic, he understood the U.S. need to enforce immigration laws. Gutierrez said his anger is focused most on the Mexican government.

"The reality is those immigrants are a reflection of the inefficiency of our government to provide jobs for them," Gutierrez said.

"The state government hasn't been able to produce a single job in our town to stop the hurting economy," he said. "Believe me, if we had good-paying jobs, people wouldn't be going to the United States."

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