Families worry that border will become a divide

Ana Laura Jerónimo Bueno

KAI RYSSDAL: Debate on the immigration bill's set to pick up when Congress gets back from its Memorial Day recess next week. Passage is by no means a sure thing, even though President Bush is urging lawmakers to reach consensus. Groups from every point of view have found something not to like in it.

Each year, almost 100,000 people come here from the Southern Mexican state of Guerrero. Most of them are men looking for work and economic opportunity. But Joy Diaz from KUT in Austin, Texas, reports the families they leave behind seldom share the benefits.


JOY DIAZ: Ana Laura Jerónimo Bueno is 33-years-old. She looks much older. But her eyes flash determination and her voice is strong.

Neighbors often stop by the small house where she lives with her four kids and her mom and dad. She lives in her parents' place because she can't afford a house of her own.

Jobs are scarce here, and they don't pay much. So six years ago, her husband, Oswaldo, went to look for better opportunities in America. She gave him her blessing, but she never dreamt how things would turn out.

JERONIMO BUENO (voice of interpreter): He actually got married over there and never came back. Some people say he even has children. So, he stopped sending things to my kids. He doesn't call them or anything.

Many women here are in the same boat. As for the men, well, so many of them have gone.

Ana Laura remembers when religious festivals like this one would have local men playing prominent roles. Nowadays, the Roman soldiers guarding the tomb of Jesus are about 12 years old. Their mothers often take two jobs to survive.

At first, Ana Laura was embarrassed to tell her story. But she came across other women in exactly the same situation. They formed a group which they call — strangely — "wetback wives." And they set up a website that urges the U.S. government to enforce its laws and deport their husbands. It's having little impact.

Nina Pruneda is a spokesperson with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement service, or ICE.

NINA PRUNEDA: As to our knowledge, our office has not received any sort of information dealing with any sort of website.

Pruneda has heard hundreds of stories like Ana Laura's. She acknowledges that deporting the men might reunite the families. But she says the U.S. government must set priorities, like getting rid of illegal immigrants who pose a threat to the nation.

PRUNEDA: Priority-wise, it definitely is National Security with Public Safety, because those are the individuals we want desperately to go after.

If Ana Laura's husband is guilty of "bigamy," that's a crime, and it would make him liable for deportation. But Ana Laura would need to bring evidence to the U.S. authorities.

Moreover, many men wouldn't necessarily return to their families in poor, job-strapped Guerrero. Mexican Consular officials do what they can to help.

Carmen Cortés-Harms is with the Mexican Consulate in Austin, Texas. She says there are ways to compel estranged husbands to send money back to their children. Here's what she advises the women to do:

CARMEN CORTÉS HARMS: They should go to the offices of the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Mexico and present a request. It's free. And just give the information. Where can we locate the husband? And we call him. And let me tell you, about 80 percent of the people start sending money.

The Consulate works out direct agreements with employers of the 20 percent of Mexican men who refuse to send back child support voluntarily. Employers deduct a portion from the paychecks, and the money gets to families in Mexico through the Consulate.

CORTÉS HARMS: It may take three to four months, but they do get the money.

Last year, Mexicans working abroad sent more than $25 billion to their families back home. Not all that was for child support. If Ana Laura manages to get money from her husband, it would be about $300 a month. Not a fortune, but enough to make a huge difference in her life and her childrens'.

In Tecalpulco, Mexico, I'm Joy Diaz for Marketplace.

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