'Transmigrantes' Head Home Via Mexico

Published: Dec. 22, 2006 at 9:45 AM CST
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LOS INDIOS, Texas -- Most of the year, very little happens at the Free Trade Bridge here, one of the most remote and least-used international crossings on the Southwest border.

But during the holidays the crossing bustles with Central American immigrants from various U.S. communities who trek across with secondhand cars and other goods they plan to sell in their homelands.

The holidays are "the hottest time," Javier Pacheco, a 42-year-old Honduran, said Tuesday. "Everybody wants to get there before Christmas."

For four years, this bridge has been the only one to accept these "transmigrantes," so named for the visa given them by Mexican officials for a beeline some 1,500 miles through Mexico.

Caravans arrive from as far away as Washington state, California and New York.

In previous years, the wait for U.S. and then Mexican processing had cars backed up more than a mile along Route 509, a two-lane highway cutting through 10 miles of farmland to the bridge.

Transmigrantes would sometimes stretch out for a nap beside their string of cars.

"It's been something that created some logistical problems," said Pete Sepulveda, Cameron County transportation director.

Those who now cross here in Texas' southernmost county enjoy a new amenity: a 3-acre waiting area that allows for quick bonding over soccer games and tamales from strolling vendors

Transmigrantes give the new lot a thumbs-up.

"It's a very good experience, I think," said Rene Carrillo, a Los Angeles resident headed to his home in Guatemala for the first time in 20 years. "You meet many people. You're eating taquitos and things. You talk to everybody."

The transmigrante phenomenon has been growing over the past decade.

Goods that might be considered throwaways in the U.S. can be hard to get in impoverished parts of Latin America. For some, gathering stuff here and reselling there is a livelihood. But most are just making an extra buck during an annual holiday trip home.

Goods seen recently included an old lawn mower, an exercise machine, stacks of restaurant chairs and a baby walker. Buses and jalopies are by far the transmigrantes' most profitable and popular export.

Pacheco and Carrillo each had several old cars chained behind the one they were driving, and both said they expected them to sell quickly. They are legal U.S. residents and planned to come back to their jobs in January and February.

In 2002, U.S. and Mexican officials agreed to make the Free Trade Bridge the only one for transmigrante travel because it had sufficient Customs personnel and access to the most direct routes through Mexico.

The transmigrantes say there's been one other improvement: Mexico seems to have cracked down on highway police corruption, so the journey is no longer a harrowing trek of bribes and robberies.

"In the past, it was hard for us to get through," Pacheco said. "But now, we just pay $200 to cross, once at the beginning."

Story courtesy of the Associated Press.