'We want work ... we want to support our families'

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Ciudad Juarez

Clutching an embroidered white bundle that enclosed her 16-month-old son, Esperanza Delgado walked casually across the US-Mexican border at nightfall with her husband, Carlos, and father, Manuel. They had waited in the shadows of a railway track until a US border patrolman drove off.

He might have turned a blind eye but they couldn't be sure. They were going north-to-south, back to Mexico, but they were illegal immigrants and were, from the US point of view, returning illegally, too. They were crossing at an unmarked area, not at one of the dozen official frontier posts between El Paso, Texas, and its Mexican Siamese twin, Ciudad Juarez.

The Delgado family were returning from a typical eight-day stint on the US side as vegetable pickers and cleaners in Sunland Park, a town that forms the south-eastern border of the state of New Mexico but is essentially a western suburb of El Paso. They had lived secretly with relatives and worked for a boss only too happy to hire hard workers for one-third the cost of American labourers.

Like many Mexicans, the Delgados were angry about increased US security on the border, notably a 10ft fence being started along the sandy plain that separates Sunland Park from the Anapra shanty town outside Ciudad Juarez.

As the Delgados picked their way from the Union Pacific railway track on the US side through dunes and rocks to the shanty houses of Anapra, they passed a sign in red letters, in Spanish and English, by Anapra residents. "The inhabitants of Anapra protest against this new Berlin Wall," it read. "I had a dream I saw people holding hands together with no iron walls but bridges of freedom."

The Mexican media have taken to calling the security-tightened border the "Tortilla Curtain". Media and Mexican politicians alike, including the government of President Ernesto Zedillo, say the US "militarisation" of the border could threaten good-neighbourly relations.

The Americans say they are building the fence because Mexican bandits have been hijacking cars and robbing American goods trains at a point where the track runs only six feet from the unmarked border.

"All the militarisation, the new fences won't work," said Enrique Lomas, an academic who runs the Ciudad Juarez Centre of Information and Migratory Studies.

"It would need a US declaration of war against Mexico, putting troops along the entire 2,000-mile border, to stop immigration. Maybe the Republicans will declare a kind of war, on immigration, if they win in November."

"If the human rights of Mexicans are regularly violated at the border by American police, what's it going to be like with the military there?''Mr Lomas continued. "The military's priority is to liquidate the enemy; they are trained to kill. We're very worried."

Ironically, it was the drawing of the border that created the problems in this area, where two-thirds of El Pasoans are of Mexican origin, almost everyone on each side has relatives on the other and there are 50 million legal crossings a year.

El Paso and Ciudad Juarez were one city and one community, divided along the path of the Rio Grande - often only waist deep and 30ft wide - by the 1848 Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American war. Under the treaty, the US took half of Mexico, including Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and southern California, and declared the Rio Grande the border from here to the Gulf. Through the mere fact of having a river run through it, the single city became split between two countries, in some ways two worlds. In the Mexicans' psyche, impressed on them at school or handed down through tales and songs, when they cross into the US, they are still on their own territory.

"There are historic, cultural and family reasons which oblige Mexicans to go the US," Mr Lomas said. "Mexicans who work in the US send back $3bn [pounds 1.9bn] a year to their families. The economies of some southern Mexican villages rely entirely on that money."

As 25-year-old Esperanza Delgado trudged off to her cardboard and corrugated- iron hut in Anapra, without water but with electricity stolen from distant pylons, she said she was as angry with her own government as with Bill Clinton and his new fence. "Tell Zedillo to give us water and work,'' she said. "We go to the US because we have to. We want to work; we're not lazy. We just want to support our families."