JOSE MARIA MORELOS, Mexico -- Deep in southern Mexico, at the end of a 15-mile rock and dirt road unmarked by maps, near centuries-old Mayan ruins, Ruben Vasquez Morales is unexpectedly back home.
From his mud-floor house perched atop a hill, Morales tells how he and 15 others from this village 20 miles from the Guatemalan border set their sights on America. They went looking for work, a quest they knew was against U.S. law and would take them more than 2,500 miles from home.
They borrowed hundreds of dollars at high interest rates from loan sharks and friends to make the trek across two countries in buses, cars and on foot with no goal other than a field or a factory where they could earn money. Though they chose different paths, all -- by chance, they say -- landed at an Eastern Shore nursery.
But their stay in "Merla," as they pronounce Maryland, ended two weeks ago when federal immigration agents raided Angelica Nurseries Inc. in Kennedyville, arrested them and sent them back to Mexico in chains.
"I guess I'll be poor forever," says Vasquez Morales, 36, who is blind in one eye after an accident as a child.
"I wanted it for my children, but it just wasn't possible," he says as he ties his boots before leaving to visit a friend in a neighboring village. "They threw me out."
Eighty-five Mexicans and one Guatemalan suspected of being illegal immigrants were found working at Angelica, which has 240 employees, and arrested. Sixty-eight have been deported, but nine -- including four from Morelos -- are being held as material witnesses, Mexican Consulate officials in Washington said. Others await hearings before an immigration judge.
Recent raids at Angelica and two poultry processing plants on the Eastern Shore are part of an initiative by the U.S. government to combat illegal immigration, a highly charged political issue this election year. On Saturday, Congress passed a bill to curb benefits to illegal immigrants and increase the number of federal agents along the border.
But, as these Morelos workers' stories reveal, stemming the flow of workers across this porous border may take more than legislation. With strong demand for immigrant labor at U.S. businesses such as Angelica, networks of independent intermediaries channel the workers to jobs. Word of jobs passes quickly among immigrants' friends and relatives. And fake documents to obtain employment are easy to come by, often costing less than a pair of sneakers.
Perhaps the most daunting challenge to the U.S. government is the immigrants' iron resolve to find work.
This village of 2,600 has few luxuries and fewer well-paying jobs. There is no running water, and the town doctor has the only indoor toilet, connected to a roof-top tank that he pays a boy to fill every other week.
Located in a valley, Morelos is surrounded by verdant fields of corn, beans and peanuts spread like a patchwork quilt. It is difficult for a stranger to imagine why anyone would want to leave such a place. Morales' plot -- with a view of the town and the valley below -- would be considered prime real estate if it were in Maryland.
But the dry, rocky soil requires endless fertilization and yields only one harvest a year, producing one-fourth the crop of better land.
With little industry in the 29,000-square-mile, southern state of Chiapas, agriculture is the mainstay of the 3.2 million residents, many of them descendants of the Mayas. It is the poor soil that each year drives roughly 500 Morelos residents -- mostly men -- to leave behind their families and search for jobs throughout Mexico and the United States.
"It's beautiful land but it just doesn't produce," says Juan Aguilar Martines, the village's top elected official, as he looks out over a field of corn withering after a summer drought. None of the land is irrigated.
"Here we survive on luck and by leaving to find work," says Martines, who worked illegally in California on a buffalo ranch 13 years ago.
Jose Ali Ramirez, 26, and his cousin Jose Ali Velasco, 30, borrowed more than $1,000 between them and left Morelos together in July, taking buses to the border city of Nogales. There they paid a "coyote," or guide, $150 to lead them across the desert into Arizona by night and drive them to a town.
They asked around for work and found a man who drove them for $500 to Virginia, where they picked tomatoes for a week before meeting a man who asked if they wanted to work at Angelica.
Digging into their pockets again, they paid him $100 to drive them for two hours to Angelica, where they say they found work by showing fake documents.
Shortly after they arrived in late July, small groups from Morelos began trickling in, Ali Ramirez said.
"I did not know how they got where we were. They told me they had found a friend who gave them the address in 'Merla.' We were happy because we were all together."
How they arrived at Angelica, 70 miles east of Baltimore, is unclear. The deported workers sometimes provided contradictory accounts of their journeys. Some say they left as a group then split at the border, going in small groups to Florida, Virginia and North Carolina before reaching Maryland. Others say they went individually from their village.
Because 16 of the 85 Mexicans come from the same tiny village, and because some of them are related and all made it to Angelica, some sort of organized effort seems likely.
Yet the workers and their families insist that they had never heard of the nursery while in Morelos and were not recruited by the business. No one from the village had ever worked at the nursery before, they said. Many said it was their first trip to the United States.
While Ali Ramirez said he and his cousin learned of Angelica while in Virginia, another man said that in Mexico City he met a man who said he was an Angelica employee and gave him a phone number to call in the United States.
Most of the deported workers said they bought fake papers and used them to gain employment at Angelica. But two said Angelica hired them without checking for papers.
"I gave them my [Mexican] birth certificate and they said, 'OK, you can work here,' " says Morales. He pointed to an Angelica paycheck listing a Social Security number for him. "They [company officials] gave me this number."
The check lists an address for Morales in Warminster, Pa., a town he says he knows nothing about. The Sun determined that the Social Security number belongs to a 21-year-old man in Portland, Ore.
Richard D. Bennett, the former U.S. attorney for Maryland hired by Angelica after the raid, strongly disputed Morales' account and said that the company insists on documentation. He denied that top company officials gave Morales the Social Security number.
"I'd like to know who 'they' is," Bennett says. "We have no way of knowing who he says gave him the Social Security number."
In interviews with eight of the deported workers and family members of those detained, exact details were difficult to draw as the workers and their families were suspicious of a journalist's motives.
While many of those deported shied away, relatives of those detained peppered the visitors with questions.
"Is it cold there?" asks Trinidad Zamorano Vasquez, whose two sons -- Enoch, 20, and Abrahm, 22 -- are being held as witnesses. "They took only small bags [of clothes] with them."
He sat in the wood-plank house he shares with 14 family members. Dozens of burlap bags for storing corn hung on a wooden pole out front, next to three burros' saddles made of cowhide stretched over tree branches.
"I want you to tell [President] Clinton to free them," the father adds. "We wanted them to work so they could solve their problems. How can they do that when they are in jail?"
And those who have returned now find themselves idle, sitting in their houses or visiting with friends. It was a gamble to make the trip, one that did not pay off. At least three workers have checks from Angelica that they can't cash in Mexico. Clinging to a worn lTC piece of paper with Angelica's number on it last week, Jose Ali Velasco called the nursery on the town's only phone, in a wooden booth in a store that sells little more than corn chips, eggs and milk. He was looking for but did not find someone to help him cash his $233.51 in checks, from which the U.S. government had already taken its due.
"It's incredible. They are taking out money for taxes and we are not even legal," says Ali Velasco, shaking his head.
Rosalyn Vasquez Silva, 23, also is angry. Arrested at work, he was not allowed to collect his belongings and had to leave behind the television and stereo that he bought in America.
He borrowed 5,000 pesos, about $660, to make the trip, and with 20 percent monthly interest, the debt has risen to $930.
"I don't know how I am going to pay it," he says. "Here they pay us 10 pesos [$1.30] a day.
"They say if you go to the U.S. you will make lots of money, but we were treated like animals," Vasquez Silva says.
But even as villagers criticized the U.S government for the arrest and deportation of the immigrants, many still look to the United States for help.
As a reporter prepared to leave for America, Zamorano Vasquez ran up to the jeep. "Can you take my daughter with you?" he asks. "She really needs work."
Pub Date: 10/04/96