Immigrant describes long trek to America 40 aliens are held, facing deportation

February 23, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Struggling to support his wife and two daughters, Genaro Cux-Garcia left his home in northern Guatemala Jan. 7 to seek work in the United States, knowing little about the country

surrounding his hometown, much less the state of Maryland.

Crossing frigid mountains, neck-deep rivers and scorching deserts, the farmer says he ate little but oranges and depended on strangers for water and shelter.

He lost half his money during a robbery by four masked bandits in south Mexico -- they didn't get the pesos he'd kept in his shoes -- and crossed the border easily into Arizona.

His harrowing journey ended a month later at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, where a Ryder truck carrying him and 39 other suspected illegal immigrants crashed Feb. 7. Now, Mr. Cux-Garcia faces deportation back to Guatemala.

"I don't know the other people on the truck," said Mr. Cux-Garcia, interviewed yesterday in Spanish in a room at the Howard County Detention Center.

"There were many people with different hearts on the truck, and maybe one of them brought bad luck from God."

The interview took place only after The Sun threatened to sue the U.S. attorney's office, which had barred the newspaper from talking face to face with the suspects, who were locked up in Wicomico and Howard counties.

Although U.S. Attorney Lynne Battaglia contended that she was trying to protect the detainees' rights, Mr. Cux-Garcia said he was told by the Immigration and Naturalization Service that it would cost him $5,000 to speak to a lawyer.

Mr. Cux-Garcia was the first detainee permitted to speak in person to a reporter. The U.S. attorney's office has promised to give other detainees the same opportunity.

The INS has said it believes all 40 on the truck, including the driver, illegally entered the United States and were probably being taken to poultry industry jobs on the Delmarva Peninsula.

Mr. Cux-Garcia, 27, said the truck's driver told the immigrants that they were being taken to jobs in Virginia, perhaps in construction. The ride would cost several hundred dollars, which would be taken out of his future paychecks.

When he does return to Guatemala, Mr. Cux-Garcia's prospects appear poor.

To get the approximately $2,000 to pay for his overland journey to find work in the United States, he had to promise to pay back the man who lent the money -- a local physician -- or turn over the tiny ranchito he shared with his family.

"I don't have the money" to pay him back, said Mr. Cux-Garcia, who was dressed yesterday in blue pants and a navy blue shirt emblazoned with the words, INS DETAINEE. "I still haven't found work here."

A short but sturdy man with a thin mustache and bushy black hair, Mr. Cux-Garcia is from Mayan Indian stock -- a people who have grown corn on other people's land in his area of Guatemala for 75 years. He speaks the Indian language and some Spanish.

He said he and his wife, Maria, began talking about a trip to the United States three months before his departure. With daughters Eva, 5, and Marta, 3, the couple needed more money for food. So on Jan. 7, at 4 a.m., he left his town of Zacualpa on foot and walked to a nearby town.

"I had to get up that early," he said. "I was going far."

From there, he traveled to the Mexico City area by walking, hitching rides and catching buses. Without a map, he turned to strangers for directions and lodging, often paying the equivalent of about $3 for information and transportation, though some people asked for more.

He traveled with groups of mostly Mexican strangers also headed for the border; 10 of them suffered through icy weather during a three-day walk through the mountains. They also crossed a river by linking hands. On their third day in the mountains, they were robbed as they walked through a valley.

In the interview, Mr. Cux-Garcia spoke with joy only about a day he and other travelers spent resting and eating oranges after 10 days of hiking and hitching rides.

"I felt very sad," he said repeatedly of his feelings throughout the trip. "I was thirsty and hungry. Very hungry."

After arriving in the border town of Nogales, Mr. Cux-Garcia and 20 other people crossed the border easily after paying for a guide. They walked until they found a highway and rode to Chandler, Ariz., three hours away. Mr. Cux-Garcia said they celebrated their arrival there with tacos and Coca-Cola.

On Feb. 6, he boarded the Ryder truck at night, not sure how many other people were with him.

The truck stopped along the way, but the immigrants were never allowed out during the two-day trip -- not to eat, drink or go to the bathroom. There were no windows.

It was raining shortly before the truck crashed into a car near a Bay Bridge toll plaza, and water was washing over him inside the leaky vehicle. Mr. Cux-Garcia, who had fallen asleep perhaps 15 minutes earlier, awoke when other passengers tumbled into him.

Mr. Cux-Garcia said INS officials who interviewed him twice were vague about what would happen to him. He worried that he might be charged or held for months before being taken home.

He also said that he was presented with a written description of his rights by INS officials, though he said he could read little of it. But he asserted that INS officials told him he would need $5,000 for a lawyer to fight deportation and that they did not give him a list of local services offering free legal advice.

In a phone interview from the Wicomico County Detention Center last week, another immigrant, Tomas Reyes Cruz from Guadalajara, Mexico, provided a similar account. He, too, said immigration officials did not inform him of his right to an attorney.

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