Efrain Martinez wanted a better life so badly he couldn’t even feel the cactus needles lodged in his swollen, bloody feet as he crossed the desert — and the U.S. border with Mexico — for at least the third time.
But this journey was different because of the way it started: Martinez had just spent 42 days in an Arizona jail for lying to police and for his possible involvement in a shooting incident with a former City Council candidate in downtown Mesa. It took him less than a week in late April to be convicted, deported and then return to the country that had just kicked him out.
But the lonely jail cell was just a memory as he stopped to rest for a moment during his three-day trek. While he was catching his breath, border officials arrived by motorcycle and by helicopter.
Martinez and some companions took off running. He didn’t even have time to put on his sneakers. He threw away his backpack full of food and water because it was too heavy, hid for about an hour and wasn’t caught. The other 20 or so people with him weren’t so lucky, and most were nabbed and sent back.
Martinez credited the successful journey to his “running legs” and his determination. But he’s also a crafty veteran of the desert, having crossed into the U.S. illegally at least a few times before.
“Nothing is impossible if you want it,” Martinez said in Spanish earlier this week. “If you want to climb a mountain, even if other people say it’s impossible but you want it, you will climb the mountain.”
Martinez is one of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who sneak into the U.S. every year. There are about 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., a number that increases by about 500,000 every year, according to a federal report in 2003.
In Martinez’s case, it took him roughly four days to return to the Phoenix area after being dropped off at the Nogales border crossing by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. He had been bused there on April 27 after pleading guilty to giving the false name of Eduardo Godina to Mesa police, who later discovered he was in the country illegally.
By May 1, Martinez had already made it to Tucson, where he got the help of a woman.
Border officials and immigration experts said such a rapid recrossing of the border is not uncommon. While border patrol officials do not keep statistics on the practice, most people know that returning immigrants back to the border can sometimes be like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in the bottom.
“Every day there are hundreds crossing, and some of those hundreds were removed a matter of hours before,” said Russell Ahr, an ICE spokesman in Florence. “Once they go right back out into Mexico, they are out of (this) country’s control, so a lot of them turn right around and try to get back in.”
There is a logical reason for the problem, according to Nadia Flores, Texas A&M University professor and a researcher for Princeton University’s Mexican Migration Project, a study of the Mexican immigrant experience.
“That’s what’s been going on forever in the border,” Flores said of Martinez’s speedy return. “If the person is deported to the border town, and the person has nothing — they have no money or they have nowhere to go — the only thing they can do is to come back.”
Martinez’s situation is a perfect example. His family lives in Michoacán, a town in southern Mexico. Without money or transportation, returning to his hometown would be difficult, Flores said.
The Sasabe Corridor, an area between Altar, Mexico, and Arizona, where Martinez crossed, is a popular spot to slip past border guards, said Border Patrol spokesman Sean King, who works in the Tucson sector. Between 500 and 600 people en route to the U.S. from Altar are picked up there every day, he said.
“It’s one of the reasons (immigrants) accept voluntary repatriation because they know they can be back in 24 hours,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation For American Immigration Reform.
“If you weren’t just across the border it would be more of a problem to get back,” he, said, adding that everyone knows it’s just “a game of catch and release.”
Arh said ICE agents typically take deportees as far as the Nogales checkpoint and watch them walk into Mexico to make sure they are fully “repatriated.” Not much stops them from simply turning around and coming right back, he said.
Martinez has been in the spotlight quite a bit lately. In March, he was accused of shooting at former Mesa council candidate JT Ready. Ready, a concealed weapons instructor and member of several civilian border patrol groups, said Martinez fired at him first.
Martinez has said on several occasions that he never fired a gun at Ready and was misidentified. He was arrested and charged with assault and threatening and intimidation, but those charges were dropped when he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor of giving false information.
After his conviction, Martinez was turned over to ICE on April 24, Durango Jail officials said.
When he arrived in Nogales, the 33-year-old undocumented immigrant captured the attention and sympathy of West Valley resident Betty Pérez, who felt compelled to help him start over. In return for a place to stay, he helped Pérez by fixing her broken-down car and cooking dinner.
It’s not the first time Pérez has assisted undocumented workers. In fact, this time she initially went down to Mexico to help her boyfriend, Juan, who also is an illegal immigrant.
Martinez said Juan was one of his cellmates at the Durango Jail and that they had agreed to help each other come back into the U.S.
“I went to Nogales (Mexico) to bring (Juan) back his clothes and money. I rented a motel to find him, and he was with Efrain,” said Pérez, who told them she would be waiting on the other side.
She bought both Martinez and her boyfriend supplies: Water, bread, beans, backpacks and two bus tickets to Altar — the area where they planned to cross. She then left Mexico and returned home, hoping they would arrive in the U.S. shortly.
Juan did not make it back. He was picked up in the raid, which Martinez evaded.
Martinez is unapologetic for being an illegal immigrant. All he cares about is moving up the social ladder: Finding a good-paying job, meeting the right woman, having children. He said he wants to go to Florida soon.
“They cannot impede me from trying to have a better life,” he said of immigration officials.
Martinez isn’t afraid, even if he is eventually deported. He knows he will return — again.