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Associated Press
Dec. 22, 2005 03:25 PM

TUCSON - For the third straight year, fewer illegal immigrants are returning to Mexico from Arizona for the holiday season, likely fearing tightened borders will make it too tough to re-enter the U.S., a Mexican consular spokesman says.

"It is happening," said Rodolfo Aguilar, a spokesman for the Mexican consulate in Nogales, the busiest port of entry between Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora.

Mexican immigration figures show a trend of decline in the number of late-year southbound crossings through Nogales since 2003, as well as through all but one of the four other ports of entry between the two states, Aguilar said.

"Mexican authorities do not check everyone who comes into Mexico. But I think the trend is clear," he said.

More Mexican nationals who are in the United States without proper documentation probably are staying rather than going home for the holidays because of their concern about being able to cross the border again, given continuing federal efforts to strengthen border security, Aguilar said.

"There might be another explanation," he said. "But we're not sure."

The records' start and end dates vary for each year and encompass more than just the holiday period, which is celebrated in Mexico from Dec. 16, with Las Posadas, through Christmas, New Year's Day and the Jan. 6 Dia de los Santos Reyes (the Three Kings), when gifts are exchanged.

Mexican immigration figures showed that 141,412 paisanos, or "countrymen" - a reference often used in Mexico to describe migrants working in the United States - entered Mexico through the Nogales port between Nov. 24, 2003, and Jan. 11, 2004.

The number fell to 61,981 at Nogales between Nov. 18, 2004, and Jan. 9, 2005.

Figures from Nov. 1 of this year to Dec. 14 show only 17,896 going through the Nogales port.

Entries also fell at Agua Prieta, San Luis Rio Colorado and Naco, climbing only at Sonoyta - all of which have much fewer crossings than Nogales.

Sonia Coronado, 28, who has lived in Tucson for more than six years, all but one year illegally, said she's staying put this holiday "because it's very difficult for a person to come back."

"There's more vigilance on the border than before," she said.

Coronado of Tepache, Sonora, has entered the United States three times - twice guided by a smuggler and once after driving home for the holidays and returning legally with a one-year, now-expired visa.

The first coyote took her through a rank tunnel beneath Nogales frequented by drug- and people-smugglers when she was five months pregnant with the oldest of her three daughters.

Her journey to Phoenix and Tucson included being held in a safe house on Nogales' outskirts, crammed in a refrigerated cargo trailer with about 60 people, then locked for two days in a filthy Phoenix-area house with even more people before a cousin paid $600 to free her.

Only her oldest daughter knows her family in Mexico, Coronado said through a translator, and going home is "worth it because it's your family.

"But in the long run it's not worth it because how much harder is it for you to risk everything just for that short time at Christmas to be with your family?"

Mexicans with similar status in the United States have indicated in interviews that many "prefer to stay and not risk going and coming back," Aguilar said. "They prefer the contrary, that the families unite with them in the United States."

Arizona has had the most illegal entries in the nation in recent years, and the federal government is continuing to expand Border Patrol resources: 640 of 1,700 new agents will be alloted to Arizona by next October.

Last week, the House approved an immigration enforcement bill calling for 700 miles of new border fence, triggering outrage in Mexico.

Immigrants' rights advocates said they believe but can't prove that fewer illegal immigrants are returning to Mexico for Christmas because of re-entry difficulties, and federal spokesmen said enforcement agencies don't track numbers of vehicles or people leaving, or citizenship.

"I don't know how you'd gauge it," said Kathryn Rodriguez, coordinating organizer for Derechos Humanos, a Tucson-based border rights coalition. "I know that's the reality." In previous years, people "used to just buy a ticket and go home for Christmas and then cross through the desert" to return, she said.

"From our experience, most of the folks that we work with are all staying here for the holidays," said Jennifer Allen, director of the Border Action Network, another immigrants rights organization based in Tucson. "They're definitely staying for fear of not getting back in."