Crossing the border for the holidays

SAN DIEGO – With more than 1 million Mexicans expected to travel from the United States to their hometowns over the holidays, volunteer observers from Mexico’s annual Paisano Program went on duty Friday along the border.

Their goal: to guide the migrants through customs and any other hassles. Mexican officials say the 15-year-old program has made it safer to travel home by getting Mexicans the documents they need and helping them file complaints against corrupt police once known to prey on gift-laden travelers.

"The Paisano Program … rescues the values of the Mexican culture, including respect for individuals, respect for their property and family, and symbolizing honesty," said Mario Perez-Ramirez, who leads the program in the western United States.

The Paisano Program, using a term for "countrymen" that often describes the migrants working in the United States, is among several efforts the Mexican government has made to assist the estimated 10 million Mexican expatriates in the United States who are an increasingly powerful force at home.

Last year, they sent home between $12 billion and $14.5 billion, making them the country’s second-largest source of foreign income, behind oil.

Between October and December, about 1.2 million of them return to Mexico, according to Mexico’s immigration institute. Most go to visit family and friends, according to surveys by the program.

To make it easier for the migrants to carry gifts home, the government is boosting the value of merchandise each person traveling by land can carry into Mexico without paying import taxes, from $50 to $300, between Dec. 1 and Jan. 10.

The Paisano Program also is providing one-stop service at border crossing points where migrants, as well as non-Mexican travelers, can process customs paperwork and get temporary import permits for their U.S.-registered vehicles. The government has hired 900 workers to staff the booths during the holiday season, with the busiest points open 24 hours a day, Perez-Ramirez said.

Last year, nearly 40 percent of the returning paisanos came from California. The largest number who traveled by land passed through San Diego to enter Mexico in Tijuana, followed by the crossing points at Laredo, Texas; Nogales, Ariz.; and El Paso, Texas.

Perez-Ramirez urged the migrants to declare any merchandise in excess of the limit and pay the proper taxes, which is based on the sales receipts for the items, in order to avoid being fined if they are caught with the goods. Migrants who are caught with undeclared merchandise often must forfeit their vehicles until the fines are paid, he said.

Also, U.S.-registered vehicles can be seized in Mexico unless the driver can prove he lives in the United States, such as by showing an employment pay-stub or a receipt with a U.S. address. In Mexico, if the car is loaned to someone, that driver must prove he is an immediate relative of the owner, and carry the owner’s proof of U.S. residency.

Perez-Ramirez said having the proper documents for goods and vehicles reduces the risk that paisanos will be targeted by corrupt police. Between 2002 and 2003, the rate of paisanos saying they were extorted fell from 19 percent to 5 percent, he said.

"This tells us that we have advanced, but we have to remain sharp. We have to be alert so that we can eliminate or eradicate totally any type of act of corruption, abuse of authority, or maltreatment of our compatriots," he said.

He said anyone who is victimized should file a complaint: The Paisano Program provides help over the telephone, at branch offices and over the Internet.

The complaint, he said, "is the only means we have to defend our rights and to sanction the public servant who is behaving badly."