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For those who are crossing, the traveling has become more arduous. The first time Gabriel, one of the guests at the Bridgehampton quinceañera, crossed the border in 1990, he left Tijuana at 6 p.m. and reached his sister in Los Angeles by 8 a.m. the next day. But after the border crackdowns of the mid-1990s, he has had to seek out new routes. In 1999 he flew from Mexico City to Montreal and went to a random downtown McDonald's, where he thought he could bump into Hispanics. If he found some Mexicans there, he reasoned, one of them would know how to sneak across the nearby U.S. border. Before long, he got a ride to a secluded place in the woods just north of the border, but an off-duty U.S. customs agent getting lunch at a Burger King drive-through spotted Gabriel as he walked out of the trees. He was fingerprinted, handed a summons to appear before a judge and released. The judge later issued Gabriel a voluntary departure order, giving him two months to arrange his affairs and move back to Mexico. For an already overburdened immigration system, voluntary departure keeps the U.S. from having to pay for jailing or deporting low-risk illegal immigrants like Gabriel. He did fly back to Tuxpan at his own expense but stayed only a couple months before illegally crossing once again, this time through Arizona, to rejoin his family up north.
For anti-immigration advocates, the episode is typical of the leniency on both the northern and southern borders that is killing the system. Their outrage was directed at Mexico's National Human Rights Commission last week for its plan--scrapped a few days later--to distribute maps showing safe routes into the U.S. For Gabriel, however, the prospect of creeping and crawling through the woods just to reach his wife and two children in New York is humiliating. "I've got 15 years here," he says. "And crossing like that makes you feel like trash, like you're worth nothing."
Rather than run the risk and expense of going home in the winter, many Tuxpeños, particularly the families, simply choose to stay year round, putting even more pressure on the educational, health and social-service agencies in the Hamptons. The East Hampton school system now has a population that is 25% Hispanic, including legal and illegal kids. At East Hampton High School, new students who don't speak a word of English drop in so frequently that the school has developed a two-week crash course in basic phrases and American culture. There are signs of backlash from local taxpayers. A $90 million construction bond meant to alleviate overcrowding in East Hampton schools was rejected by voters last June, and some locals attribute the defeat to anger at the perceived costs of educating the kids of immigrant workers.