AGUA PRIETA, Sonora - After being deported back to Mexico only to then be held for four days by a smuggler, all Fabiola Pavón wanted to do was return to her native Veracruz.
But without money, her only recourse was the Mexican Consulate in Douglas.
"The smuggler told me I was going to try again through another place," the 27-year-old mother of two said, "but instead he locked me up with two other migrants." They managed to escape only when their captors got too high to notice they had left the keys in the door.
As crossing the border illegally has gotten more dangerous, migrants are left with little or no money to return home once they are deported.
In the mid-2000s, there were a lot of Mexicans deported through Douglas, said Oscar de la Torre, the Mexican consul. "They were in God's hands once they stepped foot in Mexico, many lingering in Agua Prieta to try to cross again."
During that time, the Mexican government reinforced its assistance programs for migrants, and the number of people the consulate in Douglas helped skyrocketed, said de la Torre.
Assistance on rise
While the number of Mexicans deported through Agua Prieta has shrunk by half in the last seven years, the number who get assistance from the consulate - mostly bus tickets to head home - has increased from about a dozen in 2006 to 1,741 last year. So far this year, more than 1,000 people have been helped with transportation.
The instruction from the federal government, de la Torre said, was to make sure deportees had a dignified, orderly and safe return home.
Every Mexican consulate in the United States has programs to help its nationals, including with transportation to their places of origin.
The support from the consulates is a big help to local and state governments that struggle to meet the needs of deported migrants, said Irma Villalobos, Agua Prieta's mayor.
In the early 2000s, between 30,000 and 50,000 people were deported monthly through Agua Prieta, Villalobos said, and aid was limited.
"Someone who doesn't have the means to return to their place of origin sometimes has to turn to crime to buy food and their fare," she said. "Others resort to panhandling."
People are also more likely to decide to go home if they don't have to come up with the money, said Laura Stump with the Migrant Resource Center in Agua Prieta.
"A migrant without resources is extremely vulnerable. Even if a person had horrible experiences coming to the border or crossing through the desert, he or she may feel there is no other choice but to cross again," she said. "But I've seen that when migrants know about the possibility of going home for free, they are much more likely to consider home as an option."
Bus tickets, food money
Three times a week, Sergio Figueroa of the Mexican Consulate in Douglas talks to migrants who don't have means to leave Agua Prieta.
Local shelters and non-profits screen migrants and make referrals to the consulate. Figueroa then verifies they haven't received aid before and that they are Mexican nationals before driving south to meet them in person, give them bus tickets - which the consulate gets at half-price through partnerships with bus companies - and enough money to buy food for the journey.
On a recent morning, Figueroa made his round of calls to the shelters to ask if there was anyone there who required assistance.
One of them was hurt.
"Can you travel in your condition?" Figueroa asked.
"Yes, my ankle is just very swollen," answered Jorge Cervantes, 40, who fell when he tried to jump the 18-foot border fence and is now on crutches.
If it wasn't for his foot he would try again, Cervantes, a Michoacan native, said later from the bus station. "I need to work."
This wasn't his first time crossing the border. He lived four years in South Carolina and crossed several times, but had never been caught - until now.
As migrants try to cross illegally through more rugged terrain, the number of injuries has also jumped, de la Torre said.
The number of hospitalizations recorded by the Mexican Consulate in Douglas more than tripled from 83 in 2007 to 278 in 2008 and has remained above 200 each year since, despite fewer people deported through the area.
"It's an act of desperation," de la Torre said.
At the end of the day, Figueroa had a list of seven people who wanted to return home, including one who was robbed in Agua Prieta, another who lost his wallet when he ran from the Border Patrol and a minor for whom the idea of being in detention more than a day was deterrent enough.
Edgar Davalos Torres is only 15, but he wanted to go to Brooklyn, N.Y., because there's no work in Puebla, he said.
He tried to cross through Naco, but a Border Patrol helicopter spotted his group and agents held him in custody for a day. He told them he was 18 to be released faster and go back to his parents.
"You jump the fence and have no idea what can happen to you next," he said. "It's better to be poor in my village than to risk my life trying to cross again."
The consulate had to get written permission from his mother to allow him to travel alone.
"After what some people have been through, going home to their families is the most precious gift anyone could give them," said Stump, of the Migrant Resource Center.
But sometimes that's not enough to keep them in their hometowns.
Pavón, the 27-year-old mother, returned to Veracruz from Wisconsin two years ago because her father died. But she couldn't find a job that would pay enough to support her family.
Even though it hurts her to leave her two children behind, she said, "it's harder not being able to feed them or not having enough for their medicine."
In Wisconsin, she earned $1,600 a month working in a restaurant. In Veracruz, she said, it would take her nearly a year to earn the same amount cleaning houses or working in retail.
She doesn't know whether she will try to cross again.
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of people from Mexico deported through Douglas-Agua Prieta:
*as of July
Number of migrants who were issued bus tickets, medicine and documentation provided by the Consulate General of Mexico in Douglas:
*as of June
Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4213.