Fears have immigrants hitting the road home for the holidays

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- More immigrant families that travel home to Mexico for the holidays are driving instead of flying because of concerns over terrorism and heightened airport security, according to travel agents and residents in Southern California.

This Christmas season, the Mexican government expects to issue 240,000 temporary permits to automobiles entering the country, about 20 percent more than last year, according to Mario Perez, the Los Angeles representative for Paisano, a public program that assists travelers.

To prepare for the influx, the government in Mexico has added about 600 border workers, double the usual number, Perez said.

Scared by the events of Sept. 11, thousands of immigrants from Mexico canceled their annual flights home last year. This year, many of them intend to resume the holiday tradition of celebrating Christmas with relatives across the border.

But while the Mexican government estimates that more than one million people living in the United States will return to the country this holiday season, the events of Sept. 11, 2001 are affecting the preferred mode of travel.

Some travelers worried about airport security or their own immigration status are opting not to fly, particularly people from places like Orange County who feel that heading to Los Angeles International Airport just isn't worth it.

"The airport revisions are making people nervous," said Marcela Prado, a Santa Ana travel agent whose office has seen a 40 percent drop in holiday ticket sales. "People would rather go to Tijuana and fly, or go in a car. Either way is less expensive and less hassle."

The Mexican deputy consul in Santa Ana, Alberto Bernal, said his office has talked to many Mexicans who fear they would be headed for trouble at LAX. He said they typically want to find out how to obtain additional identification before buying airline tickets.

"It's a logical fear because there may be people who don't have identification or don't have enough of it, and they don't know what to expect at the airport," he said.

Some travelers to Mexico are also nervous about boarding a flight that originates in the United States due to lingering worries that their plane could be targeted by terrorists.

"I don't care about heavy inspections of our luggage, because it's just clothes inside. But I do worry about the rest. I'm afraid the plane is going to fall from the sky," said Marta Madrigal of Garden Grove, who opted this year to take a bus to the Tijuana airport instead of leaving from LAX.

Similar fears prompted Antonio Guerrero, 37, a Santa Ana construction worker, to arrange for his family to get to Guadalajara by taking a bus to Tijuana and then borrowing a friend's car, a 40-hour trip.

"For us, it just made sense," he said. "My wife got scared of the airports."


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