Undocumented Residents Caught In Snowstorm

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The ambition of more than two dozen undocumented residents to live and work in the United States ended Monday afternoon in sleeting snowfall south of Payson.


On their way from Mexico and Guatemala to seasonal agricultural work on the East coast, the group -- which numbered about 25 -- was told to abandon the two vans they were hiding in when one of the vehicles broke down about 2:30 p.m. near Slate Creek.


According to two of the men -- Daniel Sandoval and Adrian Munoz who identified themselves as Mexican Nationals -- the "coyotes" who were smuggling the group said they would retreat to Phoenix to repair the vans and would return to pick up the group.


By 6:30 p.m., however, the coyotes hadn't returned and several of the men -- clad only in T-shirts and jeans --decided to abandon their hiding spots and walk to the Beeline to hitch a ride and find shelter from the cold.


Sandoval and Munoz, who said they didn't speak English, told their story Tuesday to Rim Country Middle School Vice Principal Bill Bowling, who served as an interpreter for this story.


By Tuesday morning, 14 of the men were being housed at a temporary shelter set up at the Rim Country Middle School gym for Rim country residents without electricity.


Neither Sandoval nor Munoz knew the whereabouts of the remaining members of the group, but they said they presumed the others were still hiding south of Payson.


On Tuesday morning, Payson Police Chief Gordon Gartner said his officers -- with the assistance of Bowling -- were set to reinterview the men to obtain more information about where the rest of the men were hiding.


Payson police would then relay that information to the sheriff's department.


"We have to try to find them if they're out there," Gartner said.


The RCMS shelter was originally to be used by local residents seeking relief from the snowstorm that blanketed the Rim country Monday leaving many homes without power.


As the group waited in the gymnasium Tuesday for INS officials to return them to Mexico, some shot baskets, some slept and others -- including Sandoval and Munoz -- said they could only wonder what the future now held.

Journey to the north

Sandoval's journey to America for wages that can reach as much as $7 an hour began several weeks ago at his family's home near Mexico City, he said.


Munoz's sojourn into the U.S. originated in the Mexican state of Hidalgo where his parents, brothers and sisters live.


After catching a ride to the border near Naco, Sandoval said he crossed into the United States on foot and walked for three full days, almost reaching Tucson, before he was finally picked up by the coyote.


His final destination, Sandoval said, was to be New Jersey where he would do farm work from March to October.


Now 28, Sandoval has for several years traveled East to seek work. Each fall, when the agricultural season ends, he returns to Mexico to be with his family.


American wages, he said, are more than 10 times what he could make in Mexico.


Munoz said he was bound for Florida where he also would work in the farm fields for the season before returning to his homeland.


Both said they were planning to obtain work visas this year so they would be able to enter the United States legally.


Safe passage to jobs on the East Coast, which the coyote promised to deliver them to for a fee of $1,200 each, went awry when the van broke down on the Beeline Highway and the men were sent scurrying into the mesquites and manzanitas of the high desert.


Sandoval said when he decided he could not survive in the sub-freezing temperatures and decided to walk back to the highway, he was given a ride by a passing motorist who dropped him off at the Mazatzal Casino.


There, he said, a good Samaritan told him INS officials would probably be called, but until they arrived, he could find shelter and relief in the RCMS gym.


He was given a ride to the shelter Monday evening where he waited until other members of the group arrived.


Bowling was one of the first to talk to Sandoval and learn of the group's plight.


Like Sandoval, Munoz and others grew tired and weary of waiting for the coyotes to return and gradually filtered into town to seek help.


Seven of the men dialed 911 from Circle K North and were escorted by officers to the Gila County Sheriff's Department, and then to the middle school gymnasium.


Gartner said although the original purpose of the facility was to house locals only, "it was good the shelter was set up. It wasn't what it was intended for but it worked well."

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