Americans Seek Refuge In Mexico

Hundreds of cars with U.S. plates wait at the Mexican customs office to get a temporary import permit for their vehicles in the border crossing of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2005.
Mexico, coming to its powerful northern neighbor's aid for the second time this month, promised to set up shelters for those left homeless by Hurricane Rita and offered medical care, water and vehicle escorts to Mexican-Americans fleeing the storm.

Nuevo Laredo Mayor Daniel Pena ordered police officers to guide the evacuees, most of whom avoided shelters in the United States after the chaos that dominated Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.

It was the second time this month Mexico has come to the aid of the United States. After Katrina devastated much of the Gulf Coast, Mexico sent an army unit to Texas and a navy ship to Louisiana to bring aid to the storm's victims. It was the first time in at least 159 years that a Mexican military unit was allowed to operate on U.S. soil.

On Friday, as Hurricane Rita headed toward Texas, more than 3,000 cars had purchased temporary permits to cross into Mexico. The majority were legal residents or U.S. citizens, and almost all planned to stay with family or friends in Mexico until the storm passed.

Many drove cars packed with belongings.

"This is like a scene from the 'The Day After Tomorrow.'" David Gallegos said, referring to a Hollywood film in which Americans pour over the U.S. border into Mexico to escape devastating climate changes. "It seems half of Houston is heading to Mexico."

Gallegos, a 30-year-old construction contractor who lives in Houston, drove to Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo, Texas. He said he tried to get a flight to Mexico but they were all booked. He planned to return to his Houston home on Tuesday.

"We have to go back, even if it is to clear the debris from our houses," he said. He was heading to Guadalajara, a city in western Mexico, with his wife and 1-year-old daughter.

About 500,000 Mexicans live in and around the Houston area, according to the Mexican government. Many have family – or even second homes – in Mexico.

Those returning said hotels on the U.S. side of the border were filled, forcing many to keep heading south across the border.

In Nuevo Laredo on Thursday, the exodus took Mexican authorities by surprise. Only two windows at the car permit office were open, and many evacuees had to wait about an hour before continuing their journey.

By Friday, however, officials had opened 25 windows at the customs office and were working around the clock. Long lines began to dwindle Friday afternoon, as the storm approached.

Like hundreds of others, Elvia Pratt chose to cross into Mexico to avoid the crowded shelters in Texas. A flight attendant from Houston, Pratt said her husband stayed behind to guard their home.

"We'd rather stay with our family than with 1 million strangers," said Pratt, who was heading to her parents' home in Sabinas Hidalgo, 380 miles southwest of Houston. Her two children, two sisters and seven nieces and nephews were with her.

Nuevo Leon Gov. Natividad Gonzalez promised to set up shelters near the U.S.-Mexico border, if needed, and said medical and rescue crews where ready to be sent to Texas.

"The shelters can be set up in an hour," said Eduardo Gonzalez, a spokesman for the governor.

By Olga Rodriguez. By Olga Rodriguez