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Border Calls 

In the Mexican desert, a sanctuary for worried migrants

Wednesday, Jan 2 2002
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ALTAR, SONORA, Mexico -- Desperation is growing along the border. Many Mexicans thinking of looking for work in the United States know the recession will make it harder than usual to find a job this winter, when the demand for farm laborers, the first avenue of employment for many, is already at its lowest point. And increased border enforcement in the wake of September 11 means having to cross the desert even farther from population centers, with more chances of getting caught or hurt.

“It‘s getting harder,” says Eloy Camacho, who’s delayed his trip with his brothers from San Quintin in Baja California until later this spring. “I‘m going to bring my wife and baby, and we’ll stay four or five years.”

But not all can afford to wait. The Mexican economy lost more than half a million jobs last year, leaving some with no alternative but to go north.

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One of the spots where hopeful migrants gather is a church plaza here in Altar, just south of the Sonora-Arizona border. On busy days, as many as 100 or more await their guides for the journey north. It is a time of worry, reflection and stocking up on supplies. Among the sojourners are a group of young men from Chiapas, who can find no work in the hills of southern Mexico. “We have families to feed,” one says simply. Another says, “You just can‘t make a living in the countryside. Why won’t the U.S. just let us cross and look for a better opportunity there?”

Workers are philosophical about the obstacles. Some, like Manuel Orozco, who‘s come from Michoacan in central Mexico, are aware of the increased patrols on the U.S. side. “But there’s no other way,” he says of what will be his first trip across. The promise of work has brought him to Altar. “In Mexico, you have to work like a dog just to maintain yourself,” says Victor Aleman, from Queretaro, also in central Mexico. “On the other side, there are much better jobs. That‘s what we’re all going for -- looking for a life on the other side.”

All along the border, on Mexico‘s Route 2, a string of towns has become the jumping-off place for migrants heading north to the United States. Altar, in the Sonoran desert halfway between Mexicali and Nogales, is one such town.

It’s not a big place -- beyond a few blocks on either side of the main highway, the dust and scrub take over. Across from the Pemex gas station is Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, one of the ancient Spanish churches built by Padre Kino in the 1700s. Every day, in the plaza beside the church, would-be immigrants sit and talk, or walk back and forth aimlessly. Townspeople have taken advantage of their presence and put up booths in the plaza. Some sell toys and soccer balls -- gifts for whatever family awaits in Los Angeles, Phoenix or Fresno. Other booths display more practical supplies. Gloves and hats, needed during the winter to meet the desert‘s biting cold, are popular items.

Migrants here are waiting for a ride to the border. Altar is about 70 miles south of la linea, and people gather to find a guide, or “coyote,” to get them closer, and eventually guide them over.

In front of the parish office, across the street from the church, a group of vans has pulled alongside the curb. Most of the vans bear placards describing their route as “Altar-Sasabe.” Sasabe is a tiny hamlet on the border itself, and the vans make a daily run through the desert hills and small farming villages along the way.

They also pass one of the dozens of Mexican army checkpoints scattered just south of the border, from Tijuana to Matamoros. It’s not likely that a van carrying a dozen migrants from the Altar church is going to make it through -- the migrants are almost all much darker-skinned and shorter than the local residents, even though many of the latter are also people of mixed indigenous heritage, mostly Papago, Opata or Mayo.

Ramon Pino, a 19-year-old taxi driver from the nearby city of Caborca, lost his job not long ago when he tried to help a young woman pass the checkpoint and get to Sasabe. With just a driver and one passenger, they made it through. “But when she got out, she said she had no money to pay me, and the ride took two hours,” Pino says regretfully. The woman ran away, probably across the border. When Pino reported back to the taxi rank, the other drivers laughed at him for not asking for the fare in advance. With no money to make up the loss, he was fired.

Most workers need some help to get across. It‘s not enough just to get up to the line, evading the army patrols. Getting around both the Mexican military and the U.S. Border Patrol requires walking out into the desert for a couple of days or more. And then, once across, someone has to be there with a ride past more checkpoints, to the cities to the north -- Tucson or L.A. -- where they can disappear in an ocean of immigrant labor.

So the migrants look for coyotes to help them navigate the obstacles, and in the Altar church plaza the workers and their guides come together. Every few minutes throughout the morning, a group assembles and walks off, led by an experienced commander. In the popular slang, they are the pollos, the chickens, their shepherd the pollero.

Most townspeople say the number of migrants in the church plaza has dropped off quite a bit since September 11 and the U.S. recession. The prices charged by coyotes for the ride across the desert and a car for the other side have fallen. Workers expect to pay about $400, down from the $1,000 coyotes were charging two years ago.

Antonio Macias, a bus driver on the Sasabe route, says that townspeople generally don’t resent the influx of migrants. “They‘re a source of work for us,” he explains. “Besides, they’re not really doing anything wrong -- just looking for work themselves.”

The church has begun a pastorate to minister to the needs of the workers in the plaza. Other churches along the border have done the same. At the behest of Father Rene Castañeda, the parish has set up a dining hall in which volunteers from the town serve dinner every night. Castañeda eventually intends to build a dormitory as well, so that the migrants won‘t have to sleep out in the open, as most do now.

This Christmas, the parish joined with others on both sides of the border to celebrate the posada, which remembers the search of Mary and Joseph for a place to stay in Bethlehem. Simultaneous celebrations took place next to the border fence in Nogales and Tijuana, and in other cities on the frontera. “The posada has great meaning for us in Altar these days,” Castañeda says. “It celebrates the migrants, the people who have no place of their own.”

While the music of the posada is meant to inspire spiritual reflection, it is also a reminder of pain. In an empty lot next to the migrant dining hall, three tall crosses honor those who’ve perished. Still, the plaza next to the church is never empty of those who will risk the journey north.

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