By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
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.
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.