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.