Last Exit to Tombstone 

Scenes from the capital of illegal immigration

Thursday, Mar 24 2005
Photo by Michael Hyatt
ALTAR, Mexico — As soon as he spots me taking pictures on the steps of the 3-century-old avocado-and-lemon-colored Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe church, Manuelito makes a beeline my way. A pudgy 30-year-old Tzotzil Indian from the impoverished southern state of Chiapas, standing barely 4 and a half feet tall, dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt, sporting a Marine-like buzzcut, he smiles broadly, opens a mouth full of front teeth capped with shiny gold stars, and, in very fluent and buoyant English, says, “Hey, friend, come and talk to me. I want to talk to you.”

After explaining that he’s a father of four who can no longer live off his small patch of land, he excitedly hugs me and says victoriously, “I’m going to the Big Apple, to New York City, baby!” That’s one reason, he says, why he’s spent all of his free time for five years studying English. And he can hardly contain his joy trying it out on me.

When I ask who he knows in New York and what he plans to do when he gets there, he just shrugs. “No matter, man. I know when I get to the border, I just have to walk between the mountain and the red lights on the antenna. That’s the way in. From there I will get to New York.”

And if you get caught by the Migra? I ask.

Again, another laugh. “No matter. They can catch me 10 times, 20 times. It’s okay. I keep trying. I’m going anyway.”

While Manuelito might be among the more eccentric, and one of the very few among them who speak functional English, his predicament, his story and his hopes neatly sum up what’s in the heads and hearts of hundreds of other Mexican men standing around the town square this recent Saturday morning.

This alternately dusty and muddy, hellish hamlet of Altar, permanent home to barely 7,000, situated an hour and a half south of the Arizona border and bathed in a cloud of diesel fumes, has become the single most important staging area and launching pad for undocumented immigration into the U.S.

(top): Gateway to hell
(bottom): A final warning
Photos by Marc Cooper

Though the Bush administration spent an additional $30 million last year trying to plug the porous southern Arizona border, the illegal exodus has reached a five-year high. Hundreds of new Border Patrol agents were deployed against the human tide, as were Apache helicopters and even unmanned aerial drones. A controversial program that returned home thousands of Mexican migrants caught at the border ran the length of last summer. In the fall, Arizona voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 200, which demands that state public services be provided only upon proof of legal residence.

None of these measures put as much as a crimp in the immigration crunch, and last year more than 1 million apprehensions were made along America’s southern border — the same number as in 2000. But, for the first time ever, the detentions in Arizona totaled more than in all the other border states combined. The bulk of migrant deaths also occurred in the Tucson sector, north of Altar: about 220 — or maybe 250, depending on who’s doing the counting — out of an estimated 350 total.

Since the mid-1990s, U.S. border enforcement policy has increasingly squeezed the flow of migrants into the rural and relatively uninhabited — and unforgiving — central Arizona desert. As the Clinton administration imposed draconian lockdowns on traditional border-crossing points near San Diego and El Paso, American immigration officials believed the brutal desert in between would be a formidable and effective deterrent. That theory has been proved irrefutably wrong. The only thing that has changed is a skyrocketing number of migrant deaths. As the daily stream of migrants redirected itself through Arizona, this tiny town of Altar — still invisible on many maps — became the capital of illegal immigration. Indeed, after President Bush — twice in the past year — has issued high-profile statements supporting the enactment of a “guest worker” program, there’s been a noticeable spike in the rush to get across the border. With Congress currently considering several pieces of immigration-reform legislation that might “legalize” a certain number of the undocumented, many Mexican would-be immigrants have concluded that now is the right time to get into the U.S. and be in position to benefit from any new federal legislation.

A kidney-crunching 60-mile-long dirt road runs north from Altar to the border village of Sasabe. Maintained only by a local rancher, who charges a toll of $3 per car, the dirt highway is the central pipeline whose tributaries eventually empty into the gardens and nurseries of Brentwood, the orchards of the Central Valley, or the chicken-plucking plants of the Carolinas.

Altar, only an anonymous bus stop along Mexican Route 2 until the last handful of years, is now the system’s perpetually whirring pump. Sucking up thousands upon thousands from the poorer Mexican states to the south, it compresses them within its crowded 10-block center and then, at a rate of 10,000 or 20,000 per week, forcefully shoots them back out and northward — with more than enough power to overcome the sensors, cameras, fences and agents of the U.S. Border Patrol.

I’ve come here accompanied by the tough-talking, Texas-born Robin Hoover, pastor of Tucson’s First Christian Church, and by Steve Laffey, mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island. Hoover is the founder of Humane Borders, a nonprofit volunteer group whose 70 watering stations on the U.S. side of the desert dispense more than 50,000 gallons of water to desperate border crossers.

Mayor Laffey is a 43-year-old former Wall Street investment banker — now a self-described “populist” Republican — who’s come all the way from home with a couple of his own local Latino activists to get a firsthand look at the border and what lies below. “I’m very lucky,” Laffey says as we walk across Altar’s central plaza. “I lost one brother to AIDS. One is in a locked psych ward. A lot of politicians are just talk, they don’t come up with solutions. This border is just too far away from people’s lives. They have all these people who clean for them and take care of their yards and their kids, but don’t know who they are or care. My whole thing is that everybody has to have the opportunity to live the American Dream.”

Fair enough. But what we see here is still the Mexican Nightmare. Dozens of clumps of mostly young men, mostly dressed in dark clothes, some with their families, but most with cousins and uncles and friends from their various hometowns, stand or sit listlessly in the square and wait. Wait for word from their own “coyote” or “pollero” — their own smuggler — that it’s now time to make the perilous journey north. Wait for some word from home that more money is on the way. Or wait, as they do today, for one of the recent storms to subside. It’s hard enough to cross the desert as it is — without monsoon rains and flash floods.

“There’s no such thing as a typical migrant,” says Hoover. “You’ve got doctors, lawyers and dentists,” he says, citing statistics that say about 10 percent of those nabbed by the Border Patrol are college graduates. “You’ve also got the poorest of the poor. Some who send two children ahead. Some who are coming to stay. Some who will stay only three, four years. Some babies and women. Some really bad guys. Some from Michoacán who have paid $4,500 for an entire package. Some from Chiapas who have no plan and 300 bucks for a ride.”

On one side of the plaza sits an endless row of large and battered vans. Almost all bear the simple logo “Altar-Sasabe.” They sit idle, waiting for the drizzle to abate. When conditions permit, each will be crammed with 20 or more passengers. (Their seats have been removed and replaced with three rows of benches running the length of the interior cabin.) For 10 bucks a head, they’ll rumble up the dirt road and discharge the cargo in the village of Sasabe — a place so grim it seems teletransported from Afghanistan.

Once in Sasabe, the migrants will break up into smaller groups and head out with their coyotes along the many smuggler trails. It’s usually a two- or three- or four-day walk to an Arizona highway where — if they are lucky — they’ll be picked up by another vehicle from the smugglers’ networks and taken to a safe house. Or they will be chased down by a Border Patrol unit. Or left to die in the desert by crooked or desperate smugglers.

The business of the entire town of Altar is given over to supporting and profiting from the wholesale border jumping. Rampaging gangs occasionally rip through town — there are few places in Mexico that congregate so many people with so much folding money in their pockets. Altar’s few streets are lined with booths and stalls set up by yet other migrants, mostly from Oaxaca, selling everything needed to make the crossing: black jackets, black gloves, sturdy jeans, running shoes, backpacks, wool sweaters, black ski masks, 1-gallon plastic jugs of water, small plastic bags of combs, toothbrushes, nail clippers, aspirins and lip balm, even $3 plastic trash bags cynically hawked as effective foilers of the Border Patrol heat sensors that riddle the U.S. side of the line.

Currency-exchange shops are ready to sell dollars at a premium. Other shops specialize in selling long-distance phone cards. Flophouses charge $9 a head and crowd four or five people in a room.

With no permanent medical facility in town, the Red Cross brought in a trailer clinic. A border-area map on its wall has little red dots showing where migrants died last year. Red Cross workers have given Hoover a handwritten wish list of badly needed supplies: ear drops, ampicillin and other antibiotics.

In the main plaza itself, the clusters of migrants seem to have segregated themselves into informal affinity groups based on hometown origin.

A young Oaxacan couple in their early 20s — Filipe Cruz and Margarita Lopez — sit forlornly on a bench waiting for God-knows-what as they stare downward. Filipe says he’s already spent a year working in the U.S. — he won’t say where. But living alone was too hard on everybody, and now, after picking up his family, he will cross again with his wife and his 3- and 5-year-old children. When I ask if he is afraid, he answers quietly, “We are always afraid,” and shifts his gaze back to the ground.

Another group of Oaxacans — six young men, all Zapotec Indians — say they have jobs waiting for them, picking grapes in California. They laugh at the possibility of getting caught on the way. “We will cross as many times as we have to,” says one. “What do we have to lose?” laughs another. “Only these clothes on our back.”

One group of decidedly Guatemalan young men answer my questions curtly, poorly disguising their accents and claiming to be southern Mexicans. If snared by the Border Patrol, they will be classified as “OTMs” — Other Than Mexicans. Instead of simply being put on the other side of the border and in position to quickly attempt another crossing, OTMs are now subject to summary deportation to their country of origin. These fellows have some work cut out for them. Their insistence that they are from Chiapas is about as convincing as the Coneheads saying, “We are from France.”

Some of the men in the square say they have paid smugglers $1,200 to $1,300 each to board the underground railway. Many say they haven’t paid anything yet, but will have the money taken out of the pay they will get from their promised jobs.

Some say they have no idea where they are going once they cross the border. “I will just look for lights,” says a 28-year-old from a Veracruz village renowned for its pineapple production. “Light means a city. And in a city there is always jobs. That’s right, isn’t it?” Others say they have agricultural jobs waiting near Fresno. Still others are headed for tomato fields in Florida. One has a cousin ready to give him a job in a Van Nuys body shop. He has scrawled the address and phone number on a piece of paper he has hidden in his hatband. “My cousin said if I can get to Phoenix, he can get me to his shop. He has a job for me and for them,” he says, nodding his head toward two traveling companions.

A number of those gathered here this morning have already been caught once and are back for a second try. “They grabbed us 15 days ago,” says one of five men, all in their early 20s, from Veracruz. “We got about five minutes across the border, and that was it,” he laughs. “Handcuffs and two hours later, we’re all back in Mexico.” The group has spent the last two weeks reorganizing itself. Four of them want to try again. One has had it and wants to go back home. “I don’t know where to get the 500 pesos I need to buy a bus ticket,” he says.

The group has completely run out of money and had to leave its flop this morning. Now the self-appointed leader of the group is trying to hustle up a mere $5. With that, he says, he can buy a phone card to call his family back home. He’s hoping they can wire him an immediate $400 — maybe even this afternoon. “With that, we will have enough for the ride,” he says, using the English word. El Ride is the pickup from an Arizona highway toward a safe house or job. “Jobs aren’t the problem,” he adds. “We have jobs waiting for us in a stable in Chino. We just have to get there.”

Inside the town church, the young priest, Rene Castaneda, dressed in jeans and a baseball cap, says that while it’s true some of the migrants have no idea what they will do once they cross the border, most, in fact, have a promised job waiting. “They are understandably reluctant to share the information with you — or anybody else,” he tells me. “Most of them have contacts, and most of them are in a pipeline — the demand for their cheap labor has no limits.”

After nearly six years working in Altar, it is with some sadness that Castaneda has learned he is now being transferred to another mission. He’s gained regional recognition and respect for his tireless work on behalf of the migrants, and getting transferred out isn’t much of a payoff. “When I arrived here in 1999, maybe 200 migrants a day came through Altar,” he says. Since the end of last year, that figure sometimes peaks at 10 times that amount. Or more. “The increase in migrants goes hand in hand with the increase in poverty and unemployment,” he adds.

Castaneda arrived in Altar just as last decade’s tectonic shift in immigration patterns was maturing and funneling the flow through the Sonoran Desert into southern central Arizona. Now, he argues, it matters little, if at all, what administrative or enforcement measures are taken on the northern side of the border. “Only the route of immigration changes, but nothing else,” says the young priest as he sorts through his archives. “It’s just like pushing a fully inflated basketball underwater. You can only hold it down so long and then the pressure builds up and it pops up and bursts through somewhere else. If you don’t do anything to change the root causes, the problem doesn’t change.”

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