December 28, 2001

In the Mexican Desert, A Sanctuary for Border-Crossers

By David Bacon

ALTAR, SONORA, MEXICO — Thousands of migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border are caught between desperate times behind and a dangerous future ahead.

Mexicans preparing to cross the border know the U.S. recession will make it harder to find a job. In the winter, demand for farm labor — the first avenue of employment for many — is at its lowest point. And because of increased border enforcement in the wake of Sept. 11, migrants are attempting riskier desert journeys far from population centers to avoid getting caught.

But the Mexican economy lost over half a million jobs last year, and for some migrants, there is, ultimately, no alternative to going north.

"I know it's getting harder on the border," says Eloy Camacho, who has postponed his trip with his brothers from San Quintin in Baja California, until later this spring. Camacho plans to stay longer in America next time, instead of crossing back and forth every year. "I'm going to bring my wife and baby, and we'll stay four or five years," he says.

A group of young men from Chiapas all agree there is no work in the hills of that southernmost Mexican state. "We have families to feed," one says simply.

All along the border, on Mexico's Route 2, a string of towns have become jumping-off places for migrants heading north. Many provide a kind of sanctuary for the travelers, where townspeople respond to their presence with understanding and compassion. When migrants provide a small market in goods and services, townspeople respond to them as a godsend.

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 chamisa scrub take over. Across from the Pemex gas station is Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, one of the ancient Spanish churches built by the Franciscan missionary Padre Kino in the 1700s. Every day, in the plaza beside the church, dozens, sometimes hundreds of would-be immigrants sit and talk, or walk back and forth aimlessly.

Townspeople have put up booths in the plaza catering to the migrants. Some sell toys and soccer balls — gifts for whatever family awaits in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Fresno or any of the many Mexican barrios that are their hoped-for destinations to the north.

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 towards the border. Altar is about 70 miles south of "la linea," the borderline.

In front of the parish office, across the street from the church, a group of vans have pulled up to the curb. Most 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.

Ramon Pino, a 19-year-old taxi driver from the nearby city of Caborca, recently lost his job when he tried to help a young woman pass through an army checkpoint and get to Sasabe. With just a driver and one passenger, they were allowed to pass. "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 help to get across the border. It's not enough to just get up to the line, evading the army patrols. Getting past both the Mexican military and then 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 just to the north — Tucson, or Los Angeles — where they can disappear in an ocean of immigrant laborers.

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

Most townspeople say the number of migrants in the church plaza has fallen quite a bit since Sept. 11 and the U.S. recession. In the winter last year, the plaza was full of people. As a result, the price charged by a coyote for a guide across the desert, and a car for a ride on the other side, has fallen. Workers expect to pay about $400, down from the $1,000 coyotes charged 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 where 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 Altar parish joined with others on both sides of the border to celebrate the posada, which commemorates the search of Mary and Joseph for a place to stay in Bethlehem. Simultaneous celebrations took place along the border fence in Nogales, Ariz., Tijuana, and other cities. "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 something more painful. The wave of migration may have brought a new population and work to Altar, but it has had a human cost. In the nearby desert people die every year, trying to make it across.

In an empty lot next to the migrants' dining hall, three tall crosses have been erected in memory of those who've perished. But the plaza next to the church is never empty of those who will still risk the journey north.

David Bacon ( writes widely on immigrant and labor issues.

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