ALTAR, Mexico — They arrive daily by the hundreds. In vans and buses, migrants from all over Mexico and beyond converge on the small town of Altar in the Mexican state of Sonora. Some 60 miles south of the U.S.- Mexico border, Altar has become a major staging ground for illegal immigration.
Around the town square, migrants make connections with human smugglers — who are also called “coyotes” or “polleros” — who can sneak them into the United States.
“These guys charges us $800-1,500 dollars to cross, a lot of money,” said one 27-year-old man who declined to give his name.
Migrants told us the reason they resort to crossing illegally is that obtaining passports and travel papers from the Mexican government is often difficult at best. Also, going through official channels would make themselves known to authorities.
So instead, they travel to this dusty Mexican town about three hours south of Tucson in hopes of anonymously breaching a portion of the Arizona border, which is considered the most vulnerable in the U.S.
To be sure, illegal immigration is a thriving and very public business in Altar.
Street vendors openly hawk backpacks, sturdy shoes, emergency kits and dark clothing for migrants on their way to the desert.
And the town is home to many boarding houses with multiple three- and four-tiered metal bunk beds where migrants rest before attempting a border run.
Around the town square, vans line up to shuttle migrants to the border. The fare to travel in a van packed with as many as 18 people inside is 100 pesos, or about $9.
One middle-aged migrant who has crossed many times said his reasons for going are simple.
“We have to go to the U.S. to earn a little more, so that our kids can study and become someone. So they can better themselves and not stay at our level,” explained the man who would not give his name.
Before crossing, many visit the town’s Virgin of Guadalupe church where they light candles and pray for a safe journey.
These migrants worry more about getting across than getting caught. And for good reason.
Last year, in Arizona alone, more than 200 migrants died along the nearly four-day journey across the harsh desert.
Christian minister Robin Hoover runs an organization called Humane Borders, which installs and maintains water stations for migrants in the Arizona desert.
“The coyotes are taking larger groups of people out there. And if one person falls behind, they can do nothing but continue with the group,” explained Hoover.
He said those who are left behind often die in the desert, where temperatures can reach triple digits this time of year.
Recently a group of religious and civic volunteers staged a desert walk to call attention to the issue of border crossing deaths, which they say is largely unpublicized.
“If we had a safe, legal, orderly way for folks to come through where we know who's here and they don’t have to risk their lives coming for a job, it would be great,” said Kat Rodriguez, one of the organizer’s of the desert walk. “They don’t have to die in the desert when their families will never know what happened to them. It just seems the logical thing that you would want order instead of death and chaos.”
Mexican authorities offer advice
The Mexican government knows of Altar’s role as an illegal immigration staging area. Workers from Mexico’s Department of Interior regularly staff a checkpoint between Altar and the border town of Sasabe.
In the afternoon, as van after van of migrants approach the border for the preferred nighttime departure, government workers stop the vehicles. But they don’t turn away migrants. Instead, they lecture them on how to cross safely.
Both the government workers and the relief organizations here, which help migrants, insist they are not encouraging people to break the law. They defend their practices saying they provide life-saving advice to people already intent on crossing.
And despite the danger, every day thousands of people — mostly men, but also women and children — do make the journey.
We asked one young man if the prospect of a minimum wage job is worth the risk. He said, “It doesn’t matter to risk our lives. We want to live better than we do here in Mexico.”