By Michael Grass

Paul Wong
While the border in San Diego, Calif. and Nogales, Ariz. are huge walls and fences, a simple barbed wire fence is the only thing separating the U.S. and Mexico.<br><br>NATHANIEL WRIGHT/Special to the Daily

ALTAR, Mexico In this forgotten corner of the continent, saguaro cacti, prickly pear and rocky desert soil fill the thousands of square miles of desolate frontier south of the Arizona border. Heading across the Sonoran desert on the only paved two-lane highway connecting central Mexico with Tijuana and southern California, it is hard to not notice the number of empty buses headed away from Altar, going south.

When you arrive in the town, hundreds of people mostly men lounge around on the central plaza, outside the small town”s cathedral. Then another bus pulls up and 20 or so people disembark. But this sleepy desert town is not their final destination, and is merely a jumping off point on the journey north toward the United States.

While it is not located on any border, Altar is emerging as the most important migratory nexus in North America. From here, thousands of Latin American migrants per month begin a three-night trek across the desert frontier to jobs in the U.S.

But the number of people passing through this town continues to rise and the journey is becoming increasingly dangerous.


Many people traveling to the U.S. via Altar have been through before. One of those last Thursday was a man named Ren, who came from the state of Hidalgo. Dressed in a grey shirt and blue jeans and wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap with a picture of Bugs Bunny, he said his final destination was Detroit for a job as a line worker in an auto manufacturing plant. He had worked there for three years, before returning to see his family for Christmas last year.

“I”m going to call the boss and if there is work, I”m going to see if he can lend me money to get up there,” he said standing in the plaza.

When the words “University of Michigan” were uttered, his eyes lit up he had met a University linguist years ago in his home state studying Otami, an indigenous language.

Like many people passing through, Ren already has contacts at U.S. companies and businesses.

One man already has a job lined up at a caf at 57th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. Another man from Vera Cruz is on his way to North Carolina for a trucking job. And another man in a Michigan game hat is headed to Florida to see his family.

Altar is a place where migrants take a final look back at their old lives and then turn around and look north toward the future. But the coming days and months for these migrants are uncertain. According to church officials, since 1994, more than 2,000 people before them have died on the journey either because of the elements, thirst or abandonment by guides supposed to protect them.

And sadly, some have even fallen victim to American vigilantes who rove the desert hunting migrants like deer.

Father Luis Ren Castaeda Castro, who was sent to Altar in 1999 by the Archdiocese of Hermosillo to tend to needs of the migrants, said the trek across the desert is very dangerous and there are many people present in Altar or in the desert who pray on the vulnerabilities of those making the journey to the U.S.

Bandits will hide in the hills and rob groups of migrants. Water will run out. Thorny bushes will tear into skin.

The risks are all too present.

And the migrants know that, but it doesn”t stop them from going north.


Every Thursday, Father Ren and others at his church go into the plaza and bring those waiting for rides to the border into the cathedral for a special mass to prepare the travelers mentally and spiritually for their journey.

Above the altar, a banner reads: “In this church nobody is a foreigner this is the place where the migrants are recognized and received like brothers.”

During last Thursday”s mass, Father Ren invited a man in a Green Bay Packers jacket to speak about his experience to the congregation which was spilling out of the large wooden double doors onto the plaza. He said he was from the town of Santo Domingo in the impoverished state of Chiapas. Through this man”s testimonial, it is easy to see why so many people leave their homes in search of money.

The man”s wife died 15 years ago and he was left to take care of his two children but times have been rough in Chiapas and he could only garner three pesos for a kilogram of coffee he was selling. He couldn”t make ends meet he had to go north.

The man said he had been through Altar recently he had been one of the few who had been caught by the U.S. Border Patrol. And like most migrants who are caught, the man simply gave it another shot. And the odds are in his favor for making it across the border.

He said that although he knows that the journey ahead will be difficult, it is “God”s will.” His religious conviction, the man said, will carry him across the desert to the Promised Land the United States and there he will be able to make enough money to send back to his family.

After he spoke, the man from Santo Domingo knelt before an elaborate wood carving depicting Jesus at the Last Supper below the altar. While he did this, another bus pulled up to the plaza and let another 20 or so migrants off. Those toward the back of the cathedral including a mother carrying an infant and a young teenage couple looked out at the newcomers.

In this deeply religious land, faith coupled with economic aspirations will drive people north to the U.S., no matter how secure the U.S. makes the border.

And with the risks increasing, the Archdiocese of Hermosillo is delivering a report to Pope John Paul II this week on the dangers of crossing the desert and the plight of the migrants.

In Altar, groups of migrants secure rides to the border and guides to lead them to safety in Phoenix, Tucson or elsewhere. Once a deal is struck, a bus, taxi, van or truck will transport the migrants 60 miles north, up a bumpy desert dirt road, to the dusty border village of Sasabe.

At the road”s starting point in Altar, there is a toll booth and near Sasabe is a military checkpoint. Neither act as deterrence.

And unlike the large walls and security operations present in large cities like San Diego or Nogales, Ariz. that make sneaking into the U.S. all but impossible, at Sasabe, the border is a simple barbed wire fence riddled with gaps that makes crossing very easy.

Alejandro Martel, Sasabe”s police chief, said that of the more than 1,000 people that pass through his village every day, only 100 will be caught by the U.S. Border Patrol in the desert who will simply try again until they are successful.


“People from all over Mexico know that Sasabe is an “easy” border crossing, but “easy” is in quotations because it is not “easy,”” Martel said of the dangers lurking across the border.

Horrible stories circulate through the region about the deaths in the desert. Late last year, a pregnant mother gave birth in the desert frontier between Sasabe and Tuscon. The mother was found dead, along with her baby, the umbilical cord sill attached.

Next Friday, Father Ren”s church community will march to the border at Sasabe to pray for those who have died crossing the desert. Students in Ann Arbor are planning a joint action on the Diag that same day to raise awareness about the increasing numbers of deaths along the border with Mexico.

Even if number of deaths continues to increase they will not act as a deterrent the lure of jobs that Americans don”t want to take will continue to draw thousands of migrants north.

That is why groups like Humane Borders, which gained notoriety for placing jugs of water in the desert frontier for migrants, are calling for a more sensible border policy.

Migration isn”t going to stop and the U.S. Border Patrol does not have enough resources to secure the entire border. While the U.S. has gained the upper hand in border cities by building massive walls and deploying ground sensors and hi-tech cameras, in places like Sasabe, it”s as simple as walking through an unchecked gap in the fence.

By pushing migrants away from the traditional urban migration routes, people are going to go via the dangerous desert routes.

“They aren”t going there to plant bombs, they”re there to work,” Father Ren said.

In a nation that tends to apply easy answers to complex problems, there are no simple fixes to migration. No matter how high the U.S. builds border walls, migrants will find a way across. Migration is not an “us versus them” problem. Just like how the U.S. cannot act alone in the world as a lone superpower, we cannot go it alone in issues that face our continent.

Migration, poverty, unfair trade policies and the diffusion of the border are already important problems we face. They are only going to grow in size and scope in the years and decades to come.

Michael Grass is an LSA senior and served as co-editor of the Daily”s editorial page in 2001. He can be reached via e-mail at mgrass@umich.edu.

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