Preparing for the life or death journey into U.S. - Small Mexican town is big staging area for illegal immigrants

By Mark Mullen, NBC News, June 13, 2005

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.

Big business

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....

“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....

Dangerous journey

...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....

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....

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