Monday, April 24, 2006
Last week, I spent the last few days at the University of Arizona Learning Institute for Working Journalists Reporting on Immigration organized by Olga Briseño, Judy Gans, and many others. The journalists in attendance came from across the country.
Part of the conference involved a trip to the small town of Altar in northern Sonora, Mexico, the latest place for migrant activity. According to our guide, Cat of Derechos Humanos (www.derechoshumanosaz.net ), Altar just months ago was a desolate desert town. However, since the latest U.S. border enforcement operations redirected traffic to central southern Arizona, Altar has become a main staging area, the last major stop on the long journey for thousands of migrants a day to the United States.
John Fife, a minister of Sanctuary fame from the 1980s and now a member of the Samaritans, a group of volunteers who provide water, aid, and food to the migrants in the desert, assisted in guiding the group. Fife has seen the border enforcement operations grow dramatically from the 1980s.
A quiet place a short while ago, Altar's central plaza, which surrounds Our Lady of Guadalupe Church (isn't there a church with a similar name in every town in the Southwest?), now is an area of a big migrant business and is bustling with activity. The migrant industry is literally the hottest thing in town. According to our guides, a new small hotel had grown almost overnight. A number of small houses were converted to dormitories where people could stay for a night or two before they made their crossing. Many small business people sold small backpacks (like those popular on college campuses), boots, socks, food, electrolyte drinks, and similar goods for the trip through the desert. A few makeshift taquerías in the plaza ran a steady business of food and soft drinks.
Migrants congregate in the plaza, picking up food and supplies, including possibly a "last supper" at one of the taquerías. Buses from all over Mexico drop people off in the plaza. Vans and trucks of all sizes and shapes continuously recruit migrants and take them -- for money of course -- closer to the border.
When we there around noon, hundreds of migrants strolled the plaza, readying for the journey North, exchanging stories, and gathering information. People stepped into the beautiful church to say their prayers. A "prayer of the migrant" hung on the church wall near the altar as did pictures of several migrants who had disappeared in recent months. The somber feel of the church, with some people in tears as they prayed, contrasted sharply with the hustle and bustle of the plaza.
When asked, migrants said they came from all over Mexico, Chiapas, Tabasco, and all over. One or two, knowing that they were talking to Americans, coyly said that they were headed back home in Mexico and just were "vacationing" in Altar. Migrants mentioned that they planned to settle all over the United States, from Naples, Florida to Alabama to South Carolina, to Anaheim, California, to name a few places.
In the Altar plaza, energy, enthusiasm and optimism filled the air. The soon-to-be migrants knew a tough journey lie ahead but they expressed hope that they would make it. They knew there were criminals on the way and that the Border Patrol would be patrolling for them on the U.S. side. Some of the migrants, who had unsuccessfully tried the journey and would soon be trying again, told of robberies and rapes on the trail North through the desert.
Several members of the group visited one of the dormitories that temporarily housed migrants and had haunting experience. There were 20-30 people in a small house that had been converted to a neat, but very efficient dormitory. A small tienda sold cokes and snacks. Children played. Men dealt cards. They were relaxing before the journey and spirits generally ran high. I may be wrong but the mothers with children seemed more worried than the men.
I saw a young girl, maybe four years old with her mother. Let's call her Elena because she kind of looked like my 10-year-old daughter Elena, with a dark complexion and dark, straight hair. As it turns out, young Elena was headed to the United States through the desert the next day with her mother. The trip would begin with a drive for about 1.5 hours over unpaved -- and very bumpy -- roads to the last stop. Migrants then would be taken by a smuggler for a short van ride and then left in the Sonoran desert. With a guide, they would walk 3-4 miles to the border and then for as many as 20-40 miles through the desert, where hopefully a ride would meet them there and pick them up to take them to the interior of the United States. Elena seemed very young and quite small. I could not help but wonder with sadness, would she make it? Would she suffer? Later, after our guide told the group that we probably had met some people who would die on the journey, I thought about Elena.
Vans and trucks take migrants from Altar's plaza to La Ladrillera (the Brickyard). As I mentioned, it is about 1.5 hour ride on the extremely bumpy, unpaved road. A short while back, the owners of the Brickyard were only in the business of making bricks. Seeing an opportunity with the new stream of migrants coming to Altar, the owners diversified their business and now operate a short shuttle service to the border in addition to making bricks. A number of small tiendas in the Brickyard sell snacks and drinks. The free market at work! The Brickyard was like a bus station, with shuttles headed out every few minutes. The nearest port of entry is 3-4 miles away at Sasabe, and the shuttles either take the migrants to the East, through a federal park, or to the West, to an Indian reservation that straddles the U.S./Mexico border. Within a couple of miles form the border, the migrants are dropped off. Their walk through the desert begins here.
The desert, filled with mesquite, is dry as the proverbial bone. The high temperature averages 105 degrees in the summer. It was a "cool" 80-90 degrees during our visit. We walked some of the migrant trials on the U.S. side, setting off some sensors and bringing a bevy of Border Patrol all-terrain vehicles down on us. The trails are rugged, with dry creek beds filled with temporary shelters, empty water bottles, clothes, backpacks, shoes, and wrappers from snacks. Every so often you would run across a piece of clothing or a child's shoe. It was eerie and one could only wonder what the journey would be like at night or in the throes of confusion due to dehydration on a deadly hot day. Getting lost would be easy for the terrain and mesquite all look alike.
Hundreds of migrants die in this very desert every year, with thousands having died in the deserts along the U.S./Mexico border since the United States ramped up border enforcement in 1994. People in the Tucson area know of the hundreds of deaths that occur each year in the unforgiving desert. Groups like the Samaritans and Humanos Derechos try to provide assistance but migrants still die. Congressman Raul Grijalva who represents southern Arizona and voted against the Sensenbrenner bill, has a good sense of the issues. Grijalva addressed the journalists at the University of Arizona last week. When asked about why Congress generally seemed unconcerned with the thousands of border deaths and in fact seems eager -- indeed, dead set -- to add to the enforcement budget, he said that many members of Congress simply viewed migrants as "collateral damage" of the border enforcement efforts.
As I returned home, I kept wondering whether young Elena had successfully entered the United States, or whether she had ended up as "collateral damage'"in the war on "illegal aliens."