Dozens of undocumented immigrants try to cross each day to Arizona through the desert of Sonora, Mexico, and the border patrol deports them back to their counties, hundreds of miles away.
Efrain is 27 years old, with lacerated feet and empty pockets. He was born in Puebla in central Mexico, and ever since he was a boy, he has been bending down to harvest tomatoes, onions, or whatever else the boss was growing. His dream was to save the $1,200 he needed to immigrate illegally to the United States. Last Friday, he finally managed to walk on American soil, but only for a few hours. The border patrol spotted him in the desert across from El Sasabe, when he had almost managed to make the crossing from Sonora into Arizona. “They were chasing me all night, until my feet gave out on me,” he said. Efrain was detained, put on a bus, and sent back to Mexico via the Nogales border.
Now he is back in Altar, a small Sonoran town converted into a kind of emigration theme park. Every day waves of youngsters arrive from Mexico and Central America looking for “coyotes,” who in exchange for a sum of money, will bring them across the El Sasabe desert into the United States. “Back in Puebla,” Efrain explains: “everybody talked about Altar, but when I arrived I couldn’t believe how out in the open everything was …” It is certainly striking how the life of the town revolves around the lucrative business known as emigration … illegal immigration.
There are dozens of boarding houses, and dozens of foreign exchange houses. There are dozens of stores around the plaza with merchandise dedicated exclusively to the needs of the migrants: back-packs, blankets for the cold desert nights, thick socks, flashlights, bandages, canteens, toilet paper. Everyone knows that the trucks with the signs “Specialized public passage transport service” are dedicated to carrying migrants to the desert, in groups of 30 or 40, lying on top of one another. There are more than 200 vans and they are numbered by the municipal government.
Efrain had to pay 1,000 pesos, about $70, to be carried to the desert. That included the payment to the local mafia that controls the road, but not the payment for the “coyote” or “pollero.” This according to one of the van owners, who makes no attempt to be discrete, and is parked next to the church. The reporter asks him how much it would cost to cross over to the El Sasabe desert.
"I would charge you 1,000 pesos, but most of it is not for me, it’s so that the mafia will let me pass," he says. "But you’re not Mexican, are you?"
"No, I’m Spanish" the reporter tells him. "But I want to go with my El Salvadorian friends who are crossing."
"El Salvadorian? We charge them more. 1,500 pesos."
"Why is that?"
"Those are the rules. The mafia makes them, not me."
"Does that include the coyote’s cut?"
"No, man, no. [The driver has a good laugh, which seems to mean, “This guy is an imbecile.”] The coyote is separate. You’ll have to pay him a lot more. A good coyote will charge you 1,000 pesos to bring you into the United States."
"And where do I get a coyote?"
"Dude, why are you asking me? Look around you. This town is full of coyotes and polleros …"
Nothing is secret in Altar. If you pay, you go. If you don’t pay, you don’t. Six young men from Chiapas tell me their experience. “We tried to cross three days ago. We only had enough to pay for the taxi. They left us in the desert. We waited two days for a chance to cross. Finally two guys showed up with pistols, and made us go back. Obviously things are very well organized there in the gorge. But we didn’t have money for coyotes. So we’re going back to Chiapas.”
If Efrain or the guys from Chiapas had managed to reach the United States, they would still have had a long way to go. Now, with Arizona’s new law, they would have had to take extra precautions to avoid being caught in a sweep aimed at undocumented aliens. In any case, according to various sources, the law sponsored by Governor Jan Brewer did little more than put down on paper what was already being carried out in Arizona. A firm hand with the immigrants. No mercy. One of the most painful policies, according to the Mexican diplomats in charge of immigrant affairs, is the so called “lateral deportation.”
“The Arizona authorities try to break the connection between the migrant who is caught at the border and the person who helped him," says a high Mexican official. "If they catch him here in Nogales, they release him all the way at the other end of the border. This way, the individual ends up with nothing, flat broke, maybe injured and alone, in a very vulnerable situation. The border patrol has set up big detention centers for migrants. From there, they put them onto buses and carry them great distances, hundreds of miles. Many of them fall victim to human traffickers. And among the deportees, there are women and children in pitiful situations … Or young men who go from being migrants to being criminals because, to achieve their dream of getting across, they are capable of anything …”
Efrain’s feet have been bandaged. He is sitting on a bed in the “La Palma” inn, on the main street of Altar. The $1,000 worth of pesos that he had been saving for years are in the pocket of the coyote, who is now waiting in the plaza in plain sight — black shirt, sombrero, ice cold beer — for his next client. When he arrives, the game between the coyotes and the border patrol will begin again. Sometimes one side wins, sometimes the other. But always, always, the same people lose.