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Posted: 3/5/2006 9:00:54 PM EDT
They actually have a known town that services illegals on the way to the US, what a shocker

Mexican town's economy hinges on serving northbound border traffic
By Patricia Zapor
3/3/2006
Catholic News Service (www.catholicnews.com)
www.catholic.org/national/national_story.php?id=18926
ALTAR, Mexico – An odd thing that stands out about Altar in the Mexican state of Sonora, 60 miles south of the Arizona border, is the merchandise sold by strolling vendors and the shops ringing the plaza.

Unlike the typical Mexican town square's colorful assortment of household items, snack foods and local crafts, Altar's offers little more than dark-colored backpacks; hats, jackets, shirts and socks in black or camouflage; sturdy shoes and warm gloves -- all in men's sizes -- and gallon jugs of water. They're the tools needed to cross the Sonoran Desert in winter, theoretically without attracting the attention of U.S. Border Patrol agents.

On a Wednesday afternoon in February, the plaza was populated almost entirely by small clusters of working-age men, each with a stuffed backpack close at hand. The arrival of two dozen visitors from the Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., prompted the men to huddle closer together, watching cautiously as the Americans were briefed by Altar's parish priest, Father Prisciliano Peraza, and the town's former mayor, Francisco Garcia Aten.

Not that the men watching knew Garcia was once mayor. Their tenure in this town of 14,000 preceded the diocesan group by only a day or two at most.

From across Mexico and countries to the south of it, tens of thousands of migrants a month find their way to this desert community to make connections for sneaking into Arizona. From there they'll seek low-skill jobs around the United States that pay more in one day than they can earn in a week at home.

For most of its history, Altar was an outpost for farmers and ranchers who eked out a living in Mexico's driest region. After the North American Free Trade Agreement was enacted in 1994, reduced market prices drove many small farmers and ranchers to find other kinds of work, away from Altar, explained Garcia.

Then came stepped-up U.S. border enforcement at the most popular points for crossing illegally into the U.S. -- near San Diego; El Paso, Texas; and Nogales, Ariz. As new fences and detection efforts clamped down on the migrant flow there, people trying to enter the U.S. without permission went farther out into the desert.

With extreme temperatures, lack of water, poisonous reptiles and insects and a risk of being robbed at gunpoint, the area is physically more dangerous than near the cities. But with hundreds of miles of open desert, most believe it's easier there to elude the Border Patrol. The border fence in that stretch consists of only a few strands of barbed wire.

So Altar developed a new economy based on providing support services to people who come through on their way to the border.

"Six other cities around us are falling into decay," Garcia explained. "They have no active economy." He said Altar is "geographically lucky." On a major Mexican highway, it is a short distance off the main road linking the Sonoran capital of Hermosillo with Nogales, a major U.S. port of entry.

At the peak in 2000, Garcia said, 2,000 to 2,500 migrants a day passed through town. Today, the average is about 1,000 to 1,500 a day in the busiest months.

Most stay for a couple of days. They make arrangements in the town square with one of the many smugglers, or coyotes, who guide people across the Arizona desert for fees that currently run between $1,000 and $2,000, said Holly Hilburn, a translator for the diocesan group.

Prices depend upon such things as how far the migrant will have to walk and whether the smuggler covers subsequent tries if the migrant is caught, she said.

Migrants also provide a market for more than 100 "guesthouses" created in spare rooms and garages across town.

Altar's Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish began a simple outreach to migrants in 2000 -- parishioners brought a meal for them to the plaza once a week. The program is now a major ministry for the Archdiocese of Hermosillo.

With financial support from the archdiocese, U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services and other donors, the Centro Communitario de Atencion al Migrante y Necesidad (Community Center to Aid Migrants and the Needy) includes a guesthouse of its own, with beds for 20, showers, laundry facilities, a medical clinic and other services.

Its comfortable bunks with new mattresses and clean sheets are a stark contrast to those offered elsewhere in town.

At one for-profit guesthouse, dozens of men waited in a courtyard and in a series of poorly lit rooms added onto what once was a single-family house. Each room was packed with bunk beds, made of bare metal frames with swatches of bedraggled carpet as mattresses.

The manager, who asked not to be identified, said typically 80 to 100 people stay there each night, paying about $4 apiece.

A would-be border crosser who arrives in Altar, perhaps by bus, might first spend time in the plaza seeking advice about crossing the border. He -- most of those gathered in Altar are men -- might listen to several different potential "guides" pitch their services.

Eventually, late one afternoon, he will board one of the many vans or taxis that shuttle people 60 miles up a dirt road to the tiny border town of Sasabe. As the Tucson group held a brief prayer service around 5 p.m. alongside a cross at the start of that toll road, perhaps a dozen vans headed north. Each was crammed with about 20 or more men, most of whom made the sign of the cross as they passed the roadside shrine.

About four hours later, vans from the Tucson Diocese waited in line at the port of entry in Nogales. The passengers watched as 20 or so men carrying fat backpacks walked slowly back into Mexico from the U.S. pedestrian gate. Hilburn explained that the men had been released there by the U.S. Border Patrol.

Rob Daniels, spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, said the 708 people picked up on that day in February is a typical number during the busiest winter months in the area west of Nogales that includes Sasabe. Each person caught is fingerprinted. If there's no reason to hold him, he's put on a bus and taken back to the Nogales port of entry, Daniels said.

"Unless there's a prior deportation order or record of a felony, most -- 95 percent of them -- are returned after processing," Daniels said. The whole process usually takes no more than an hour or two, depending upon how many people are in the group, he added.

Buses back to Altar from Nogales run every hour, around the clock.
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