Thursday, March 7, 2002 - The Michigan Daily - 5A
Higher fences and 2,000 deaths
haven't stemmed the tide of
migrants streaming across the
U.S. /Mexico border. It may be
time for us to look south and
reevaluate border policy.
BY MICHAEL GRASS
LTAR, 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 num-
ber 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 jump-
ing 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.
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 pre-
sent 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 suc-
NO EASY SOLUTIONS
"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
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, FatheraRen6's churchrcommunity will
march to the border at Sasabe to pray for those who have
died crossing the desert. Students in Ann Arbor are plan-
ning 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 Ameri-
cans don't want to take will continue to draw thousands of
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
BEGINNING THE JOURNEY
Many people traveling to the U.S. via Altar have been
through before. One of those last Thursday was a man named
Rene, who came from the state of Hidalgo. Dressed in a grey
shirt and blue jeans and wearing a New York Yankees base-
ball cap with a picture of Bugs Bunny, he said his final desti-
nation 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 stand-
ing 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, Rene already has con-
tacts at U.S. companies and businesses.
One man already has a job lined up at a cafe 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
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 vig-
ilantes who rove the desert hunting migrants like deer.
Father Luis Rene Castaleda 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
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
WITH FAITH, DETERMINED TO GO
Every Thursday, Father Rene 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 rec-
ognized and received like brothers."
During last Thursday's mass, Father Ren6 invited a
man in a Green Bay Packers jacket to speak about his
tion - which
out of the
double doors as de 15 he
onto the plaza.
He said he
was from the
town of Santo
ished state of
monial, it is
easy to see
why so many
their homes in A mural on the migrant community cent
search of border. When the mural was painted, 1,E
money. estimates place the number of deaths a
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. lie couldn't make ends meet; he had to go
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 convic-
tion, 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 Sup-
per 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 - includ-
ing 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 bor-
- . And with the risks increasing,
. the Archdiocese of Hermosillo is
r delivering a report to Pope John
..*CAT&, . __.... . 41.. .1.. ... .
While the border in San Diego, Calif. and Nogales,
Ariz. are huge walls and fences, a simpie barbed
wire fence is the only thing separating the U.S.
Although most migrants
come from all over Mexico
and Central America, the
vast majority come from
the impoverished states of
Chiapas and Guerrero.
er in Altar, Mexico asks how many more people must die crossing the U.S./Mexico
500 people had died trying to make it to the United States. As of earlier this year, some
t more than 2,000.
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
"They aren't going there to plant bombs, they're there
to work," Father Ren6 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
Migration, poverty, unfair trade policies and the diffu-
sion 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
While the majority of the
more than 2,000 border
crossing deaths can be
tied to dehydration or the
elements, a group of
American vigilantes have
been shooting migrants
As the border has been
strengthened in cities,
traditional migration routes
present for decades have
been shut down, forcing
people to cross through
the desert frontier.
Migration has been such a
_ I "
n : ...