Books May 2006


The ominous push and pull of the U.S.–Mexico border

On January 6, celebrated as Three Kings Day in Mexico, the flow of border crossers heading north restarts its annual cycle. So when I arrive on the following Wednesday in the dusty, gritty Sonoran Desert town of Altar, two hours south of the border via a liver-jostling dirt road, the local merchants couldn’t be more delighted. I have been to Altar before. And on this trip, I can readily agree with the local street entrepreneurs and hustlers that this year’s crossing season, barely in its third day, looks to be as bountiful and profitable as ever—in spite of an also cyclical uproar, north of the border, over illegal immigration. Once an anonymous bus stop on Mexico’s Route 2, Altar—a diesel-marinated ten-block grid of around 10,000 people—has become the primary staging area for Mexican migrants before they make their desperate bounce across the border. And the town’s entire commercial life rests on this singular enterprise.

All around the central plaza that skirts the butternut-colored colonial-era church, small groups—mostly men, mostly young, mostly dressed in dark clothing and running shoes, though there are also some women with babies in their arms—await contact with the coyote or pollero who has promised to push them through a treacherous but in many ways invisible membrane from which they will emerge, almost magically, on the other side as our carpenters, gardeners, waiters, pickers, pluckers, and nannies. The going rate, door-to-door, from the fields of Veracruz or Oaxaca to the orange orchards of Florida or to a Brentwood kitchen: about $1,500. No need, even, to pay it all in advance: installments, with interest, will be drawn from future income.

On the streets adjoining the plaza, tiny, airless shops selling phone cards and converting currency are doing brisk business, as are the occasional youth gangs, who find few other places in Mexico where so many people are walking around with so much folding money in their pockets. Other Mexican migrants fleeing the impoverished south operate a warren of kiosks and stands, offering up for sale everything needed to ease the perilous crossing ahead: plastic gallon jugs of water; plastic baggies of combs, toothbrushes, aspirin tablets, and lip balm; dark jeans; black windbreakers; hooded sweatshirts; athletic shoes; baseball caps; bandanas; backpacks; and the black woolen ski masks favored by the salaried guides who lead the walkers across the desert. Also for sale are black plastic trash bags—$3 each—to be wrapped around the body; they’re said to foil the heat-seeking sensors that the U.S. Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security have stitched into the other side of la linea. One Oaxacan vendor shows off a black cap with an embroidered green cannabis leaf. “They buy this one a lot,” he says. “I tell them I don’t think it’s the best one to wear.”

A few yards away, the Red Cross has just opened its first-aid trailer for this year’s season, and its advice is also readily spurned. “I tell them that they run a great risk,” says uniformed paramedic Amado Arellano. He even shows them a colorful but macabre wall map—provided by the Tucson-based Humane Borders group—that marks every spot where a migrant has died in the desert. Hundreds of fatal red dots cluster just above the border. “We try to tell them not to go,” he says. “But no one listens. The necessity is too great.” Right beside the medical trailer snakes a line—sometimes twenty or thirty vehicles long—of battered windowless ten-seater vans, their seats torn out and replaced with benches that allow twenty-seven, even thirty, passengers to be crammed in. These shuttle operations—charging an average of $10 a head—are some of the more lucrative businesses in Altar, and their overloaded vans rumble up the same rocky road I’ve just come down. The destination of “Sasabe” is written with washable white marker on the sides of the vans. They might be more honestly labeled “California” or “North Carolina” or “Texas,” as no sane person would voluntarily travel to the grim, unpaved Mexican border hamlet of Sasabe—except to use it as a location for a Robert Rodriguez movie or, more likely, as the final stepping stone over the line. By midday, the vans are departing with the perpetual rhythm of Disneyland people-carriers zipping into the Haunted House. Approximately 40,000 migrants per month make this trip through and out of Altar.

Accompanied by Jorge Solchaga, a thirty-eight-year-old diplomat who works with the Mexican consulate in Phoenix, I walk through a nameless tortilla shop on a side street off the plaza, out its back door, and into a brick-and-cement courtyard teeming with people getting ready to cross. This is one of Altar’s countless unregulated and ill-named “guest houses”—tenement flops that offer nothing except a body-sized patch of floor for $5 or $6 a night. On one side of the cramped courtyard, workmen plaster together an add-on to the tenement; its owners clearly realize that they are part of a growth industry. A rickety iron staircase leads us to some second-floor lodgings, a bare twenty-by-twenty-foot room in which about fifty people have put down their sleeping mats and backpacks.

In the courtyard once more, Solchaga spots a dark-skinned girl with a nursing-age infant in her lap. She stares at the ground as Solchaga gently warns her that she is about to put her life and that of her child at risk. When he presses her on the dangers, she barely nods. Almost inaudibly she says that she’s twenty, but she looks five years younger and somewhat terrified. However, the die is cast. She’s given up everything back home and will be heading out into a new world within a few minutes. “Make sure your husband carries three extra gallons of water for you, you hear?” Solchaga says, nodding to the man sitting behind her. As we exit the flop, Solchaga tells me that the blank look in that girl’s eyes will surely haunt him. One of his jobs at the consulate is to process the deaths of Mexicans in the United States. Three years ago in Altar, he tells me, he warned another nursing mother not to make the crossing, and less than a week later, when a call came in to his Arizona office requesting him to help identify a “fatality” that had been found in the desert, he recognized the same young woman. “This is my job, and I am used to it,” he says. Last year he processed the deaths of 219 Mexicans in the Phoenix area; some were migrants who had wandered in the desert for eight or nine days before their souls and bodies burned out. “It’s the young women I never forget,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.

The night before my trip to Altar, I had dinner with the Tucson-based journalist Charles Bowden, author of more than fifteen books, most of them set along the border. In perhaps his most acclaimed work, Down by the River, certainly a must-read for anyone researching the border, Bowden describes the poverty that swamps even the more prosperous Mexican border cities and that relentlessly churns the human flow northward. “Over there,” he writes of Ciudad Juárez, just across from El Paso, Texas,

most of the streets are unpaved, two thirds of the houses lack any sewage connection. At least 200,000 people in the city live as squatters … At least 35,000 more poor people descend on Juárez each year. Or sixty thousand, no one is sure. They take jobs at $3 to $5 a day that cannot sustain them.

When they realize that it’s only the width of a river—or a twelve-foot wall, or three strands of cattle wire, or a three-day walk, for that matter—that separates them from a First World economy and some reasonable chance at a future, they push north. “The Mexican border is the only place,” Bowden writes, “where the cyberspace world of a major economy rubs up against a world of raw sewage and mud huts. The world of mud is failing to sustain its people.”

Writing Down by the River with a feverish intensity, stringing his phrasings out like bursts of angry jazz, Bowden describes the borderlands as a violent netherworld where both Mexico and the United States can flaunt their most unappealing aspects. Concentrating on the front line of the endless and fruitless war on drugs, he captures the barbaric and bloody energy generated when—and where—the north’s insatiable pull for drugs meets the coke, cash, and corruption pushing up from the south. For Bowden, the same inexorable law of supply and demand explains the flow of human cargo—of illegal immigrants.

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Marc Cooper is a contributing editor of The Nation and a senior fellow at the Institute for Justice and Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

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