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Booming border town

Sonoran community thrives amid border crackdown

Residents cater to migrants

Stories by PAMELA HARTMAN Citizen Staff Writer

ALTAR, Son. – The restaurants are packed, the plaza is bustling with vendors and homes are overflowing with guests. For this agricultural town of 18,000, a Border Patrol crackdown hundreds of miles away in another country has become a golden opportunity.

With thousands of patrol agents converging on San Diego, this desert community in Sonora has become an alternate staging point for thousands of illegal immigrants unable to cross in Tijuana.

”It helps the economy here,” said Altar Mayor Domingo Pesqueira Barcenas. ”It gives work to a lot of people.”

Though 60 miles south of the U.S. border, Altar is along a major highway and is the last town with restaurants, check-cashing services, telephones and lodging before immigrants reach the Arizona border near the Tohono O’odham Nation.

As apprehensions 100 miles northwest in Ajo have risen from 2,600 in 1995 to more than 14,000 last year, and Sells and Sasabe also have become popular crossing points, the number of boarding homes in Altar has multiplied from two to 45, and new phone services have popped up throughout downtown.

Two years ago, Liliana Valle Jimenez made a telephone available to the migrants so they could call relatives in Mexico and the United States.

”If it weren’t for them, the town would fall apart,” said Valle, who operates from an out-of-service laundry room a block from the town plaza. ”They give us life. They come here and do their shopping, eat and stay overnight.”

But competition has become tighter for Valle, as pay phones that accept collect calls to the United States have sprung up.

One phone is located outside the shoe store of Eunice Cabrera Dominguez. In addition to the shoe store, the Altar businesswoman converted a two-story apartment complex into boarding rooms for dozens of migrants. She charges 20 pesos a day, slightly more than $2.

”I never thought I would have a boarding house for immigrants, and I didn’t construct it for that,” she said.

Cabrera said her main source of income is from the shoe store, and she bridled at suggestions that she was profiting from the immigrant traffic. Still, Cabrera recently began offering lunch service to boarders. Three months ago, she also started offering daily bus service to the border town of Sasabe, 60 miles north. The buses leave each morning at 6, she said, and carry local residents and crossers alike.

Mayoral aide Juan Angel Castro Ortega is preparing a thesis on the immigration phenomenon. Castro said the migrants travel an average of five days to reach Altar, stay an average of three days, and spend an average of 5,000 pesos, about $550, on their journeys. He said most of the migrants are from Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, and some come from Central America.

Pesqueira said the border near Altar became popular because of its remoteness, and because the Border Patrol permits the Tohono O’odham to cross the border at unofficial crossing gates, which he said also makes it easier for smugglers to pass undetected.

Several hundred migrants arrive daily in Altar, with the intent of making it north of the border, Pesqueira said. Most take buses from their villages to Santa Ana, Son., and then Altar. More than half, he estimates, are deported by the Border Patrol at Lukeville or Nogales, and return to Altar to try again.

There have not been problems with crime or violence with the migrants, the mayor said.

”They are very respectful people,” he said. ”Here we are all Mexicans, and we can travel freely throughout our country.”

The only problem, he said, is that smugglers sometimes fight amongst themselves.

With dozens and sometimes hundreds of people milling in the streets, the city built public bathrooms in September in the town plaza. Local authorities also are passing out saline solution so that migrants will be better prepared to handle the heat when crossing the desert.

Pesqueira said 200 people in Altar are involved in businesses catering to migrants: the people who provide transport to the border, and owners of boarding houses, restaurants, and businesses where immigrants can make and accept telephone calls and receive money.

In December, taco-stand owner Luis Lopez decided to diversify. He converted part of his house into boarding rooms by placing mattresses on the floor and in bunk beds, putting swamp coolers in the rooms, and adding a couple of toilets and showers.

Business slows in summer, but on a recent day Lopez still had a dozen people crashing at his place. He said he charges them about $1 a day.

”People don’t have any money with them,” he said, adding that his business is helping people stay off the streets.

In one of Lopez’s rooms, three young men from Escuintla, Chiapas, and a woman from Veracruz relax on a mattress. The room is bare except for a bunk bed, two mattresses, and the swamp cooler.

The men said they were staying here while waiting for relatives in the United States, who had crossed through Altar eight months earlier, to wire money for the passage north.

Pamela Hartman’s e-mail: hartman@tucsoncitizen.com



This series is being done in partnership with KGUN 9. Watch KGUN 9 for the following stories as part of its series ”On the Border.”

• Today at 5 p.m.: Reporter Steve Nuñez tells us what jobs illegal immigrants are willing to take.

• Tonight at 10: Reporter Katie McCall examines the costs of illegal immigration and care for undocumented immigrants at Tucson hospitals.

MAP: Arizona-Mexico border


Migrants crowd stores and restaurants in Altar, spending their money while staying a few days before trying to make their way across the border into the United States.

Joaquin Delgado (left to right), 19; Maria Teresa Romero Perez, 24, Jose Manuel Velasquez, 19, and Jorge Gomez, 24, stay at a boarding house in Altar. Romero Perez, from Veracruz, and the men, from Escuintia, Chiapas, are waiting for a chance to cross into the United States.

FIRST EDITION PHOTO: Migrants use the many pay phones and phone services that have sprung up in Altar to call relatives in Mexico and the United States.

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