Illegal immigration has been a thorny issue on both sides of the border for decades. In Part 4 of our series, The Border and the Mexican Ballot, we traveled to what was once the hub for illegal immigrant smuggling from northern Mexico into the U.S. While the weak U.S. economy has put a huge dent in the flow of migrant traffic north, illegal immigration is less of an issue for both the Mexican and U.S. candidates. The smuggling trade is quiet these days, but hasn't gone away.
ALTAR, SONORA, MEXICO -– Here in Altar, 65 miles south of the Arizona border, immigration is still on everyone’s mind.
It’s dry and hot here. The brassy sounds of norteño music blast out of a pair of speakers mounted in the church square. For a decade, Altar was northern Mexico’s mecca for migrant smuggling.
It sits along Mexican Highway 2 and it’s the last major town before long drive up a dirt road to the border. Shops all around still cater to the migrant crowd. They sell them water and backpacks and sturdy shoes and syrupy electrolytes for the long walk.
For years, apprehensions coming out of here made up up nearly half the Border Patrol’s arrests.
Now it’s a shadow of those bustling times. Today, only one van sits waiting for customers. It’s driver snoozes on the rear bench seat. Once 3,000 people would come through every day seeking a ten dollar van ride up to the border. Now, 300.
Six young men are lined up waiting for their ride out. They traveled up together from Southern Mexico and if their destination is vague, their plan for getting there is not. They have work lined up, they say. They’re going to try to cross on their own once, just to see if they could. Then they’ll use a smuggler.
Guillermo Ochoa says he and his friends indispensable to the American economy.
"Whether Americans want to admit it or not, we’re doing the work they won’t," he said.
A few years ago Romeo Monteverde served as Altar’s mayor. Politicians in both countries used to talk about immigration reform, wanting migrants to be able to travel more freely north to find work. Now, he says, both countries find it convenient to ignore the issue.
"As long as there is no reform, Altar will benefit," he said. "As soon as an immigration reform plan is established, they can cross directly into the U.S."
Inside a Red Cross shelter, Reynaldo Soraya watches television as he waits for a friend being treated for dehydration after trying to cross the border. Soraya is a criminal deportee, one of more than 200,000 deported by the Obama Administration since last year. He suspects there’s little talk of immigration reform in the U.S. because cases like his own ruin it for everyone else.
"Some of us go up there just to work, to help our family and some of us go up there and just break the law," he said.
And then there’s Mexico’s politics. John Messing is an immigration attorney in Tucson.
He says immigration hasn’t entered into Mexico’s debates this election year because it’s been completely overshadowed by security issues.
"The flow of arms from the United States into Mexico is a much more serious problem for the Mexicans than the flow of people the other way into the United States,” he said.
More from the Fronteras Desk journalists who reported along the border about impact the Mexican elections will have on the U.S.
Up near the border lies Sasabe, Sonora, a small smuggling town just south of Arizona. The jagged peaks of the Baboquivari Mountains lie to the north. Migrants will follow their path into the U.S. The occasional migrant walks by in this town, a heavy backpack slung over one shoulder or a jug of water in hand. It's 106 degrees. Dusty. On the other side, a killing desert goes on for miles.
Five years ago, van after van would dislodge migrants here and they'd disappear into the desert led by their smugglers. People around here would welcome a return to those days. With a lack of political will on both sides to come up with a real solution, the draw of jobs north may bring this place back to life.