Sniffing Out the Real Migrants

Sacha Feinman, Slate, August 19, 2009

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{snip} Sitting just 60 miles south of the Arizona-Mexico border, Altar, in Sonora state, is a place unlike any other. Once a quiet community of farmers and ranchers, this dusty desert town of 8,000 is now one of the most important staging points for the movement of undocumented workers. Migrants from all over Mexico and various Central and South American countries come here to find a guide who will take them through the dangerous desert crossing and into the United States.

The entire economy of Altar is based on the business of human smuggling. Rows of shops sell all the materials necessary for the border crossing. Backpacks, canned goods, and electrolyte-infused soft drinks are sold everywhere. Headhunters who work for the town’s coyotes pass the day looking for new customers. Their job is to spot Altar’s newest arrivals and sell them on a guide who knows the way into Arizona. They are fast talkers and hustlers, willing to promise anything to drum up business.

{snip} The town feels like something out of an old Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western. When you step into the central plaza, dozens of strangers assess you, wondering what exactly you are doing here, while contemplating the ways a profit might be generated off your presence. A bodega selling cold beer and potato chips only adds to the effect; it features a slot machine that plays the theme music of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly over and over again.

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{snip} For the migrants in Altar, passing the time in silence, preferably in one of the few patches of shade, is the day’s main activity. Some even sleep in the plaza, though others prefer to pay rent at one of the town’s flophouses. More plentiful and affordable than motels, they are communal rooms densely packed with rows of bunk beds. A migrant’s 40 pesos ($3) rents a piece of plywood and a tattered blanket rather than a proper mattress.

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Marcos never turns away anyone who comes asking for a free meal. But visitors looking to spend the night and enjoy the comfort of a real mattress and an actual bed sheet must first make it past his discerning nose.

A migrant’s first stop upon arrival at the shelter is a wobbly plastic chair in front of Marcos’ desk. Other than a crucifix hanging from the far wall, the room is free of decoration. In quick succession, Marcos asks his guests a series of questions. Name, age, marital status, and hometown are all registered before he delves deeper.

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The first man Marcos interviewed went by the name Orlando, and he didn’t conform to the migrant stereotype. Sporting a gold tooth and an expensive-looking watch on his left wrist, he answered every question confidently. Nevertheless, he was told he could only stay for dinner. After Orlando left the room, Marcos explained.

“He’s a coyote, here looking for customers,” he said. “I try never to turn away anyone who asks me for food, but he definitely will not spend the night.”

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