Border towns hit hard as fewer migrants cross

Pharmacist Maria Jaime Peña with the products she sells to migrants, including black water jugs that don't reflect in the moonlight.

A mural in the center of Altar, Mexico pays tribute to the migrants who make the perilous journey across the desert.

Padre Prisciliano Peraza, Altar's priest, reads notes migrants left on a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe at his church before they departed for the Arizona border.

The rain pours down in the Northern Mexican town of Altar, as local priest Padre Prisciliano Peraza drives down a bumpy dirt road. The road leads to the border town of Sasabe, some 60 miles away. 

Peraza has been the priest here in Altar, Sonora for a decade. In that period, this small town boomed as a staging area for migrants preparing to cross the border. But now it appears on the verge of a bust.

Fewer migrants are trying to sneak across Arizona’s border these days. And that means some towns on the Mexican side that rely on the smuggling economy have been hit hard. Local businesses sprouted up to feed, house and sell supplies to migrants on their way up to the Arizona desert.

Peraza says among those entrepreneurial endeavors are van businesses that drive migrants on this very road.

“They use old vans, and have taken out the seats so they can fit more people,” Peraza says in Spanish.

Much of this business is controlled by organized crime.

But migration from Mexico has been on a downward trend for the last several years, as smuggling routes have changed. 

For the first time in 16 years, the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson sector – which covers Southern Arizona – lost its designation as the busiest place to catch migrants last year.

It was surpassed by Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where agents made almost 155,000 apprehensions last year, a 58 percent uptick from the year before. The Border Patrol’s Tucson sector made 120,939 apprehensions last year, down from 491,771 ten years ago.

“Before, many more people used to come through here,” says local pharmacist Maria Jaime Peña in Spanish. She has been selling migrants items like caffeine pills and electrolyte packets for years.

Altar’s local government estimates that four years ago, several thousand migrants passed through a day. Now? A couple hundred.

“There’s a lot of Central Americans,” Jaime Peña says of the migrants she’s seen lately. “And I’ve seen women some come through with their babies.”

Those are the same recent trends the Border Patrol has reported, too.

About two thirds of Altar’s restaurants and half the convenience stores have closed in the past four years, according to estimates from the local government.

Still, Jaime Peña’s store shows some evidence of the force behind the migrant economy. Like the gallon-size black water jugs she sells for about a dollar.

She says when migrants used the regular clear water jugs they reflected in the moonlight, and made it easier for Border Patrol to spot them. And voila – a business opportunity was born. A local water bottling company came out with a black water jug and that is what most migrants use, Jaime Peña says.

But now that bottling company says it has had to diversify its clientele.

On the outskirts of Altar, local families gather to celebrate a quinceañera, a girl's 15th birthday. A band plays in spite of the rain. Many here are worried about the town’s future.

“It’s as if we’re waiting adrift for something miraculous to happen,” says Juan José Corona Moreno, a doctor at the party. “And really if we as citizens don’t do something, this isn’t going to change.”

Corona Moreno thinks the town should return to its roots in ranching and agriculture.

The local government is trying to recruit a maquiladora to provide manufacturing jobs.

That could be the only chance for new employment here, unless another wave of migration picks up.

About the author

Jude Joffe-Block is the Phoenix correspondent for the Fronteras Desk, a public media collaboration in the Southwest.

A mural in the center of Altar, Mexico pays tribute to the migrants who make the perilous journey across the desert.

Padre Prisciliano Peraza, Altar's priest, reads notes migrants left on a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe at his church before they departed for the Arizona border.

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