Mexican Boomtown Benefiting from Migration North

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The Mexican village of Altar, 60 miles south of the Arizona border, has found an economic boon in illegal immigration. During the height of the border-crossing season in March and April, some 12,000 migrants pass through the town each day — purchasing food, lodging and other supplies as they move toward the U.S. border. Julie Bierach of member station KUAT in Tucson reports.


In many Mexican border towns, an entire economy has developed around the business of helping migrants cross illegally into this country. Julie Bierach of member station KUAZ in Tucson went south of the Arizona boarder to the town of Altar.

JULIE BIERACH reporting:

Inside Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish Church in Altar, six migrants sit quietly praying. At sundown they'll attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico Border.

(Soundbite of a bell)

BIRACH: Directly outside the church doors, the central plaza is abuzz with people-smugglers closing deals. Vendors surround the plaza, selling everything from mangos to camouflage coats, backpacks and water jugs. A woman sweeps away leaves in front of her food stand as vans line the street around the plaza waiting to pick up migrants and take them the 60 miles to the border where they'll cross. Migration is the business of this town.

(Soundbite of vehicle horn)

Ms. BIERACH: Erica Dahl-Bredine is the Mexico director of Catholic Relief Services. She says Altar has become a migrant terminal.

Ms. ERICA DAHL-BREDINE (Country Manager, Catholic Relief Services' Mexico Program): Many, many businesses have grown up around providing various services to migrants such as lodging, food, selling them supplies, transportation. It's really what's moving the local economy now.

(Soundbite of traffic)

Ms. BIERACH: Until 10 years ago, Altar was a farming and ranching community, but after NAFTA was enacted in 1994, reduced market prices drove many small farmers and ranchers out of business. At the same time, the U.S. increased security along more of the traditional crossing points at the border.

(Soundbite of traffic)

Ms. DAHL-BREDINE: It essentially ended up funneling huge flows of migrants through the Arizona/Sonora border and the desert.

Ms. BIERACH: Francisco Garcia was the mayor of Altar for three years. He says at first the local townspeople resented the migrants for coming to the town. They took over the central plaza and crowded the streets. But now the local townspeople feel very fortunate to have the business of migration. Without it, the town could not survive.

Mr. FRANCISCO GARCIA ATEN (Former Mayor, Altar, Mexico): (Through translator) There really hasn't been any investment by the federal government or by business interests here. The people who've really invested in this community and what's made the local economy really work for the last few years are those who have set up this migrant smuggling network and human traffic network.

Ms. BIERACH: The local townspeople provide the migrants with housing and transportation. Many have transformed their homes into private guesthouses. Currently, there are 120 privately owned guesthouses, 12 hotels, and 220 private vans that carry migrants to the border all day, every day.

Inside one of the guesthouses, a small child is sleeping alone on a bunk, which is nothing more than a slab of wood with a thin layer of green carpet. Typically, migrants will stay here for a period of three days with their smugglers. Often they're charged exorbitant rates, two to three dollars for a bunk, a dollar to take a shower, another dollar for a towel. From here, they'll head to the town square where they'll board a privately owned van heading to the border.

(Soundbite of vehicle engine)

Ms. BIERACH: For many of these migrants, their last stop in Altar is at a small, beat-up tollbooth that stands at the entrance of the bumpy, dusty road to the border. It's a private tollbooth owned reportedly by a few ranchers in the area, along with the former mayor of Altar. Here, four buses, each packed with about 20 migrants, are lined up waiting to pay the total of 25 pesos, or two dollars and fifty cents. Once paid, they're permitted to pass.

To the migrants, Altar is merely a stopping point on their way to a better life in the U.S., but to the people of Altar, the migrants have already provided a better life. A peso here and a peso there, making the difference in an impoverished border village. For NPR News, I'm Julie Bierach.

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