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Mexican border town hit hard as migration patterns shift

A mural that pays tribute to the migrants who make the perilous journey across the desert decorates a wall in the center of Altar.
A mural that pays tribute to the migrants who make the perilous journey across the desert decorates a wall in the center of Altar.
Jude Joffe-Block

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In recent decades, a flood of migrants passing through the Northern Mexican town of Altar has fueled the local economy, but migration patterns to the U.S. have shifted.  

As a result, the government says two thirds of the restaurants and half the convenience stores in this desert town south of Arizona have closed. From the Fronteras Desk, Jude Joffe-Block reports.

On a recent afternoon, the rain poured down in the Northern Mexican town of Altar. Local priest Padre Prisciliano Peraza drove down a bumpy dirt road that leads out of town.

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.

This dirt road leads to the border town of Sasabe, some 60 miles away. This very route is also what drove Altar’s growth.

Local businesses sprouted up to feed, house and sell supplies to migrants on their way up to the Arizona desert.

Peraza said among those entrepreneurial endeavours 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 said in Spanish.

Much of this business is controlled by organized crime, which has a strong grip on this town.

But the number of migrants making the harrowing trek across Arizona's border has been falling. It reflects the fact that migration from Mexico has been on a downward trend for the last several years, and that smuggling routes have been changing. 

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. Tucson Sector made 120,939 apprehensions last year, down from 491,771 ten years ago.

“Before, many more people used to come through here,” said local pharmacist Maria Jaime Peña. 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 came through a day. Now? A couple hundred.

“There’s a lot of Central Americans,” Jaime Peña said 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.

The local government here said about two thirds of Altar’s restaurants and half the convenience stores have closed in the past four years.

Jaime Peña’s store still 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 said.

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

On the outskirts of Altar, local families gathered to celebrate a quinceañera, a girl's 15th birthday. A band played 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,” said 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.