On the road to Sasabe

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This is one of a series of reports from a border trip spnsored by Witness for Peace. Seven of us drove from Minnesota to Mexico, visiting towns on both sides of the border, meeting and speaking with a wide variety of people, and finallly meeeting up with the Border Trail Walk for the final leg of their 75-mile journey from Sásabe to Tucson.

June 3: Sásabe and Grupo Beta
As our group of Minnesotans left the Mexican town of Altar for the border crossing in Sásabe, our white mini-van stopped first at a private toll booth near the turn-off from the paved highway to a two-lane dirt road. The toll booth was planted firmly in place by a private landowner who claims the toll for the grading and “improvements” to the road. The toll collector, a former mayor of Altar, also owns a hotel housing immigrants there. Government attempts to dislodge him from his toll booth have failed. Within a mile of jolting along the rutted dirt road, someone jokes that we should go back to demand a refund.

Joking aside, this rutted excuse for a road sees heavy traffic. Francisco García Aten, human rights director at a Catholic immigrant shelter in Altar (and himself a current aspirant to the office of mayor of Altar), told us about the thousands of migrants who pour through Altar daily. Almost all of them end up on the road to Sásabe, though few will pass through the border checkpoint itself. Most scatter through the desert territory around Sásabe, crossing the border, which amounts to no more than a barbed wire cattle fence along this part of la frontera, and then walking through the desert for three nights (if they are lucky) or being picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol if they are not so lucky) or wandering, lost, through cold nights and scorching days, if they are really unlucky.

Sásabe is a twin town, with only a handful of people living in Sásabe, Arizona, and only about 2,000 people living in the Mexican Sásabe. It lies in the Tucson sector of the U.S. Border Patrol, as do the far larger twin cities of Nogales, Mexico (population somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000) and Nogales, Arizona (population about 21,000). The Tucson sector stretches for 261 miles, from New Mexico to the Yuma County, Arizona, border. More than half of the 473 documented immigrant deaths last year occurred in the Tucson sector.

We stopped at a checkpoint for Grupo Beta, where two friendly agents said that about 31,000 people passed through their checkpoint in May 2006. During the high season for immigration, January through March, they counted an average of 3,000 people daily on the Sásabe road. That’s a dramatic increase over March 2004, when Grupo Beta counted 56,000 people and March 2003, when the number was only 41,000.

Grupo Beta was established in 1991 as an immigrant protection/police agency. It is not charged with immigration enforcement. Back at the CCAMYN migrant shelter in Altar, Francisco Garcia had told us that CCAMYN communicates with Grupo Beta and considers their numbers the most reliable figures available on immigration in this part of Mexico.

“Our mission is protecting immigrants,” the Grupo Beta officers insisted. Breaking off their conversation with us, they spoke briefly with the immigrants packed in a white van, and handed out leaflets with warnings. Returning, they said they call a hospital if anyone is in need of medical care. Mostly, though, they warn people of the dangers that lie ahead. Especially women, they say. Women are particularly fragile, particularly vulnerable to the dangers of the desert. It is clear that they mean dangerous people as well as dehydration.

At the border crossing in Sásabe, the agents treat us politely. They do check the passport for the one Venezuelan member of our group, but don’t even ask to look at the U.S. passports.

Now we are headed for a Baptist church to join other people on the Border Trail Walk. The desert around us is beautiful but forbidding. I think of the migrants in Altar who told me that they planned to walk for three nights through the desert before reaching Tucson. Walking at night, in cooler temperatures, seemed a sensible plan. Now that I see the amount of vegetation in the desert, I wonder how they will manage in the dark. The giant saguaro cactus may be easy to avoid, but the gnarled cholla reach twisted, thorny branches to catch at arms, legs, eyes, hair. This is not storybook sandy desert, but a landscape filled with hostile vegetation – as well as poisonous snakes, scorpions and other night-moving creatures.

As we drive toward the church, a mobile Border Patrol unit stops us again. This time, they have a few more questions for Maria, but still none for the rest of us. Many Border Patrol vehicles and a fair amount of surveillance equipment is in evidence. I wonder how many people they pick up in a night – how many of the thousand people on the Sásabe road will be heading back to Mexico in the morning, not of their own volition.

We hear of, but do not see, the Minutemen building some kind of fence on a nearby ranch, in one of their small but highly publicized operations. Operating on the legal fringes, they claim to patrol the border to deter or detain immigrants. While anti-immigrant sentiment or plain old racism is a large part of the Minutemen’s appeal, some Arizona border residents are afraid of the violence of drug traffickers, and of traffickers in human beings. While the vast majority of border crossers are people looking for any honest work, a small number of violent traffickers make the already-dangerous desert even more deadly.

Pro-immigrant groups operating in the Arizona desert near Sásabe far outnumber the anti-immigrant Minutemen. Like the Catholic-run CCAMYN shelter in Altar, they are motivated by the desperate plight of hundreds of immigrants who die each year attempting to crdoss the desert and thousands more who barely survive the dangers of dehydration, snake or scorpion bites, and the dangers posed by criminals who prey on migrants. At the church, and on the Border Trail Walk, we will meet people from many of these groups.

The Humane Borders/Fronteras Compasivas organization maintains a network of more than 70 blue water barrels. Volunteers maintain the barrels, which are located in areas of the desert where immigrants frequently cross and are at greatest risk. The U.S. Border Patrol advised the project on where to place the barrels and agreed not to stake out the locations or target them for arrests.

No More Deaths/No Más Muertes began operating in 2004, with roots in religious groups in Tucson. and send volunteers into the desert, looking for desert crossers who have become disoriented or run out of water or have medical emergencies and need assistance. Though they negotiated an understanding on operating rules with the U.S. Border Patrol, two No More Deaths volunteers were arrested in 2005 for transporting dying immigrants to a Tucson hospital. Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz found the three dehydrated men in the desert, called a doctor and a nurse after conducting a field examination, and transported the men to a hospital. All five were arrested, and Strauss and Sellz were charged with felonies carrying up to 15 years in prison.

The Samaritan project, organized in 2002, patrols the desert to offer survival assistance to border crossers. Each patrol carries water, food, emergency medical supplies, communications equipment, maps and individual survival packs for immigrants.

By the time we get to the church, it is nearly dark. Many people have settled in for the night, getting some sleep before the 5 a.m. wake-up call. Others have gathered for a concert and sing-along. We spread out, one on a bedroll under the open sky, others in a tent. I opt to unroll a sleeping bag inside the church, listening to the end of the concert and falling asleep as soon as the lights go out.

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