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Immigrant Desert Trail Sparks Hopes and Rumors - 2004-05-17

Part 2 of 5

In recent weeks, thousands of people have come to a dusty little town on Mexico's border with the United States in hopes of crossing over the border before a major crackdown by the U.S. Border Patrol takes effect. But, there are many rumors, myths and dreams that will be left to bake in the desert sun.

This is one of the most remote communities along the 3,000 kilometer U.S. Mexico border. On the Mexican side, El Sasabe consists of a handful of scattered houses and two or three stores, one of which is called "El Super Coyote." The owner says it is named after the animal, but "coyote" is also the word used for human smugglers, the people who guide immigrants across the border, for a price.

The manager, who declines to be interviewed, denies any involvement with the smuggling rings, but she says many immigrants do stop by her store to buy water and food before making their trek.

A few hundred meters away, on the other side of the border, lies the town of Sasabe, Arizona. Alice Knagge is owner of a general merchandise store with gasoline pumps out front. She says the wave of immigrants has taken a toll. "They vandalize the houses. They come into the vacant homes or rented homes when no one is there. They go in through the windows. They leave tons of garbage behind. They have a lot of clothes and all kinds of things they leave behind. In the last year or so it seems like it has increased tremendously. It just seems more people are coming from down south. Thousands are coming," she says.

In response to the increased incursions through Sasabe and the desert areas around it, the U.S. Border Patrol sent in more agents and more vehicles to apprehend the illegal aliens, something Alica Knagge says has created yet another problem. "They do not care how they do it. They just chase those people in their vehicles. Also, they are driving all over the terrain around here, all over the land. They make roads with their four-wheelers and their bikes and their cars. They just go all over the place, you know," she says.

In recent weeks, the flow of immigrants has increased because of false rumors that President Bush would grant amnesty to anyone already in the country by June 1. One rumor that is true, however, is that the U.S. Border Patrol plans to step up enforcement in this sector by June 1.

Back on the Mexican side of the border, residents of El Sasabe also complain about some of the effects of immigrants, who mostly come from central and southern Mexico and use the little ranch town as a base.

One woman says they knock down fences and let cattle escape. They leave garbage behind as well. On the other hand, she says, the influx of immigrants has been good for business. She says lots of people coming from down south stay in local houses and help the local economy by buying things in stores.

The reason immigrants have come to this remote and desolate area on the border is because of tighter enforcement elsewhere. The human smugglers have established themselves here as well, charging several hundred dollars to take a person across the border, through the desert and to a pick-up point somewhere farther in. Usually a van or truck then transports the immigrants to Tucson or Phoenix, where they either find work or travel on to other U.S. cities.

If immigrants do not have the money to pay the coyote, they can borrow the funds from the same smuggler at a high interest rate. Usually a family member back in Mexico must guarantee the payment. Some, however, like this man from the southern state of Oaxaca, prefer to take their chances crossing alone. He says he came up with all the others heading to this town. He just followed the crowd. He says he has six children back home and that it was difficult to find work there to support the family.

He says he and his companion each have a bottle of water, but he seems unconcerned about the dangers they will face once they enter the desert.

Most of the people coming north from the interior of Mexico are ill-prepared for what they will face here. Because of the expanded Border Patrol operations on the other side, they cannot travel on roads or highways without being detected. That means they must cross over the rocky, dry landscape of the Sonora desert, where there is little shade and temperatures reach 44 degrees Celsius by midday. Even at night, at this time of year, the desert temperatures may remain as high as 36 degrees Celsius. Last year, 340 people died trying to enter the United States illegally and a high percentage of those deaths occurred in the Arizona desert. But the lure of wages several times higher than those of Mexico lures the immigrants over the line and on to the dangerous trail.