July 16, 2003 

At the border, freedom of movement and the law of hunger

By JERRY KAMMER
Copley News Service

SASABE, Mexico -- On a hilltop in a rolling desert landscape of creosote and mesquite outside this ramshackle border settlement, a Mexican immigration agent demonstrated how the Mexican Constitution trumps the law that says persons leaving the country must use designated border crossing points.

"The Constitution guarantees freedom of movement," said the agent, a tall, amicable man who gave his name as Medina. Then, taking small sideways steps up to an imaginary borderline, he said, "So any Mexican can go right up to the line without breaking the law. And once he enters the United States," he added with a shrug, "he's out of our jurisdiction."

Politicians in Mexico City use the same Catch-22 to explain why they can't stop Mexican migrants from venturing into remote, rugged terrain to cross illegally into the United States.

Even though many migrants have died of exposure, agents from the federal border protection force called Grupo Beta, stationed south of Sasabe, counted but did not stop migrants in vans and taxis headed toward the border.

In two hours they counted 129 men, 28 women and three children who came from 12 of Mexico's 32 states. Guided by smugglers known as "coyotes," carrying backpacks and water jugs, they were headed into the 100-degree heat of the Sonoran desert. Two days later, the Border Patrol would find the body of a 16-year-old girl on the U.S. side, dead from too much heat and too little water.

Mexican authorities say they aren't authorized to stop the immigrants but are clamping down on the smugglers. They point to May raids in the town of Altar, 60 miles south of Sasabe, where they report taking down several bands of smugglers. They also report frequent detentions of Central Americans who enter Mexico illegally on their way north.

Altar thrives by selling food, water, $2.50-a-night bunk beds and coyote services to the migrants. On a recent afternoon, it was business as usual.

Tough-looking men with phones on their hips waited for the buses that come from across Mexico, unloading migrants at the plaza that surrounds the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In the merciful shade of the eucalyptus trees that line the plaza, a group from Chiapas said their coyote had told them they would be heading to the border in two days.

They've already been picked up by the Border Patrol twice, they said. But they're determined to get through. They have jobs at a Florida restaurant where the pay is $6.50 an hour, 13 times the wages in the fields back home, they said.

Another migrant, who grew up in the mountains near Acapulco, said he is headed to Phoenix, where landscaping companies pay $7.50 an hour. He shrugs off the dangers of the desert passage.

"Better to die of heat in the desert than of starvation at home," he said.