An immigrant’s journey: Dust, flies, and the long walk

  • Just south of the U.S. border, migrants duck for cover as a Border Patrol Black Hawk helicopter hovers up ahead. Two gallons of water will last about a day in the heat they will endure on their journey north.

    JT Thomas
  • Carlos Alvarez and his traveling companion stand outside the Super Coyote market in Sasabe, one of the primary launching points for migrants attempting to cross the U.S. border.

    JT Thomas
  • Twenty-two hopeful border crossers cram into a van for the 65-mile ride over bumpy roads from Altar to Sasabe, both in the Mexican state of Sonora. Thousands of people make a similar trip each day in the spring.

    JT Thomas

Note: this article is one of several feature stories in a special issue about the West's immigration landscape.

ALTAR, Sonora — First comes the dust. Then the flies. Then, a 150-mile walk through the Arizona desert.

Carlos Alvarez, a 27-year-old from the state of Nayarit, knows it all intimately. He was here three years ago, standing in this same church plaza under the watchful eyes of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, waiting for the van that would take him north to the border.

The blisters are the worst, appearing after the first day’s walk, he says. The cactus spines are almost as bad; he’ll be pulling them out of his skin for a week after he arrives in Phoenix.

His ambitions are not too different from those of most American men his age: Work for a while, save some money, build a house back home, get his wife, Guadalupe, pregnant again.

The sick squeal of brakes jerks him from his reverie as yet another bus pulls up on Highway 2. The doors open with a shudder and a loud hiss. A group of men climbs off, all dressed in the border-crosser’s uniform: dark sweatshirt, jeans, new shoes, baseball caps and backpacks. They walk with the same distinctive shuffle, heads down, eyes to the ground.

Alvarez and all the rest gathered here in the church courtyard will soon join the steady stream of northbound travelers. It is a migration driven by forces much stronger than instinct. Some 4,000 journey to the border town of Sasabe each day, according to Grupo Beta, a Mexican government migrant-protection group. Some of them will make it across the border on their first try. Others will fall into the hands of the Border Patrol — more than 200,000 were caught in the last six months. They will be handcuffed, put into vans, and ferried back across the border, only to try again and again — sometimes as many as 30 times.

The lucky ones will end up as landscapers in Tucson, meatpackers in Greeley, construction workers in Salt Lake City, or fruit pickers in Washington state. The less fortunate, and those who don’t make it past the fences, motion detectors, and Border Patrol, may give up and go back home to their families, to jobs that pay as little as $6 per day.

Then there are those who are swallowed up by the desert: Last year in Arizona, more than 200 people died of heat and thirst. Nobody knows how many more bodies are out there, undiscovered. On this April day, as Alvarez waits for the van, the temperature is comfortably warm, 87 degrees. But by mid-May, the mercury will climb well past 100, baking the rocky desert floor to 140 degrees or more.

Two gallons of water lasts scarcely a day in the desert. After half a day without water, the heat takes over. Suffering migrants have been known to hang themselves from tree branches. Sometimes, the dying tear cacti apart in a frenzied search for water. Sometimes, they rip their clothes off, or rub their hands bloody, clawing into the desert floor, trying to escape the terrible heat.

A flock of pigeons suddenly bursts from the roof of the church, startling Alvarez and his traveling companions, Manuel and José. They watch the birds for a moment, then walk silently to a wooden shack, where they buy styrofoam cups full of steaming instant coffee for five pesos. As they sip it, the van arrives. It will cost them 100 pesos, or about $9.50, for the 65-mile ride to Sasabe, within sight of the border. It’s worth it, to them.


A cloud of dust rises slowly into the air behind the van as it rolls north on a bumpy dirt road. Twenty-two people — mostly men, with a few women and two small children — are crowded inside on long steel benches bolted in sideways in place of car seats. A green plastic milk crate between the two front seats forms a perch for one more. Outside, barely visible through the dust, more loaded vans follow; meanwhile, empty ones pass by heading south, on their way to pick up another load.

The economy of Mexico is piss-poor these days, but the smuggling business is booming. A vast network of human smugglers, known as coyotes, has flourished. Equipped with fleets of vans, cell phones, and border observation posts, the operatives spread across northern Mexico and into the United States. The more difficult it becomes to cross the border, the more the coyotes can charge to deliver the pollos, or chickens, to their American destinations.

Alvarez’s mother-in-law, waiting for him in Phoenix, paid a typical fee of $1,500 for him to cross this time. Assuming the passengers are all Mexicans, this vanload of pollos is worth well over $30,000. Central Americans — who first must cross illegally into Mexico before they even get a chance at the U.S. — pay about $5,000 each, while Asians can pay as much as $50,000. With thousands of people crossing every day, the profits would make any CEO drool.

Tired shocks squeak savagely as the van bumps over the washboard road, the passengers’ heads bobbing back and forth in time. It passes the steel skeleton of a burned-out van, engine lid scorched black, then slows as it approaches a roadside shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Perhaps Mexico’s most significant religious and cultural symbol, Nuestra Señora is considered a guardian. Alvarez makes the sign of the cross and kisses his thumb, seeking her blessing. He has had misgivings about this trip. 

"I tried to cross at Tijuana, but it was too hot — too many patrols out," he says, gazing out at dust-covered mesquite trees and cholla cactus. "Out here, it’s a different kind of hot."

Despite all the trouble he’s taking to get there, Alvarez has no plans to stay in the U.S. for long. Nor does he intend to seek legal authorization to work. "I really don’t like it there (in the United States). In Mexico, está cabron (it’s fucked up). But I can live more at ease even if it’s harder, que no?"

For eight to 10 months, he’ll live with his mother-in-law. "After that, who knows?" he says. "Hopefully I will have saved some money, maybe move back to Nayarit. Open a little business or work in the sugarcane fields."

Two hours go by; the migrants say little. Even the man from Guadalajara has stopped his quiet bantering. The only sounds are the rumble of the throttle and the crunch and squeal of the overburdened suspension. Then, the squat structures of Sasabe appear. The van slows, and apprehension drifts over the passengers like dust.


Electric wires crisscross above Sasabe’s wide, dusty streets and one-story, flat-roofed buildings. Only five years ago, this tiny, isolated cattle town barely existed. Now it flourishes with the single-minded economy of a company town — one fueled by organized crime. Thousands of migrants pass through here every day; thanks to them, and the smugglers who batten on them, the population has doubled in the last three years.

Everywhere, there are coyotes for hire. Some are professionals, employees of human-smuggling organizations as well-organized as their narco-trafficking counterparts. Others are amateurs, tempted by the fast cash of $100 per migrant; they have been known to get lost in the desert themselves and abandon their hapless charges. Makeshift stores, scattered among new homes and flophouses, cater to the migrants, selling candy bars, burritos, sandwiches and water.

The U.S. port of entry is visible now, less than a football field’s length away. A mile to either side of it are barbed-wire fences and hills cobwebbed with trails. Migrants hide among the mesquite trees with their coyotes, waiting for an opportunity to cross. The lonely figure of Baboquivari Peak juts into the distant sky, serving as a landmark, but the migrants avoid the surrounding mountains, which are haunted by armed drug smugglers.

Occasionally, a U.S. Border Patrol OH-6A or Black Hawk helicopter buzzes the border line, slicing into Mexican airspace, the pilots staring down the smugglers.

Soon, Alvarez and his friends, led by their guide, will strike out on one of the trails. Tonight, they will slip across the border, then forge through the desert for another 15 miles. For the next five days they will hide from the heat of the sun in arroyos, ducking under thick brush as choppers and fixed-wing aircraft search from above. Alvarez hopes to walk only at night. But it doesn’t always work out that way: Smugglers move when the opportunity seems right.

Manuel, José and Alvarez gather near the corner of the coyote market, in front of a Coca-Cola sign emblazoned in bright red across an entire wall. Four young, skinny men stand nearby, sharing a can of SlimFast. Alvarez pulls a carefully folded piece of paper from his wallet, guarding it like a teenager with his first love letter. It carries the directions to the coyote’s house.

Alvarez deciphers the scribbles, then looks up with pleading eyes at the reporter and photographer who have accompanied him this far: "Please don’t go any further with us. Our smuggler might get scared and decide not to take us if he sees you. Please."

The three migrants turn and walk up the street of dirt and broken pavement. Alvarez looks back over his shoulder and waves goodbye. The flies are already gathering on empty soda bottles, candy wrappers, and a single battered tennis shoe lying in the dust.

In the distance, the hills of Arizona waver in the desert heat. The long walk is next.

Other feature articles in this special issue on immigration:

The Immigrant's Trail - introductory essay

Abandonment - Small Mexican farming towns such as Francisco Villa in Sonora are emptied of their young men when the lack of good-paying local jobs sends them north of the border

Apprehension - U.S. fish and Wildlife Service Officer John Schaefer is one of only two officers patrolling the 860,000 acres of Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a thoroughfare for illegal immigrants and armed drug smugglers

Contradiction - Once in the U.S., immigrants find themselves in a land of contradictions, facing an uncertain welcome, sometimes even from other Latinos

Hope - After 16 years of living in the shadows in Pasco, Wash., Wendy and Erendira Santana finally win legal residency

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