According to many sources intimately involved with the flow of undocumented migrants across the US-Mexico border, the system is highly organized. In fact, the whole process depends on organized criminal activity.
Here’s how I understand it works:
A person in a Mexican town decides to head north to work. Sometimes whole groups of people from a village decide to go to the US. In some cases the migration from that community has been going on for generations.
The would-be migrants have a destination in mind. The destination is where other family members or friends are already living. Or where there is a high probability of a job waiting for them.
They either contact a “coyote” (slang for someone who assists in illegal immigration into the US) right at their home town, or they take a bus or get a ride to one of the border city staging areas such as Nogales or Sasabe or Sonoyta and then connect with a coyote.
There is a booming business on the Mexican side of the border with coyotes seeking their “pollos” (chickens in Spanish meaning migrant customers), and stores selling back packs, dark clothing, and water bottles.
The fee for getting into the US ranges from $1,000 to over $2,000. The more difficult it has become to get into the US, the higher the coyote fee. Usually part of the fee is paid up front with the balance paid after arrival in the US.
Once they’ve chosen their coyote, they prepare for the journey and are transported by the coyote to the crossing point.
The coyote usually doesn’t actually take the pollos across, they hire guides called “guias”. The guias actually walk with the pollos north, on well traveled trails scoped out over the years.
The crossing is made at night and the guias and pollos walk until daylight to a hiding place…10 or 20 miles north of the line. The pollos are dressed in dark clothing so they are not easily spotted.
Some of the pollos are abandoned by the guias after crossing, the pollos thinking they only have a few hours to walk until they reach a pickup point on Interstate 8. They have been misled and left to die in the desert or be captured by the Border Patrol.
The honorable guias (if there is such a thing) are fully prepared for a 2 or 3 day walk to a pickup point as far north as Ajo Road or near Green Valley.
The point of the walk is to bypass Border Patrol capture efforts and check points until they reach a designated pickup point on some remote dirt road.
It used to be the pickup points were one day walk north of the border, but due to increased Border Patrol presence, the pickup points have moved steadily north.
Once the pollos reach the pickup point they discard their backpacks and water bottles and change clothes to look “normal” if encountered. They take nothing with them beyond the pickup point, discarding even their Mexican identification papers.
The pickup points are obvious to border residents, aid workers and law enforcement agents as they are huge trash piles of back packs, clothing and empty water bottles.
The transit from the pickup points north often involved overloading vehicles, which sometimes crash. Stories are common of 20 or 30 pollos being injured in a crash involving a migrant transfer operation between the pickup point and the safe houses.
After the pollos are picked up they are delivered to “safe houses” in Tucson or Phoenix where they are held, in what looks to many like imprisonment, until the balance of the coyote fee is paid, usually through a wire transfer of money to the coyote in Mexico.
It should be noted that Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard has waged a very successful campaign against the wire transfer system that pays off the coyotes.
Once released from the captivity of the safe house, the pollos head off to where they intended…New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Omaha, wherever.
Once the pollo arrives at their destination they are adsorbed into the resident undocumented community, where they are much less likely to be apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
In the old days just the men migrated north for work, sending money home called “remittance” which kept many families alive in Mexico. Remittance money flowing into Mexico is reported the second largest source of foreign currency, only surpassed by oil income to that country.
As the border tightened up, became more costly to cross, and the trek across more dangerous, many workers quit going home to visit their families every year. Instead they save up and hire coyotes to bring their wives and children across. This is why so many more women and children are now found in the desert north of the border.
From the first hand observations of aid workers in the last few weeks, there are still a lot of undocumented workers walking north each night. The Border Patrol claims illegal entry has declined. First-hand observation of the situation by many says otherwise.
Since the Border Patrol mostly sticks to driving around on roads, the pollos stay in washes and canyons on trails that vehicles cannot penetrate. Aid workers find the pollos by walking around the desert where the Border Patrol does not go.
A common event is the Border Patrol does stumble on a caravan of pollos and they scatter. The Border Patrol may actually catch some of the pollos, but rarely all of them. Just recently a major search was going on north of Three Points (Robles Junction) west of Tucson for a woman who got separated from her group when jumped by the Border Patrol. She was not found, and is presumed to have died somewhere out there.
A few months ago a Border Patrol official appearing on KUAT’s Arizona Illustrated news program, boasted about how the BP’s efforts has increased the “risk premium” meaning cost of illegal entry.
That is unquestionably true given the increase in deaths of undocumented entrants, and the increase in the coyote fees. The resulting price increase to assist illegal entry has turned this into a big business, rivaling drug smuggling across our border.
Many suggest that instead of just hunting for pollos in trucks, the US government ought to greatly increase its efforts on the organized criminal aspect of the illegal entry business and try and shut down the coyote system by seizing the coyotes’ money and arresting the coyotes when they visit the US, attack the transport system, and crash the safe house system by seeking forfeiture of the properties. And of course concentrate the Border Patrol right at the border so no one even dares try and cross into the United States.
The above is part of a series on life on the border. I have spent a lot of time in the area between Green Valley and the border in a zone from Patagonia over to Arivaca talking to border area residents who live with the consequences of illegal entry and drug smuggling on a daily basis.