A Most Dangerous Journey: Tracing the Human Cost of Immigration From Altar to Arizona

PHOTO: At the Pima County morgue in Tucson, Ariz., anthropologist Robin Reineke examines the personal effects taken off the bodies of unnamed migrants.
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At the Pima County morgue in Tucson, Ariz., anthropologist Robin Reineke was going through the personal effects of the hundreds of unnamed migrants who try to cross the border between the United States and Mexico each year but instead wind up here among the dead.

Reineke co-founded and is the executive director of the Colibri Center for Human Rights, which helps families of border crossers find missing loved ones.

It's "important for us to think about the human cost of our border today, the human cost of immigrations," she said.

Reineke keeps a locker room filled with personal effects found with the migrants, from clothes to wallets to deodorant. Among the most popular items are depictions of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.

"People are carrying a lot of religious items with them ... rosaries, many, many prayer cards." she said. "It really, to me, indicates ... that you're planning for something where you need extra protection."

PHOTO: Body bags containing the remains of unnamed migrants at the Pima County morgue in Tucson, Ariz.
Ely Brown/ABC
PHOTO: Body bags containing the remains of unnamed migrants at the Pima County morgue in Tucson, Ariz.

The journey across the border is dangerous and carries unimaginable costs. Migrants will spend their life savings and risk death from extreme desert temperatures for a chance to live in the U.S.

Reineke keeps a book filled with notes from families on how the border crossers disappeared, including what they were wearing and pictures of what they left behind.

"They haven't found someone yet and they don't know what happened," she said. "Their son or daughter called from Altar and said, 'Mom, we're crossing the border tomorrow. As soon as we get across I am going to call you,' and they never heard anything."

Altar is a small Mexican town located some 66 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border. It is an infamous, dusty crossroads for migrants coming to the U.S. illegally, the coyotes, people who get paid to smuggle others into the U.S., and the drug cartels who, some say, control the town.

Sister Mercedes helps run a shelter for migrants in Altar and is untouched by the drug cartels. In this rowdy, company town, "the economy is all based on the immigrants," she said in Spanish. "Yes, the immigrants sustain the town."

At the heart of town is the "zocalo," or center square, where Sister Mercedes said coyotes and border crossers meet. She said people come here from all over, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, not just Mexico, in hopes of making it into the U.S. The coyotes line the square with their gutted white vans, equipped with wooden benches to transport as many migrants as possible at once.

"They take 20, even 30 people in there," Sister Mercedes said. "Like sardines."

In her experience, Sister Mercedes said coyotes in Altar charge each border crosser 3,000 pesos or about $230 for the two-hour drive to the border. But one coyote we spoke with swore the price was only 100 pesos, or about $8, per person.

There are stores along the square selling supplies, such as camouflage bags, jackets, scarves, ski masks, blankets, toiletries, rosaries and carpet shoes -- shoes with carpeting for soles.

"That's what they put on so that they don't leave footprints in the desert," Sister Mercedes said. "So that the Border Patrol doesn't find them. ... The wind erases everything."

One store owner said the bags cost 80 pesos, about $7. A scarf is priced at 100 pesos, or $8. The carpet shoes were going for about 130 pesos, or roughly $10. It's a profitable little shopping center.

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