Sunday, April 30, 2006 | 7:17 a.m.
Hundreds of men and women milling about the town square buzz in anticipation of what lies ahead.
Hawkers in wooden stalls on one side of the square sell parkas, knit caps, hiking boots and wool gloves to protect against 40-degree desert nights. They also sell backpacks and Virgin of Guadalupe amulets - to protect against five kinds of rattlesnake and the U.S. Border Patrol.
The immigrants gather in small groups - based on their hometowns - and plan how to cross into the United States. Never mind, as one woman explains to her 6-year-old, that "the government doesn't want us there."
Keenly aware of how Congress a world away is divided over immigration policy, these immigrants await the next chance to cross the border.
I stood in the square with nine other journalists from around the country, participating in our second day of a four-day workshop on immigration. It was sponsored by the McCormick Tribune Foundation, a charity that supports journalism.
The town is an example of the "balloon effect" in U.S. efforts to thwart illegal immigration. As the Border Patrol applied piecemeal enforcement along the 2,000-mile border during the last decade - in San Diego, for example - immigrants exploited other, more porous gaps along the border.
Altar has become a staging ground for immigrants, even a revolving door, as those who are caught on el otro lado - the other side - simply return, regroup and try again.
Altar was once a ranching and grape-growing town of fewer than 10,000 people. Now an estimated 2,000 immigrants move through the area each day, according to humanitarian workers. That number amounts to about a third of all illegal immigration into the United States by some estimates, and it has changed the face of the town.
Altar has become a center of commerce, capitalizing on desperation.
Around the square, immigrants can exchange pesos for dollars, buy clothes and stock up on water, electrolyte solution and canned food.
Flophouse rooms on narrow side streets are jammed with bunk beds to accommodate the transients. Sheets of plywood serve as mattresses. The price: $3 a night, the same as pollo frito sold from tarp-covered stands in the square.
Three bucks. That's what Luisa Sanchez Lopez earned for a day's labor harvesting coffee beans in Chiapas. After Hurricane Stan swept away her house in November, she journeyed 2,000 miles north to Altar with her daughters, 6-year-old Salluri Guadalupe and 16-year-old Gladys.
Today she sat at a long table in the square while Salluri ate tacos nearby, a matter-of-fact determination showing on her tawny, high-cheekboned face.
You'd think Luisa would be thinking twice about taking her daughters north. Not only had she heard stories of women and girls being raped and beaten in the desert, but she and her daughters had tried five times since December to sneak into the United States, and each time were caught and sent back by the Border Patrol.
But she would try to cross, and that was that, and her gut would tell her when to try again.
Surreal bus stop
Altar is the last chance immigrants have to prepare for the border crossing. The next stop is 40 miles up a rutted dirt road to a brickyard the size of a grocery store parking lot. It is a surreal bus station of sorts for the ragged and determined in the middle of the desert.
According to our guides, the road to the brickyard is owned by a former local politician who anticipated that the area between Altar and Sasabe, a Mexican border town nearby, would be a popular destination for illegal immigrants when authorities clamped down on the border elsewhere. So this fellow bought the land between Altar and the brickyard, and charges a $3 toll to use his road.
Beat-up vans marked "Altar-Sasabe" kick up dust along the washboard road to the brickyard. The landscape is typical of the Sonoran desert - mesquite and paloverde trees, ocotillo and saguaro cactii. The roadside is littered by lightened loads - torn-up clothes, blown-out tires, water bottles.
About two miles before turning off to the brickyard, an orange pickup truck parked on a wide shoulder of the road signals the presence of Grupo Beta, a government-funded organization that advises travelers about the dangers of the desert, such as dehydration.
The group has been accused of aiding immigrants, even warning them when the Minutemen are stationed on the other side, according to one of our guides. The Minutemen are U.S. citizens who gather at the border to try to thwart illegal crossings by their presence. Their drill is to watch the border and alert the Border Patrol to suspicious activity.
Arrivals to the brickyard are greeted by the sight of dusty old cars, a shack where water, soda and canned food are sold, towering stacks of adobe bricks, and the comings and goings of vans arriving from Altar and trucks taking travelers on the next leg of their journey.
If a coyote is needed as a guide to cross the border, the brickyard is the last chance to hire one, at prices starting at nearly $1,000.
Jessica Alandia works with Samaritans, a group that helps prevent illness and death among immigrants crossing the border. She gazes across the brickyard as the ground heats up beneath the noonday sun. It's in the 80s, still bearable, but not if you're walking dozens of miles through unforgiving terrain.
A large pig ruts in the garbage outside the store.
Over by another shack surrounded by old tires and garbage, a teenage boy is vomiting.
"The first sign of dehydration," Alandia said matter-of-factly.
An incoming van drops off another 15 people. They lift backpacks onto their shoulders and look to outgoing pickups. "They have two gallons of water - much better than one," Alandia noted.
A battered Ford pickup pulls up and is engulfed by a group that had been huddled under some nearby mesquites. The boy who had been vomiting runs to the bed, wiping his mouth, and is directed to the cab.
After about 40 minutes at the yard, maybe 50 people have come and gone.
About 15 people can crowd onto the beds of the pickups if they stand and hold on to welded steel frames. Depending on the vagaries of the Border Patrol's movements and the presence of the Minutemen, the passengers might empty out along the border west of Sasabe, or east of the small town. It is a simple but perilous game of chess.
Barbed wire border
We don't get to see where they actually cross over. John Fife, one of the founders of the Samaritans, said the international border in this part of the desert is marked by simple cattle fences, with three or five strands of barbed wire, often ripped apart.
My group crosses by car at a Border Patrol station at Sasabe. A few miles into Arizona, the militarization of the border is apparent - armed checkpoints, Border Patrol vehicles, helicopters, a Drug Enforcement Administration car.
About 20 miles north, alongside what is now a paved road, we come upon two people sitting in lawn chairs.
We mistake them for Minutemen before noticing that their white T-shirts are labeled in large black capital letters: "legal observer."
They're with the American Civil Liberties Union and have positioned themselves to observe a ranch where the Minutemen have been staging a rally since April 1.
Ray Ybarra peers out from under a straw hat. He said he and his partner are making sure the Minutemen don't violate the civil rights of immigrants passing through the desert.
A large bus suddenly pulls up, the words "Homeland Security" on the side. We try to engage the driver in conversation, but all he tells us is the obvious - that the bus is for taking immigrants back south. He begs off further questions.
We head back down the road to the ranch where the Minutemen organize and soon come up on more people in lawn chairs. We approach a man sitting on the bed of his pickup, holding an umbrella to shade him from the sun.
His name is Jack Kilmartin, a 70-year-old retired aerospace worker from Las Vegas.
He and more than 100 fellow volunteers from around the nation had been in the area since April 1, he said, because "we love our country."
Many of the group's members are armed - Kilmartin pointed to a .357 revolver strapped to his waist - but he said the weapons were for self-defense.
"We don't speak to them, we don't touch them," he said of the immigrants they happen across. "We're not against immigrants, we're against illegal immigration."
He said the group wasn't making much of a dent in illegal immigration, but was making a political point.
He seemed to have little use for the ACLU. Those guys, he said, were surely on the phone with the coyotes.
As he talked to us, a woman across the road was filming the whole scene: a group of journalists standing around a pickup, looking up at an armed man in a lawn chair.
An Escher scene
The desert suddenly seemed like an M.C. Escher drawing, with successive layers of groups watching each other - the Border Patrol, the ACLU, the Samaritans, the Minutemen, the journalists, and, at the center, the immigrants.
Fife has long worked under such circumstances. His group has made agreements with authorities - such as no surveillance of the group's water tanks - only to see the agreements disappear when bureaucracies changed. (If immigrants worry that seeking water from the tanks could land them in the Homeland Security bus, they may avoid the water, only to die.)
Two volunteers from his group are expected to be tried in federal court this spring, on charges stemming from transporting three sick immigrants out of 105-degree heat to Tucson.
Fife belongs to a coalition of groups called "No More Deaths," which keeps track of the number of people who die along the Arizona border - 282 in the 2005 fiscal year, compared to 234 the year before.
A Presbyterian minister, Fife sees a moral obligation that trumps the law.
Shortly after speaking with the Minutemen, we head back to Tucson and the workshop.
On a cool night two days later, reporters said their goodbyes in a parking lot that spilled into the open desert.
And I wondered where Luisa and her girls were.