SONOYTA, Mexico — Marvin Daniel Flores doesn’t pay attention to the news blaring from a radio at a makeshift immigrant camp on the outskirts of this Mexican desert town near the Arizona border. It doesn’t matter to him.
It took him six weeks to travel here from outside the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, traversing Mexico atop a cargo train they call The Beast. Along the way he was stranded in Mexico’s violent petroleum region and in the megalopolis of Mexico City.
“You go hungry, you’re cold. You sleep on the street,” he said one day last week, his voice trailing off.
Flores is loosely aware that President Donald Trump is trying to close avenues to asylum-seekers and of the president’s proposed shift announced last Thursday to favor educated, high-skill immigrants and to step up deportation of people overstaying their visas.
A day earlier, Henry, a father leading his wife and two young boys aged 3 and 6 from Tegucigalpa to the Mexican border city of Nogales, told McClatchy the family was aware of the Trump administration’s desire to separate families and of stepped up enforcement. But Henry, deported in 2005 and 2006, was undeterred in his plans to seek asylum.
“We will take our chances,” he said.
Over in Sonoyta, Flores revealed few details but hoped to join a brother already in the United States. He’s not worried about finding construction work, confident that his muscle and willingness to work long hours will be enough. Fleeing violent gangs and scant economic opportunity, he says the bottom rung is a fine place to start anew in the United States.
“Nobody leaves their home to search for problems somewhere else,” he said, adding that like many of the nearly 4,000 would-be migrants who have died in and around the Arizona desert, he’s willing to “put life in play.”
It’s a risky play. The Border Patrol says at least 58 people have died in the area since last Oct. 1. The real tally could be significantly higher, since the agency counts only those cases where the evidence clearly shows the victim was migrating.
Like much along the border, the makeshift camp called Casa del Migrante seems a gray area. The sign out front reads “God bless this house,” but it’s not run by or affiliated with a church group.
It doesn’t claim support from any non-government organizations, although it does say it receives some water and food from an Arizona-based good Samaritan group. Tarps are strung to make would-be dorms, all inside a fenced area topped with the same concertina wire that has been aggressively strung along already-built stretches of the border wall during the Trump administration.
On a plasterboard wall inside hangs a map of Arizona, next to it a hand-drawn map explaining how to make the trip as far as Gila Bend, a trip of 80 miles. The map shows routes called The Narco Trail and the Devil’s Trail, both ending at the Arizona town of Ajo, 40 miles north of Sonoyta.
There’s also a sobering poster mapping all the deaths of would-be migrants that reads, “Don’t go! There isn’t sufficient water. It’s not worth it!”
The poster shows clusters of where crossers died on the first, second and third day of walking. The largest numbers are between the second and third day of walking in the Sonoran desert west of Ajo.
People willing to brave those risks aren’t likely to be deterred by a preferential shift to high-skill workers, as the president is proposing.
“Everything here is a risk, everyone here takes the chance,” said Arturo Roy Antonio, an Afro-Nicaraguan from the coastal city of Puerto Cabeza.
Antonio, who goes by the nickname Nica, said he and a brother wanted to ride The Beast for the experience, despite its infamy for muggings, rapes and people who ride above frequently falling to their deaths.
“We wanted to enjoy life,” he said of what would seem “extreme tourism.”
After arriving in Mexicali, he decided he didn’t want to go to the United States and has been at the makeshift camp for four months.
Shelling peanuts as he talked, he doesn’t want to be photographed and doesn’t reveal much about how the stores of rice and beans in bins on shelves behind him are purchased. He offered that immigrants occasionally go out asking for donations.
The camp has clapped-together bunk beds and the appearance that it would handle families traveling together. A woman in the camp said a boy traveling alone was just picked up by his father, news to Antonio.
The burly Nicaraguan said he hoped to return to Nicaragua soon, despite despising its leader, Daniel Ortega.
“He wants to be a millionaire and the poor stay poor,” said Antonio.
Why Sonoyta? The dusty town doesn’t have much going for it, but it sits at an important crossroads. Mexico’s Highway 2 veers west here toward Mexicali and Tijuana, big Mexican cities on the California border.
Sonoyta has become a staging ground for groups seeking asylum and locals here say seeing chartered buses full of border-crossers is not uncommon.
Last month, chartered buses arrived one after the other to a spot about a football field’s distance from bollard barriers that denote the U.S. border roughly 15 miles west of Lukeville, a small Arizona border crossing located inside the scenic Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
“We’re aware that the area is heavily cartel controlled,” said Joe Curran, a Border Patrol agent and spokesman in Tucson, Arizona.
Although busloads of undocumented immigrants are infrequent in the Lukeville area, the zone remains “consistently active,” Curran said, notwithstanding the coming hot weather that amounts to peak season for desert deaths.
The Border Patrol reported at the time that 393 people crossed in the span of half an hour seeking asylum, 230 of them children. It was the 40th time groups of 100 or more were apprehended in Arizona, the Border Patrol said last month.
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