Border Patrol Agent Elizier Vasquez gets out of his car on Elephants Head Road, a smear of dirt and gravel wedged between two slices of desert. His eyes comb the rust-colored Arizona dirt that stretches for miles to the north, south, and west, its stark beauty marred by scattered piles of trash. A few miles to the east of us is Highway I-19, which shoots straight from Nogales to Tucson, and past that there's more desert. We came here from the U.S.-Mexico border, about 25 miles to the south. The drive took less than 30 minutes. Walking, Vasquez tells me, would have taken about three days.
"Look at all the trash left by illegal aliens," he says, navigating through a knee-high pile of old clothes. I trip on a dusty sweatshirt; it catches in the branch of a mesquite tree and rips, brittle and weathered. Empty water jugs lie beneath the desert shrubs, the plastic brittle and broken from the heat. We navigate through backpacks, clothes, empty tuna cans. Shoes, some with soles worn out, lie in piles among the tangles of cactus and mesquite.
"We call these lay-up spots," Vasquez says in a low voice. "Illegal aliens rest here while they wait for their rides. Most are known spots. Probably we'll find the illegals sleeping under a tree. If not, they've probably already been picked up by their smugglers."
Lay-up spots are scattered throughout the desert along the many paths worn by the feet of illegal entrants, hundreds of sad little Ellis Islands baking under the Arizona sun. Migrants rest and clean up there, dumping everything left over from their three-day hike to rot in the desert. The spots started showing up in Arizona around 1999, after a crackdown in border towns steered those who wanted to enter the United States illegally toward the open desert.
Patrolling lay-ups is pointless. As soon as smugglers get wind that agents are watching one, they'll bring their charges to another spot a few miles down the road. It's an endless game of cat and mouse.
It's the game Vasquez lives for-though he doesn't always love it. Originally from Puerto Rico, the agent worked as a rum salesman before joining the Border Patrol in 2000 to pursue a childhood dream. "I wanted to go into law enforcement," he explained to me earlier in the day. "You know the cliché that little boys either want to be firemen or policemen-I never grew out of that." He and his wife moved to Arizona to pursue a new future, leaving behind everything they'd ever known.
Some days it's good. The days he apprehends aliens who are actual criminals are the best, Vasquez says, because those days he knows he's made things a little better. Even so, he admits he thinks it's unlikely the Border Patrol will ever fully control the border. "We can get operational control," he says. "We can control it to a certain point, but due to the terrain it's almost impossible to seal it off to all illegal activity."
And some days aren't so good. Like when he comes upon women with infants trying to cross the region aptly nicknamed "the death corridor."