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."
Welcome to the Arizona desert, where smugglers and the Border Patrol are locked in a daily struggle. One group looks for clever ways to smuggle goods and people across the border; the other looks for cleverer ways to stop them. Caught in between are the migrants, for whom the outcome can mean the difference between life and death.
Vasquez is trying to teach me the rules, but the game's already over. The Border Patrol lost a long time ago.
"We don't have any specifics on the call, so we don't know who we might run into here," Vasquez whispers as he pushes past the spiny black branches of a mesquite tree. "Could be a group of U.S. citizens out on a hike. Could be a group of drug-smuggling aliens. Could be a group of aliens in distress. We don't know, so we have to be careful."
Lost in the Desert
A Tucson-sector Border Patrol public relations officer, Jesus "Chuy" Rodriguez, later tells me that of all federal agents, members of the Border Patrol are the most likely to die in the line of duty. The claim is hard to substantiate, but it's certainly true that border violence has risen sharply in recent years. Attacks on agents more than doubled between 2004 and 2005, from 374 to 778, according to congressional testimony last March by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner T. J. Bonner. People throw rocks, bricks, and Molotov cocktails at the agents. They shoot them. They run them down.
As Bonner noted, the escalation in violence is linked directly to enhanced enforcement efforts at the border. Forcing migration into the open desert increases the cost associated with crossing, Bonner told Congress, squeezing out small-time smugglers and increasing violent struggles to control "lucrative smuggling operations." He added that "although much of this violence is directed at rival organizations, there is an inevitable spillover that touches innocent civilians and law enforcement officials on both sides of the border."
For agents like Vasquez, the thirtyish father to a baby girl, that means taking extra care. He walks a few steps in front of me, motioning at me to stay behind him.
We find the men we are looking for a few moments later. There are four of them, their clothes and backpacks covered in a fine layer of red dust. They put their arms up in surrender when they see Vasquez. He approaches them casually, speaking calmly.
"Do you have papers?" he asks in native Spanish. "Are you all Mexicans?"
A middle-aged man in dark green pants and a dusty blue cap singles himself out as the spokesman. "We're
from Hidalgo," he says. "Illegal. I'm a farmer. So is he." He indicates one of the others with his chin. One is a carpenter, he tells us; another works in construction. "We're just here to work-we have friends in Atlanta who will give us jobs. We're not criminals."
"How long have you been walking?"
"Three days. Our coyote attacked us the first day. Shoved a revolver in his face and took everything." He jerks his head toward the youngest of the four. The young man doesn't meet my eyes. "He left us to die."
We'll call the man speaking Armando Ramirez. He is 49, he tells us. He says this is the first time any of them has tried to cross. None of them has ever been this far north before; none has ever seen a border town. They didn't know the way, so they paid a coyote $1,700 each. To come up with the sum, they sold everything they had. Ramirez took money from a loan shark to cover the remaining cost. "With interest," he adds. "More than 30 percent."
But there are plenty of jobs waiting for them in Atlanta, they were told. They only had to get there.
"We're here as workers," Ramirez says to me emphatically. "We don't smoke, we don't drink, we're not smuggling drugs-none of that. We're here to work." He glances at Vasquez. "Or were here to work."
Vasquez asks them to drop their bags. He checks the four men, then their packs, for weapons. He has heard all the stories before. Sometimes they're the truth, sometimes not. Coyotes often pretend to be migrants to avoid jail time and heavy fines. Smugglers sometimes hire migrants as drug mules to bring their goods into the U.S. He tends to believe these particular guys, he tells me later, but "you never know."
"Why did you cross?" I ask them.
"I have two daughters," Ramirez says. "About your age-a 19-year-old and a 20-year-old. They want to go to school. The economic situation of our country is...difficult. There isn't enough money, or jobs. That's it." His eyes slide past me to the desert. A laugh-it sounds more like a bark-erupts abruptly from his throat. "One doesn't come for pleasure, that's for sure. If you can imagine how we traveled in the desert. Hardly any water. Like animals. Attacked the first day. Again the second, by a group-we didn't have anything then, at least." His lips twist into a smile. "The coyote had taken everything, so they just beat us up. Today we found some remains in the desert. A skull, part of an arm." He shudders. "It makes one..."
"Scared?" Vasquez offers.
"Did you have any other health problems in the journey?" Vasquez asks, noticing Ramirez's shaking hand.
Ramirez shrugs. "We're all thirsty. We ran out of water the beginning of the second day. We've been drinking out of old cattle troughs."
"That water's dirty."
"Filthy. And the flavor!" He scrunches his face in disgust, spitting for emphasis.
"If you line up, we'll go to the car and I'll get you some water."
Ramirez hesitates. He adjusts his cap and puts his hands on his hips, looking Vasquez squarely in the eye. He knows walking to the car means not only life-saving water but an end to their quest for Atlanta. "Why don't you give us a chance," he says with a jerk of his chin. "We're here to work; we're not going to hurt anyone."
Vasquez shakes his head. "I can't."
"I'll lose my job."
"Because. It's illegal."
Ramirez looks at him for a long moment. "That's the problem, isn't it?" He stares past Vasquez into the desert. It's over 100 degrees here and has been that hot every day for the last 10 days. He's lucky to be alive. "OK, then, let's go. We understand, friend."
The four line up, Ramirez limping, and walk toward the vehicle. Vasquez and I follow closely behind.
"It's very hard to make this job look pretty," Vasquez says softly to me later, referring to Ramirez and his companions. "We're fortunate enough to live in a country where there are lots of opportunities. And most of the people who we run into out here want to make that dream happen. Unfortunately, it's our job to stop that dream. That's what we do on an everyday basis. Maybe because I'm Latino the aliens think I should understand where they're coming from. And I do, to a certain extent. But it's my job."
That's what success often looks like for agents on the border.
Vasquez is just one of more than 2,500 border patrol agents in the Tucson sector charged with monitoring 262 miles of border between Arizona and Sonora, and about 90,000 square miles inside the sector. Only 19 miles of the physical border is walled off (and only 2.8 miles of it in Nogales) by 14-foot-high corrugated steel landing mat left over from the Gulf War. Rusted the color of the Arizona dirt, it ambles over hills and through canyons. Ten surveillance camera towers with four cameras each-two for the day and two for the night-are scattered along the Nogales wall. Agents monitor the cameras from a control room in the Nogales Border Patrol station. If they see someone, they summon the nearest border patrol agent to the scene by radio.
Stadium-style lighting lines parts of the wall, making night look like noon. Border agents gas up and turn on portable lights every night to light the rest of the area. Seismic sensors are buried underground; triggered by footsteps, they send a signal to a radio tower that, in turn, sends a signal back to the Nogales control room.
At the edge of the town, the wall abruptly gives way to chain link fence. Then nothing. Another 31 miles of border in the Tucson sector is blocked by vehicle barriers, effective at stopping cars but not people. The rest is desert, open territory for the daring or foolhardy who want to be in America.
The Arizona wall was built in 1999 as part of Operation Safeguard, one of a string of "deterrence" strategies implemented along the southwestern border. This strategy, which in addition to the wall building and the high-tech monitoring included assigning more agents to the border, was first employed in San Diego in 1994. By concentrating resources on key crossing areas along the Mexican frontier, mostly border towns, policy makers hoped to shut down unauthorized crossings entirely. The more remote regions-rocky mountains, desert-were expected to act as "natural" deterrents.
They didn't. As soon as the Border Patrol built the wall in San Diego, coyotes started bringing migrants to other crossing points. Rather than stopping entries, the barrier merely shifted traffic to other parts of the border. Suddenly, border residents in Texas and Arizona saw a spike of illegal crossings. Panic ensued. So authorities built more walls, shifting the traffic into the more remote desert and mountain regions. Now, the Border Patrol estimates, about 40 percent of all migrants entering the U.S. illegally in the Southwest go through Arizona-most through the desert areas where Vasquez and I met Ramirez and his friends.
Immediately after these new deterrence tactics were implemented in San Diego in 1994, the chance of a migrant's getting caught dropped to 5 percent, an all-time low, according to a 2005 article by the Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey, published in the American Immigration Law Foundation's monthly journal Immigration Policy in Focus. Turns out that when you send illegals in-to larger, more remote areas, you also make them harder to find. Although the chance of getting caught has allegedly gone up since then, the number of successful entrances appears unaffected.
While apprehensions are down, the number of Border Patrol agents has more than tripled since 9/11, to nearly 11,000 nationwide. The federal budget directed toward securing the borders has more than quintupled in the last 20 years. Yet there is little evidence that current approaches have been even slightly effective at slowing the flow of illegal crossings. In fact, the current undocumented population continues to grow by roughly the same number it did when the current strategy began in 1994: about 500,000 people per year, according to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, a D.C.-based think tank. Fifty-seven percent of those are estimated to be Mexican, and 25 percent come from other Latin American countries.
Meanwhile, only 66,000 visas (called H-2B visas) are available for seasonal, low-skilled workers. "It's a drop in the bucket for what's needed," says Lois Magee, director of the Exchange Visitor Program at the American Immigration Law Association. "It should be flexible," she continues, suggesting a visa policy that fluctuates depending on job availability in the U.S.
Unable to work here legally, immigrants do so illegally. Rather than walk through legal ports of entry, they create their own illegal ones: paths through the desert, river crossings, boat landings. But they continue to enter, as they always have.
Fixing the Holes
Not all undocumented entrants take such dangerous routes. Many enter legally, directly under the noses of Border Patrol agents.
The Border Patrol station where Vasquez works is just a few miles north of the wall dividing Nogales, Arizona, from Nogales, Sonora. The sister cities, known collectively as Ambos Nogales, were part of a land grant given by Mexico to the family of Don Jose Elias in 1841. Named Nogales after a now extinct species of black walnut, the two cities were one property until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo sliced it in two in 1848. Now they are more than two cities; they're two different worlds. For many who live on the Mexico side, Nogales is a constant reminder of the economic inequality between the two countries. "This was all once ours," a wizened old vendor selling elotes, grilled corn on the cob, on the Mexico side once told me, pointing toward a palm tree waving at us from the U.S. side of the wall. "Now look at us."
On the Mexican side, houses crowd the land mere meters from the landing-mat wall. Many houses lack plumbing and sewers; some even lack walls or functional roofs. The population of Nogales, Sonora, has swelled to nearly 300,000 people, more than 14 times the estimated 21,000 of Nogales, Arizona. Angry graffiti is scrawled across the Mexican side of the wall: "Bush = Facista." "Bush = Terrorista."
On the U.S. side, graffiti scribbled on the wall one day is cleaned up by the Border Patrol the next. The closest residential areas are a few hundred yards from the international wall. Until recently Americans didn't even need passports to enter Mexico. For many Americans, the wall might as well not exist. While Mexicans may choose to bypass the wall, ignoring it is not an option.
That's where the Border Patrol comes in. The Nogales Border Patrol station is only a few miles north of the wall dividing Ambos Nogales. Located near some warehouses at the end of a road, the station employs close to 500 agents. They are supposed to monitor 32 miles of border, 110 square miles of Arizona land, and three official ports of entry-two for local traffic, plus Mariposa, one of the country's largest commercial ports of entry. If you've ever eaten tomatoes in December, they may have come through here: About 10 percent of all fruits and vegetables imported from Mexico do.
Every few hours, a train passes between Nogales and Sonora, carrying goods back and forth between the two countries. In addition to the commercial ports of entry there are foot ports of entry for tourists. Approximately 800,000 Mexicans enter the United States legally on any given day through 43 stations along the border. They come to buy milk, chicken, eggs-products that are cheaper in the U.S. despite the lower wages in Mexico. Such tourism helps fuel economic growth in both places.
The wall hasn't affected the tourist traffic. For those who want to reduce the number of illegal entrants, that could be part of the problem. More than a third of all illegal aliens in the country are "overstayers"; people who entered legally on tourist visas, student visas, or business visas. This makes the Border Patrol's job that much harder: Even if agents were 100 percent effective at keeping people from crossing through illegal points of entry, they'd be able to stop only two-thirds of all entrants.
The wall isn't very effective either, as the four Border Patrol agents responsible for fixing it each day soon teach me. Every day smugglers on the Mexican side cut holes in it with blowtorches. Those holes are used to smuggle both drugs and people into the United States. Every day, four Border Patrol officers with welding experience have to repair the gaps. The wall has the look of a patchwork quilt, with three-foot squares of corrugated steel landing mat welded to more corrugated steel.
Smugglers also dig tunnels under the wall and have been known to cross through the miles of concrete storm channels that run beneath the line separating one Nogales from the other-many of which were, until very recently, populated by gangs of street kids. Since then agents have engineered a system that lets water through but not people. Still, both the underground channels and the international border wall need to be checked, and mended, each day.
Simon Gellar, one of the Border Patrol welders, points to the part of the wall the agents are currently patching, indicating a piece of rail. "Basically what happens is every two feet of this represents a hole our friends on the south side cut to run alien traffic through," he says, "and every day we come out assess the damage."
"How often do people cut through the fence?" I ask.
"Every single day. Every piece here represents another day." He indicates a spot that's been welded maybe three, four times. "These are patches installed by the previous welding crew, but they proved not to be effective so we used the rail. That's why this looks like patchwork. Today we had two holes just on this hill. Tomorrow we may have five. We might have one. But I'll guarantee you there'll be something. We do have a fence sensor, but usually you can see it happen." Gellar motions toward one of the cameras. "You can see the torch; we just can't do anything about it."
"The Border Patrol officers can't come and stop them because they're on the other side?"
"Not without putting themselves in grievous, grievous danger," Gellar tells me. The people who make the holes, he says, are "protected on that side. They know we're coming, and they have the advantage of the up hill. They're already set up, they're already in place. We could come up here and bang on the fence but it's really not effective. So they just keep on cutting." And the agents keep patching.
Deadlier Than the Berlin Wall
"Every Borstar agent has seen a dead person," Agent Vince Hampel tells me. "And it's not always pretty. The sun does amazing things to a human body pretty quickly. Decay sets in pretty fast." Finding bodies isn't common, but "it happens to every Borstar eventually."
The Borstars are a select group of Border Patrol agents who receive special training in emergency medical treatment and in search and rescue. Borstar was created in 1998 as part of the Border Safety Initiative, a response to the rising number of migrant deaths. All agents are required to work in the Border Patrol for two years before receiving additional Borstar training. Agent Hampel has been a Border Patrol agent for 11 years; he's been a Borstar for six.
We're about 50 miles north of the border, in the middle of the western desert, far from any air conditioning or paved roads. The desert stretches for miles in every direction, interrupted only by distant mountains. Migrants apprehended at this stage have been walking for up to five days. Right now Hampel and I are eyeing the red desert floor for the migrant tracks. He crouches to get a closer look, tracing a shape above the ground with his fingertips.
"See these footprints?" Hampel points to a lightly raised set of ridges pressed closely together in the dust. "This is what we look for in the middle of nowhere. I'm about 99 percent sure this was not made by U.S. citizens going on a walk."
All border agents are trained as trackers. One showed me one of their techniques by stamping his foot next to some human tracks. He then cut a line horizontally above and below the other tracks, making a square. Counting the number of prints in the grid, he said, gives him a pretty good idea of how many people may have been in the group.
Footprints, Hampel tells me, are often the only physical link between a Border Patrol agent and an undocumented migrant in distress. On the border, being able to track someone means the difference between an arrest and letting someone get away. Out here, it could mean the difference between life and death.
Border deaths started to spike as the new deterrence tactics forced more people to cross through the desert. The human rights activist group No More Deaths says there have been more than 3,000 crossing-related migrant fatalities in the last 12 years. About 80 percent of those happen here, in the Arizona desert, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. Most migrants who die succumb to dehydration and exposure, some ripping off their clothes to try to escape the heat before blacking out.
"This is where illegals start looking for us," Hampel says, gesturing out to the desert. "They'll tell us about others who can't look for help, who are vomiting or going through convulsions; it varies. It's been over 100 degrees every day for several days. So right now we're just looking for groups out there, because it's easy to die."
In 2005 a Tucson-based activist group, the Coalición de Derechos Humanos (Coalition for Human Rights), recorded 282 bodies recovered in Arizona alone. The 2006 GAO report recorded 472 bodies found across the entire U.S.-Mexico border. Wayne Cornelius, an immigration expert at the University of California at San Diego, says the U.S.-Mexico border has been about 10 times deadlier to immigrants in the last 10 years than the Berlin Wall was to East Berliners in its entire 28-year existence.
Besides making crossings deadlier, the increased risk of entry and higher coyote prices are keeping people from going back to Mexico even if they'd like to. Massey, the Princeton sociologist, finds that "illegal immigrants are less likely to return to their home country, causing an increase in the number of illegal immigrants remaining in the United States." In "Backfire at the Border," a study published by the Cato Institute in 2005, Massey reports that before the current enforcement policies return migration was highly likely and predictable.
Massey's research finds that if 1,000 migrants were to enter the U.S. each year with the former rate of return, 45 percent annually, then 950 (95 percent) would return home within five years, staying an average of 1.7 years. But now, of 1,000 entrants, only 760 or so will return home in five years. In addition to the decrease in the rate of the return (from 45 percent to 25 percent), the average stay per person has increased to 3.5 years.
More people are now staying permanently as well. Before, migrants from Mexico tended to be young male seasonal workers who would return to their families after the work season was over. As the risk of crossing increased, more chose to bring their families along and settle permanently in the United States.
A larger permanent illegal population leads to greater anxiety from an increasingly xenophobic native population, leading to more attempts to beef up security at the border, leading more illegals to stay here permanently. Which brings us back here, to the desert, searching for people who don't want to be found but whose lives might depend on it.
‘Probably They'll Try to Cross Again'
Armando Ramirez and his three companions wait in the back of Vasquez's truck. Soon another Border Patrol vehicle will pick them up. Ramirez will be brought to the little checkpoint along I-19 and dropped off in the trailer that acts as a de facto holding cell for migrants. Border Patrol agents will begin his paperwork before formalizing the deportation process at the Mariposa center, where they will record all 10 of his fingerprints and cross-check them with an FBI database.
If Ramirez has many prior immigration violations, he may be brought to immigration court. If he's found to be a serious criminal-a sex offender or an arsonist, say-he will be transferred to the U.S. attorney's office, where he will be held and tried. If he's found to be a first-time offender, as he claims, he will be given three options. He can have his case heard before an immigration judge. If he's afraid of returning home, he can have a hearing for amnesty. Or he can choose "voluntary return"-to be deported promptly back to his home country.
If he chooses the last option, as most do, then he'll be dropped off at the Mariposa port of entry, along with dozens of others, and escorted to Mexico with a strong admonition: Don't come back! And then he'll have to make a decision: Stay in Mexico, or try again.
"What are you going to do?" I ask.
Ramirez laughs bitterly. "What would you do?"
"I don't know."
"Do you think you will try to cross again?" Agent Vasquez wants to know.
Ramirez looks at Vasquez, then back at me. Perhaps he is thinking about the human remains he's seen.
Perhaps he is thinking about the three days of walking. Of being robbed. Of his family. A deep sigh slides out. "With all due respect for the two of you," he says, "yes."
Vasquez tries to dissuade him. "It's very dangerous there. You could die. What good will you be to your family if you are dead?"
"I've thought of that."
"Look, I understand where you're coming from. But you have to understand also that it's very dangerous out there." Vasquez points out the window toward the wilderness. It's about 100 degrees today. No water. No ride. Ramirez and his friends easily could have died.
"I know." Ramirez watches as another Border Patrol vehicle pulls up beside us and slows to a stop. "But I've lost a lot of money. I just don't see any other way."
Ramirez and his friends get into the other truck. "Probably they'll try to cross again," Vasquez tells me.
"They'll try their luck, see if they can make it up north to get a job."
I nod. We drive back toward Nogales to do another round of patrols.
Malia Politzer (email@example.com) is producing a documentary about undocumented immigration.