Photographer Recounts Crossing U.S. Border With Mexican Illegal Immigrants

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How did you become involved in documenting the lives of illegal immigrants crossing the U.S. border?

I ran away from home at the age of 16 to Hawaii to become a big wave surfer, and stopped en route in Blythe, California, to pick cantaloupes. I worked side by side with both legal and illegal migrants from Mexico, 12 hours a day, seven days a week. They took me under their wing and fed me, and I made a mental promise that if I had the opportunity in my lifetime I would show the dangers and difficulties they had in getting to the U.S. to do stoop labor.

Fast forward, I was living in Prescott, Arizona, and had just made the switch from working as an outdoor education instructor to becoming a photojournalist. I read a news account of Border Patrol agents who spearheaded the rescue of 23 migrants in the Arizona desert. I was dumbfounded—I didn't know this type of situation was taking place in Arizona. I went to Tacna and spent two weeks with two Border Patrol trackers. I said to one of them, "I want to show both sides of this story. Is there any way I can show how difficult and dangerous it is to cross the border other than going with a group of migrants?" And he said no—but if you do, I'll catch you. I did it soon after, in the summer of 1987. I didn't get caught, probably because he wasn't working that day.

You are very sympathetic toward those who lose their lives while trying to cross the border. Is there a way to prevent migrants from dying?

I think there are two solutions. One, I think we should have a guest worker program for migrants who want to work in U.S. They could work for a period of X number of months, return to Mexico, and apply to come back the following year. I think the general perception is that migrants who come to the U.S. want to stay and live here permanently—but oftentimes that's not the case.

It's a difficult thing to leave your family 2,000 miles [3,200 kilometers] behind and live in a foreign country where you are unwelcome in many places—except to do indentured-type work.

I think part of this solution rests squarely with the Mexican government as well.

They should set up checkpoints at various access highways to the U.S. and stop migrants from crossing the desert during the summertime. But there's no economic incentive for the Mexican government to stop sending its people to slaughter in the U.S. because of the millions of dollars they send back home.

Aside from the death toll, do you think there are any other negative consequences of migrants crossing the border illegally?

Environmentalists often raise the concern that illegal immigrants are causing natural resource damage—and they do. But look, for instance, at Mount Everest, and the tons of trash that are removed from the most popular 8,000-meter [26,000-plus-foot] peak in world—trash left behind by people who are experienced in outdoor travel and sensitive to the mountain ethics of "climbing clean." Then you look at Organ Pipe National Monument and the trash left there—whether it's tin cans, clothes, or gallon jugs. The parallel is that these people are on a life and death journey as well. The migrants may not be climbing Mount Everest, but many are knocking on death's door as they try to trek across the desert in the summertime. And the human inclination is, "Can I leave this behind and make it easier to survive?" When you see someone leaving a toothbrush behind, they're admitting, "I don't think I'm going to make it."

Around 15 years ago, when I was still teaching outdoor education, I climbed Baboquivari Peak, on the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation. I had no thought about immigration—I was just climbing this beautiful peak, and enjoying the beautiful desert landscape. Several years later I started seeing trash and the trails [left by migrants] and I began wondering who was doing this and why—and that changed my perspective. So of course it bothers me to see a park like Organ Pipe get trashed, but on the other hand, you see the human side—our neighbors suffering and dying on American soil—and that's very painful for me.

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