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

National Geographic Adventure magazine
January 23, 2003
The busiest gateway for illegal immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico
border for the past five years—a 261-mile-long (420 kilometer)
stretch of Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona—is now considered the
deadliest point of entry as well. According to the Border Patrol, this
remote corridor—which also contains Organ Pipe Cactus National
Monument, considered the country's most dangerous national
park—claimed at least 134 illegal immigrants' lives last year, more
than any other region along the border.

To shed light on the life-and-death struggle of migrants entering the U.S., photojournalist and author John Annerino began documenting their story twelve years ago. He shares his experiences in his book Dead in Their Tracks: Crossing America's Desert Borderlands., in the February 2003 issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine (read an excerpt from "National Park War Zone"), and in this online-exclusive interview.

In 1987, you crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with four other migrants. What was that journey like?

We started out about four or five [o'clock] in the afternoon—migrants usually leave for the border around then. Three of the men had walked the route before, which had been handed down from one generation to the next. So they weren't following a trail per se. They were keying off geographical landmarks like mountain ranges.

During the summer, the Barry M. Goldwater Range is very grim country. We walked until midnight without taking a rest. One [migrant] had a flashlight. There was enough ambient light so your eyes grew accustomed to the dark. But still you'd bump into a prickly pear or cholla cactus and have to stop and pull the thorns out of person's leg or shoe.

Then we rested—as much as you can [when you're] tossing and turning on the hot sand in your t-shirt. We were up by 4:30 a.m. ready to roll, and walked until 8 p.m. If you're trained and acclimated to the heat, you really don't notice it until you become dehydrated. Your muscles become cramped from lactic acid and from the number of hours you're standing upright. You get dizzy, feel nauseous. You can't hold down water. Mine lasted for about 40 miles [65 kilometers] and then I was out. We just made it because it was starting to cool, and the goal was in sight—in this case Interstate 8. We could actually hear it miles off. So that spurred us on, as did the camaraderie of the group.

What did you learn from the trip?

The extraordinary lengths that human beings will go to make a better life for themselves. If we had another five miles [8 kilometers] to go, we might not have all made it. And they were doing this to feed their families.

How easy is it to cross the border without being apprehended?

Very easy, if you know what you're doing. There are those who believe that if they walk these extraordinarily long distances across the desert, they'll evade the Border Patrol. And again, we're talking 30 to120 miles [50 to 190 kilometers]. You can make it if can handle the heat and distance—and if you don't get caught.

But there are other groups of people who are more knowledgeable. Some cross through a hole in the fence [along the border], from Nogales, Sonora [Mexico], to Nogales, Arizona, hire a taxi, and a mile [1.6 kilometers] south of a Border Patrol checkpoint, the riders will get out of the car, walk into the desert maybe a mile [1.6 kilometers], then north for another two miles [3.2 kilometers], and the taxi driver, having gone through the checkpoint, will be waiting alongside the highway or access road off Interstate 19 to pick up the group and take them to Phoenix. They don't run the risk of dying in the desert.

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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