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

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.

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