Crossing illegally from Mexico to the United States has never been a deadlier odyssey to undertake. That’s not just because of the risk of being gunned down by border patrol officers. The vast increase in the number of agents and drones along the border has forced immigrants to take near-impossible routes cross through some of the most arid, sun-scorched stretches of the American desert. These are landscapes that have taken thousands of lives. Yet still the people come, for reasons old and new.
The oldest reason of all? To escape crushing poverty and gang violence south of the border. Juan, an immigrant who spoke to volunteering organisation UBELONG, made this point clear when describing his terrifying journey into the United States: “I ran and ran and ran, and I fell down and continued running; they almost caught me several times but I continued running because I was thinking of my family. I had to reach the United States, and I had to make enough money to feed my people. You cannot maintain a family here in Mexico.”
And, as comedian Cristela Alonzo told Time magazine: “My mom’s biggest dream was to come to the United States. This country represented hope for her and her family, especially my siblings and me.” This meant making the formidable sacrifice of tearing them away from their own culture and homeland in a bid to become a “resident alien”. Cristela Alonzo explained this as meaning “you’re allowed to be a legal resident of the country but do not have to be a citizen. And yes, you pay taxes. After multiple tries, my mom and brother were granted resident alien status. For my mom, it was the best thing that had ever happened in her life.”
But there’s a newer motivation for people to risk their lives in the war zone-like border area. Thanks to a surge in deportations that began during the Obama administration, there are now legions of people who grew up in the States and regard the US as the only home they’ve ever known, but – because of having been smuggled in as infants – they’ve now been exiled south of the border. These people are adrift, many with no friends or relatives or connections in Mexico, often speaking only English, desperate to return to their real home: the United States.
This desperation leads to the lethal trek across desert plains, sometimes in the company of people-smugglers known as “coyotes”. Many die from exhaustion and heat, their bodies almost immediately rendered unrecognisable by the hellish conditions. Indeed, there are dedicated forensics officers who have the hard job of locating and notifying the dead people’s relatives. Their only clues are the meagre possessions found on the ravaged corpses: photos of loved ones, battered Bibles, kids’ drawings. This is a routinely heartbreaking task, as one such worker, Robin Reineke, told the BBC: “I remember a man who had a small dead hummingbird in his pocket. I know that for a lot of indigenous North American peoples hummingbirds hold a sacred significance – they represent hope and love and they're a powerful protective symbol.”
There is one spot that physically embodies the everyday anguish of being immigrants of uncertain status in America. That’s the ironically named Friendship Park, which straddles the border between San Diego and Tijuana. Here, for a few hours every Saturday and Sunday, divided families and separated lovers are allowed to talk and touch each other’s fingertips through the metal mesh of the border fence. On the US side, it resembles a militarised zone, like a modern Berlin Wall, though immigrants are at least allowed to enter without being interrogated on their status. On the Mexican side, the fence is colourful and joyous, with bands gathering to play during the weekend reunions.
Immigrants travel many hours to get to this one fence from across the United States, in the hope of finally being able to see and talk to members of their family who were deported from the States, or who they were forced to leave behind in Mexico when they made their journey north. Husbands share fleeting moments with separated wives, young children speak to grandparents they may never meet again.
Meanwhile, in the local San Diego schools, it’s often teachers who act as surrogate relatives for young immigrant children waiting in limbo to know whether they’ll be deported or not. As one teacher, Sally Johnson, told news site ThinkProgress, “There was a tragedy with one family and two of the teachers went to the families and participated in their cultural rituals. When someone dies, they participated in the grieving process. They really are invested. It’s a heartfelt job.”
For immigrants, even those who have lived in the United States since before they could talk, life is endlessly uncertain, yet the benefits outweigh the hazards. Armando Ibanez, speaking to CBS, summed it up. “Not having food to eat every day and seeing your mother struggling, seeing your mother struggling to provide food, that's one of the sad memories I have from Mexico,” he said. “We just want to be acknowledged in this society as human beings. I just want to be acknowledged that I exist.”