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Map of Sonora, Mexico

Crossing the Border from Mexico to the U.S., Part 1 {format} {format} 8:30 Scott Carrier

Undocumented immigrants cross the desert.

Broadcast: Aug 25 2004 on NPR Day to DaySeries: Crossing the Border: Mexico to the U.S. Subjects: Justice, Labor, International, Hispanic

Profile: Illegal aliens crossing the border in Arizona

August 25, 2004 from Day to Day

ALEX CHADWICK, host: This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

In the last decade, the US Border Patrol developed a strategy to seal this country's entire southern border with Mexico, all the way from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego, California. According to The Arizona Republic newspaper, the government has spent more than $20 billion and tripled the number of agents on the border to do it. The goal was to stop illegal immigrants, and it has not worked. Thousands still cross the border each day; hundreds die trying each year. Producer Scott Carrier went to a remote location on the border of Arizona and has the first of a three-part series on border crossings.

SCOTT CARRIER reporting:

Out in the Sonoran Desert, home of the saguaro cactus and Gila monster, 20 people are getting into the back of a pickup truck.

(Soundbite of people getting into truck)

CARRIER: Mostly teen-age boys, two women, the rest men. They're Mexicans and we're in Mexico, two miles south of the border at Sasabe, Arizona. It's 10:30 in the morning, close to 100 degrees.

(Soundbite of rooster crowing)

CARRIER: In a few minutes, the truck will take them to the barb-wired fence on the border and they'll begin walking north. My partner, photographer Julian Cardona, asked them what part of Mexico they come from.

Mr. JULIAN CARDONA (Photographer): (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: Veracruz.

Unidentified Man #2: Oaxaca.

Unidentified Man #3: Veracruz.

Unidentified Man #4: Oaxaca.

Unidentified Man #5: Veracruz.

Unidentified Man #6: Oaxaca.

Unidentified Man #7: Oaxaca.

Unidentified Man #8: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #9: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #10: (Spanish spoken)

CARRIER: There's a Mexican border agent with us, Beta Group Officer Carlos Sozia Morana(ph). He's got a uniform, he's got a badge, but his job is not to apprehend these people; it's to assist them in their journey.

Mr. CARLOS SOZIA MORANA (Beta Group Officer): (Spanish spoken)

CARRIER: He says, `Are you guys prepared? You have water? Food? You realize you're going to have to walk for a long time, maybe for hours, maybe for days. You're going to have to walk at night.'

Mr. MORANA: (Spanish spoken)

CARRIER: He tells the group if they get into trouble, to contact his office. Beta Group can help. The men and boys nod, but in a few minutes, they're going to be in the United States and in a few hours, it'll be 115 degrees in the shade, and what can Beta Group do for them then?

(Soundbite of door closing)

CARRIER: So can we see what you have, what you're going to carry with you?

Unidentified Man #11: Water.

Unidentified Man #12: Water.

Unidentified Man #13: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #14: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #15: Sardine. Water.

Unidentified Man #16: Sweto(ph).

CARRIER: Sweto is water mixed with electrolytes.

Unidentified Man #17: (Spanish spoken)

CARRIER: Garlic?

Unidentified Man #18: Garlic.

Unidentified Man #19: It might be humid. We don't know.

CARRIER: I've got one more question here. Are you worried you might die?

Unidentified Man #20: No.

Unidentified Man #21: No.

Unidentified Man #22: No. Life's that way.

(Soundbite of the truck starting)

Unidentified Man #23: Gracious.

(Soundbite of truck)

CARRIER: Officer Sozia gives us a ride back into Sasabe, and I tell him I'm confused about his job.

You don't try to stop them from going across?

Mr. MORANA: No. (Spanish spoken)

CARRIER: He says no. According to Mexican law, every citizen has the right to leave the country. So Beta Group helps them if they get sick, and they count the numbers of people leaving. He says in the winter, about 3,000 people come through the Sasabe area every day. Now in June, because of the heat, it's down to a thousand a day. He calls the migrants pollos, or chickens. What's not legal, he says, is to be a coyote, someone who smuggles chickens across the border for money.

So was there a guide, a coyote, with them?

I ask him if there was a coyote with the group in the back of the pickup truck.

Mr. MORANA: (Spanish spoken)

CARRIER: And he says, `For sure. They had a coyote and they were each paying between 1,000 and $2,000 for his service.'

Mr. MORANA: (Spanish spoken)

CARRIER: I do the math. If there's between 1 and 3,000 people moving through the Sasabe area every day, that's about half a million people a year. And if each pays $1,000 for a coyote, that's $500 million, a travel industry unto itself. Only sometimes the pollos don't make it. They get caught by US Border Patrol, they get robbed by bandits or they get separated from the group and the coyotes leave them behind. They get lost, they die. Sometimes their bodies are never found.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CARRIER: You can see some of the money in Sasabe; Sasabe, Sonora, just across from Sasabe, Arizona. You don't see it in the homes and businesses, as these are adobe hovels. The town is the kind of place you wouldn't really want to get out of your car: dirt roads, the natives a tad hostile. But there is an unusual presence of new pickup trucks with a preference for the Ford F-150 Lobo, $30,000, and sometimes they're driven by young boys barely tall enough to reach the gas pedal and see over the dashboard.

Mr. CARDONA: See that guy?

CARRIER: He looks like about 13.

Mr. CARDONA: Twelve or 13.

CARRIER: Julian has photos of a nine-year-old driving his new Lobo to school.

That's the truck you were talking about?

Mr. CARDONA: No, no, no, no, no.

CARRIER: This is a different one?

Mr. CARDONA: Different one and they are the owners, believe me.

CARRIER: We spend the afternoon walking around, looking at the motels and crash pads where the migrants hole up during the heat of the day. We try to talk to some people inside an adobe bunk house, but a young man stops us out front and asks us to leave because he's worried about being seen talking to us. `People get killed around here for less,' he says.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

CARRIER: About 5:30 in the afternoon, the people start coming out on the street; men, women and children in groups, each with a small backpack, carrying a one-gallon jug of water or sweto. Julian and I follow a group of 27 that includes kids about four or five years old and two babies. They walk north toward the border, and when they're about 200 yards from the US Customs house, they turn right, off the road and head up a rocky hillside.

JESUS (Mexican): (Spanish spoken)

CARRIER: One man says his name is Jesus from Mexico City. He's trying to get to Houston. He says he's made this trip before, and one time he was robbed. He says you just have to look out for yourself out here. There's no other alternative.

JESUS: (Spanish spoken)

CARRIER: He says, `This is not our fault. The fault lies with our government. They help only the rich. They steal a lot. Us poor people, they treat us very badly. We're hungry. We have to struggle for what we get in life.'

JESUS: (Spanish spoken)

CARRIER: The group stops on the far side of the hill, out of sight of the US Customs Office. Julian is taking photos of the people, and one man, probably the coyote, is waving his arms, telling him to stop. Nobody makes a sound except the babies.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

CARRIER: The view looking north is of a desert floor stretching 10 miles to a range of mountains. It could be the Serengeti, but it's southern Arizona, the part known as the Buenos Aries National Wildlife Refuge. Nobody out there but bandits and US Border Patrol. These people are going to walk across this desert in the dark. It's 60 miles to Tucson. Maybe their coyote has a pickup truck waiting somewhere and they won't have to walk the whole distance. Or maybe they'll be arrested and sent back, or maybe they'll get separated and lost.

I can't help thinking, `What about the babies, the little kids?' It seems like a big mistake, but they're gonna do it. They get up and start walking north toward the wildlife refuge. I watch them go, wondering what it is they come from to make this worth the risk?

(Soundbite of footsteps)

CHADWICK: That story from writer and radio producer Scott Carrier with the support of the independent radio group Hearing Voices. And we'll have more of that series.

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News.