You have no idea what people will do to reach the United States — until you hear their stories.
I heard some at La Posada Providencia shelter. You could live in San Benito, Texas, a long time and never notice it was there.
This Catholic shelter welcomes some of the most recent arrivals to the United States from Mexico.
But the women I met there are not Mexican. They're not even from Latin America. They are asylum seekers from Ethiopia.
Their stories start with a brutal reality: If you don't have a U.S. visa, you can't just board a plane to New York City. You need to find another route.
Consider the story of
Saraa Zewedi Yilma.
To Saraa, the easy route took
And an expensive cast of “connection men.” That's what women at the shelter call the smugglers who passed them from one country to another, from hotels to safe houses, often with other migrants.
Once, Saraa stayed in a safe house with 16 others — from Bangladesh, Somalia, Nepal and elsewhere. They were all clients of a global underground network funneling them toward the final goal.
She floated for hours on an open boat.
She walked for two days through a Panamanian jungle. Border after border, immigration officials asked where she was going. Her answer never changed:
Country after country let her through. Then, finally, she walked across a bridge into Brownsville, Texas.
Her youngest sister did not make that walk — she drowned taking a different route to the U.S.
Her husband did make it, but he is still being detained by immigration authorities, as asylum seekers often are.
Saraa is now 28.
Saraa is seeking political asylum, as are almost all the men and women at La Posada. In one recent six-month period, this shelter took in asylum seekers from more than 22 countries.
To stay in the United States, asylum seekers must provide proof of political persecution at home. Those who are rejected face a homeward journey that may be more direct — but possibly more painful — than their journey here.
In 2012, according to the Department of Justice, about 27 percent of applications for asylum were accepted.
The border we know is relatively young.
Mexico didn't gain independence from Spain until 1821. Before then, what's now the American West was Spanish Territory.
The West changed hands, from Spain to the newly formed nation of Mexico.
Residents of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas declared the independent Republic of Texas. Disputes over the territory were a major cause of the Mexican-American War in 1846.
The war was disastrous for Mexico. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico ceded most of what we know as the American West.
The U.S.-Mexico border we know today was completed by the Gadsden Purchase. The acquisition gave the U.S. a route to build a Southern transcontinental railroad.
The U.S.-Mexico border is 1,969 miles long.
Source: International Boundary and Water Commission
A lot of the border is not fenced because geography (like this mountain) does the job.
There's not much fence in Texas because the Rio Grande is a natural barrier.
Sometimes the fence has art, graffiti or ads on it.
The fence has gaps for farmers to reach their fields.
Image: Google Maps
And for ranchers to allow livestock to graze.
Some of the fence is designed to stop vehicles.
And some to stop people — more of a wall than a fence.
It runs through the desert.
And into the Pacific Ocean.
The first government-sponsored fence went up in 1909 — to keep tick-infested cattle out.
The border was more fortified after the Mexican Revolution and World War I. But fence construction didn't really take off until the 1990s. Under the Clinton administration, both the amount of border fence in the San Diego Sector and the number of Border Patrol agents doubled.
The system expanded again in 2006 under the George W. Bush administration. The Secure Fence Act required the construction of hundreds of miles of new fence and border control infrastructure like floodlights and cameras.
“People have this idea that this part of the country is full of drugs and violence, but every day, moms take their kids to soccer, people go to work, go to church …”
- Ralph Cowen, 67, American
- Port commissioner, Brownsville, Texas
“I’m American, Mexican, then Texan. In that order.”
- Brianna Barraza, 15, American
- Anthony, Texas
Brianna decided to buck tradition and go with a Western theme for her quinceanera, the traditional Mexican celebration of a girl's 15th birthday.
“I want my daughter to study and become a doctor or secretary.”
- Yvonne Navarro, 48, and daughters Yvonne, 16, and Jasmine, 11
- Juarez, Mexico
Navarro started working in factories at age 16 and makes electronic parts for refrigerators.
“I think you would be hard-pressed to find agents that don’t have empathy for individuals. We are empathetic to situation but sworn to uphold the law.”
- Cmdr. Robert Harris, American
- Laredo, Texas
A native Texan, Harris has worked for the Border Patrol for 30 years. The sector in Laredo, Texas, averages 100 arrests a day.
“Border Patrol doesn't understand private property rights. They abuse their authority. ... They can go into hot pursuit, drive through cattle, leave gates open. It’s confrontation instead of cooperation.”
- Dob Cunningham, 80, American
- Quemado, Texas
Cunningham is a former Border Patrol agent. The U.S.-Mexico border runs straight through his property. Border Patrol has authority to monitor his land and has erected a tower with cameras to monitor the border.
“I think it’s a privilege to live on the border. … To be like — Hey I’m going to another country for a day.”
- Soraya Vazquez, 20, American
- Tijuana, Mexico
Vazquez was born in San Diego to Mexican parents. She has moved back and forth between California and Tijuana several times.
“I learned English so I could speak to him.”
- Diana Skinner with her husband, Phillip, and their son, Matthew
- Columbus, N.M.
Diana was born in Mexico. Phillip Skinner is the newly elected mayor of Columbus, N.M.
“I have seen many young guys working on their own projects and with more initiative than before. Looking for employment is no longer the unique option in our country, I think.”
- Ulises Elias, 34, Mexican
- Tijuana, Mexico
Elias founded and is the director of a tech startup accelerator in Mexico. He says proximity to the border is good for business.
“We had children at a middle school bring four baggies of marijuana to school. Quart-sized bags. … It’s devastating to see a student in middle school have this much marijuana on him.”
- Malcolm Lewis, Tohono O’odham Nation
Lewis is the public safety director for the Tohono O'odham Nation, a reservation straddling the border with Arizona. It's a severe landscape, but also a busy one for smuggling and migration.
“We get a lot of ideas from the other side. People cross, music crosses. … I love the music. Pantera, Korn, Slayer.”
- Sergio Castrellon, 18, Mexican
- Juarez, Mexico
“I write letters, fill out government forms and do taxes for people. My favorite ones to write are the love letters.”
- Ruben Flores, 64, Mexican
- Nuevo Laredo, Mexico
Flores loves The Beatles and has been working in this booth, writing letters for people who can't, since 1964.
“We lived through the massacre of a lot of people. … We kept just going from work to home and didn’t go outside. … We thank God we are happy and healthy.”
- Carlos David, 10, Teresa David, 13, Isabel Moreno, 32, Carlos Robles, 42, Dana Paola, 12
- Juarez, Mexico
Warring gangs and drug cartels made Juarez one of the world's most violent cities. In 2010 it suffered more than 3,000 murders, many of them related to a fight to control the drug trade. Last year, total homicides in Juarez fell below 500 — still high, but a significant improvement.
Just across the Rio Grande is El Paso, Texas, one of the safest cities in the U.S. It became home to many seeking refuge at the height of Juarez violence.
Back in Juarez, some neighborhoods, like Riberas del Bravo, were almost entirely abandoned by families that no longer felt safe at home.
At the height of violence, some families stayed in Juarez — barely going outside except to work.
Some say the city is on the mend, but in many ways the wounds of violence are still raw.
Tostilocos. Tosti, as in Tostitos. Locos, as in crazy.
Origin stories vary, but the snack has proliferated in Tijuana — and has crossed the border into Southern California, too. Vendors like Fidencio Rodriguez set up outside schools, at the beach and next to long lines of people crossing the border.
9 ingredients. About $3. Here's how:
The border is littered with toothbrushes. And used deodorant. And abandoned toys. Things left behind by people trying to cross.
Undocumented migrants are sometimes forced by the Border Patrol to discard potential weapons like shoelaces.
Anthropologist Jason de Leon has studied this and writes:
"When moving across the desert, people typically eat, rest, change clothes and leave behind a variety of items at different stages of the process. Discarded objects include … goods used to clean up one's appearance. …
"Many undocumented migrants assume that the best way to avoid detection is to 'not look poor,' a strategy that can backfire."
The terrain can be rugged in the remote areas where undocumented migrants try to cross. But hiking boots are expensive. Worse: They leave clear tracks.
Light, soft "carpet shoes" are an improvised solution.
Human smuggling is common. Men often do the smuggling. And rape is not uncommon. Women attempting to make it to the border may travel with condoms or take other measures to prevent pregnancy.
We never planned to witness what we saw that day.
We expected to see a stretch of the United States border fence in Hidalgo, Texas. In that location it’s more of a wall than a fence — a vertical concrete slab, topped by rusted steel posts.
A local resident named Scott Nicol brought us to see it. He volunteers for the Sierra Club, and he objects to the wall because of its location. It’s set back some distance from the actual border, the twisting channel of the Rio Grande, and so it partially cuts off a nature preserve that is actually a part of the United States.
We knew from Nicol that migrants from Mexico slip illegally into that nature preserve and try to scale the wall to reach the settled area on the other side. Nicol has found homemade ladders they left behind.
But we didn’t expect to meet migrants. We decided to look at the wall from the side that migrants first see as they prepare to scale it. So we strolled along a parapet atop the wall, toward a place where we could descend below it. At the edge of the wall, we walked past green and white Border Patrol vehicles parked with a view of the nature preserve. "Just fair warning," said one of the agents seated inside, "once the sun goes down, you know, you might see quite a few illegal families going right up that main road."
We were below the wall, looking up at the vertical concrete slab, when several Border Patrol vehicles drove past and disappeared into the woods. "Something we got to go do real quick over here," one of the agents told us as he rolled by.
The agent asked us to linger a moment. We did, and that’s how we got a good look at the toothbrushes.
People drop their possessions as they climb the wall — or are made to empty their pockets as they are arrested. A yellow toothbrush stood out on the path. Others were strewn about, along with two toy helicopters, deodorant and a torn child’s shirt. My 4-year-old could have worn it.
The Border Patrol has been capturing thousands of children who try the journey north. Many are not traveling with their parents. Many are seeking relatives in the United States; some may even have been kidnapped. Twenty-four thousand unaccompanied minors were picked up in 2012 alone.
We were still thinking about this when the Border Patrol vehicles re-emerged from the woods, carrying about 14 people accused of crossing the border.
They were taken out of the woods and questioned as we watched. It was an impossibly scenic spot, atop a levee and next to an oxbow lake in the last of the afternoon light.
The detainees were all under 30: men, women and several children. One gave his birth date as 2003. Another migrant was a toddler.
The kids were neatly dressed. It’s said that coyotes, or smugglers, often arrange for new clothes so the migrants will fit in when they slip into U.S. neighborhoods — just as they might arrange for the toothbrushes, or for the wooden ladders we found scattered around.
The kids were especially calm, given the enormousness of the journey now ending. Questioned by the agents, some of the migrants said they were from Mexico; others from farther away — Guatemala, Honduras. They got their feet on United States soil. Now they very likely faced a journey back to the places from where they came.
For now the party was bound for a Border Patrol station, though it was held up while agents awaited the arrival of a child’s car seat. That seat represented the ironies we found along the whole length of the border: how a child could make a perilous journey, possibly thousands of miles, finally to be held up for want of safety equipment. How the Border Patrol would carefully watch the safety of children before sending them back to some desperate situation.
Above all, it represented how this concrete border wall could not stop young people from attempting to cross; and though they were caught, we knew from our talks with other migrants that some might well try again.
Vendors will walk in the hot sun, in the air polluted by thousands of idling cars, to take advantage of those like us — just sitting there, with no access to food or bathrooms.
One vendor told us he can make $100 a day on weekends. To him and his seven children, that's pretty good.
And languages crisscross easily. But along la frontera, the choice of English or Spanish can be a political statement as much as a linguistic one. Vocabulary, too, can betray a political bias.
For example, the U.S. put up a "fence" at the border ... or is it a "wall"? Border Patrol insists on the former, while Oscar Casares, a writer from Brownsville, told us that "wall" is "more honest."
Vaquero | Cowboy
Casa | Home
Iglesia | Church
Escuela | School
There are other language thickets. What to call migrants who cross the border without permission?
Patrulla Fronteriza | Border Patrol
Aprehender | Apprehend
Niños | Children
Juguete | Toy
Or also just "MEXICAN," which I heard being used even by U.S. citizens of Mexican descent — whose families have been in the U.S. for many, many generations.
Amor | Love
Comer | Eat
Trabajar | Work
Rezar | Pray
Cruz | Cross
Cruzar | Cross
We generally try to evade the language police by choosing words without any hard and fast rule. I am personally willing to use more than one word choice in a story. And I am especially willing to let the facts in front of me determine the choice. For example, fence vs. wall:
Sometimes it's clearly just a chain-link fence. Or no barrier at all.
Other times, it really is a wall.
Valla | Muro || Fence | Wall
Ciudad | City
Puesta Del Sol | Sunset
And then there are the palabras that need no translation.
Published April 3, 2014
You’ve seen the faces, now hear the voices: Put your headphones on for Steve Inskeep’s Borderland broadcast series — 22 radio stories worth your time.
Kainaz Amaria, Jeremy Bowers, Danny DeBelius, Tyler Fisher, Chris Groskopf, Becky Lettenberger, Wes Lindamood, Claire O'Neill and Matt Stiles/NPR; Andy Becker, Michael Corey and Tia Ghose/The Center for Investigative Reporting
Data used in various stories in this project were obtained and analyzed jointly by NPR and The Center for Investigative Reporting.
Statistics used in the border crossing dashboard came from the government’s latest BorderStat report, compiled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and data released by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Data for the historic border line maps came from the U.S. Department of State, Natural Earth and The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. Details about the history of the border fence came from Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border by Rachel St. John.
Historic 1842 map of Mexico from the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection/University of Texas Libraries
Some border imagery in the fence section came via Google Maps/Digital Imagery.
Further research came from Jason de Leon in American Anthropologist and Journal Of Material Culture.