Try Orion


Cross-border views of the latest wave of migration from Mexico, and why it can't be stopped

by Charles Bowden & Julián Cardona. Photographs by Julián Cardona

Published in the July/August 2008 issue of Orion magazine

Note: beneath Charles Bowden’s article you’ll find an article by photographer Julián Cardona.

CHARLES BOWDEN | Tucson, Arizona

AT NOON THE AIR BURNS—strike a match and toss it into a gallon of gasoline to get the feeling—and it stays this way into the night when the blackness wraps the body like velvet. For hours this air remains higher in temperature than the bodies of mammals struggling to stay alive in it. The ground rolls, a brown grassland dreaming of rain with clots of mesquite in green leaf. The mesquite tortures the mind. The dirt beneath the shoe may be a hundred and fifty degrees, the skin roars with fire, the body feels baked and erratic, and still the eyes stare at these thriving trees feasting off water a hundred to two hundred feet below the surface.

We go down to the line to do a radio program. Late at night we stop in the small Arizona border town of Sásabe and get a twelve-pack of beer with ice, then swing into the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, a patch of ground I have been roaming since childhood. The 185-square-mile refuge, created in 1984 to save the masked bobwhite, is being slowly obliterated by Mexicans trudging north. They have left over 1,300 miles of new trails and over 200 miles of outlaw roads.

As we drive the dirt tracks of the refuge, a Border Patrol vehicle suddenly roars up and stops us. The agent is apprehensive. He has a right to be wary since spent brass from AK-47s now shows up on the ground of this sanctuary. He tells me I have no right to be here. I tell him that is not true. Then he changes his message and tells me it is very dangerous. I do not argue and he relents. After all, his job is to protect people like me from this influx, and so he spends his nights catching men and women and children walking through a desert toward dreams of jobs in places they largely know only as rumor.

I have no ill feelings toward the agents, nor toward the people they hunt in the day and the night.

We park in the darkness a few hundred yards from the line. There is no moon and the hot blackness seems to stalk us with menace. We are poised in the largest corridor at that moment for illegal immigration in North America, the Altar Valley sweeping up from Sonora to the west flank of Tucson sixty miles away. It is an empty stretch of the Sonoran Desert, an upland of grass and mesquite, which as it flows north gives way to saguaro, creosote, and burning desert ground.

In the darkness, we drink beer. It is around midnight with nothing out and about but people fleeing into the United States and agents paid to stop them.

The tape machine comes on and then, the first question: “Where are we right now?”

And I say, “We’re probably within two to three hundred yards of the fence. It’s invisible. It’s like when you look overhead. There aren’t any Mexican stars or American stars. It’s like a great biological unity with a meat cleaver of law cutting it in half. We’re in an odd circumstance. We’re in a national wildlife refuge, a sanctuary, and there’s a thousand Mexicans out here scared to death and trying to make it into the United States, and there’s a couple thousand pounds of drugs moving around us, and there’s men with AKs guarding the drugs, and there’s dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Border Patrol personnel with the hairs on the back of their necks standing up. If you look to the north-northeast you can see the glow of the lights of Tucson, and they’re gonna have to move constantly for three days to get there.

“They follow the person in front of them. And they fall a lot. And they’re afraid. They’re afraid of the desert at night anyway. It’s a different desert when you’re being hunted. They’ve spent their lives as human beings. They cross the wire and they become deer surrounded by lions. The only thing you can really hear out here are insects and fear. Hundreds of square miles just crackling with fear. These people are risking their lives tonight to cross this desert and when they get to their Chicago or their Los Angeles or their North Carolina they will send more money back to Mexico next year than Mexico will make from almost any other legal source. You take a man, you put him three hundred yards south of here, and he can’t find a job, he can barely feed himself. You move him across this desert, you get him to an American city, and Mexico no longer has to feed him. He becomes a money pump, like a private ATM that sustains their society. Oddly enough, moving human flesh in a few years is gonna be more lucrative than moving cocaine. Mexico has finally found a product that makes it money: expelling its own citizens into a foreign country.”

I stand in the darkness, in that pitch of night, and I realize I am tired and I love the taste of the cold beer on my tongue.

Then I’m asked, “Well, what’s the solution to this problem?”

And I ask, “What’s the problem?”

PEDRO AGUIRRE LIKED THE WIND and so called his rancho Buenos Aires, the good air. When he arrived in the 1850s, the valley was a savanna bordering Mexico. The song of the masked bobwhite filled the clear air. By the 1890s, the bird had vanished and so had a lot of the grass. First massive cattle herds demolished the land and then a seven-year drought took down the herds—50 to 70 percent of the steers fell dead on the murdered earth.

By the mid-1980s the government had bought the failing ranch and turned it into the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in hopes that the masked bobwhite could be restored to the United States through breeding from a remnant population found on a Mexican ranch. Now it is where the war on drugs and the new thing called Homeland Security play out. The bottom mile of the refuge is closed to the public because of guns, drugs, and the smuggling of people. A car barrier, interrupted by stretches of wall, dances across the land—ground surrendered by the refuge to Homeland Security so that no pesky environmental impact statement would be required. Migrants leave clothing, spent water bottles, and day packs in heaps. Abandoned cars also decorate this sanctuary—some graced with bullet holes.

The movement of drugs results from a giant market in the United States. The movement of poor people results from economic collapse in Mexico triggered by the North American Free Trade Agreement, which spelled a death sentence for much of the country’s peasant agriculture. Within two years, the United States will have a standing army of about twenty thousand people on the line, more armed men than comprised the entire United States Army when we commenced the Mexican War and stole half the territory of the neighboring republic.

There are three things that must be faced on the line. The federal agents are being corrupted by the money of drug smuggling and people smuggling. The flow of people is far greater than acknowledged (there is a village just across the wire from the Buenos Aires that handles between 600,000 and 800,000 migrants a year—and it is one little dot on the map of a border almost 1,900 miles long). And finally, this is not a bunch of workers simply coming north to toil a few months; this is an exodus of men, women, and children from nations that cannot feed them or clothe them or educate them. This is the true face of the global economy and it is killing the land all along the border, ground already savaged by a change in the weather as global warming proceeds.

Think of a giant ecological shift. Streams of one species, Homo sapiens, are moving into the United States in order to survive. The land they cross is pulverized, just as once the great herds of bison thundered across the plains and left trampled earth in their wake. Nothing can alter these facts so long as jobs exist in the United States. No level of terror—not the agents, nor the rapes, the murders, the painful deaths from thirst in the desert—nothing will deter a person who has no future in his homeland and can hear a fine future whispering to him just across the wire. Any successful effort to make migrants unemployable and to deport them will result in the explosion of Mexico, a meltdown that would make Iraq look like a cakewalk.

What we are witnessing is the most successful antipoverty program in the world—past or present. What we are witnessing is a movement as relentless as the migration of plants and animals as they flee the new infernos of global warming. What we are witnessing is a response by governments that is as dishonest and pointless as the fabled campaign to contain African bees. We are witnessing the future, and for all living things, the future is the only place to go.

Others will talk of worker permits or growing the economy or securing our borders. They are not part of the future. Nor are they honest about the present. The poor crossing right around me have a solid sense of reality and this reality is hurling them into our nation and our land. They are not terrorists, and they are not political. They are desperate.

I SPENT LAST SUMMER on the line, in a house that was two hundred yards from a Border Patrol highway checkpoint. Helicopters would swoop low along the creek almost every day. Mexicans would come up for food and water after their trek into El Norte.

One day I handed out a bunch of canned goods to some hungry migrants. When I apologized for not having a can opener, one man in the party told me not to worry.

“How will you open the can?” I asked. He smiled as he leaned down, grabbed a stone, and with a swinging motion showed me that the future cannot be denied. Then they marched off into the desert for another thirty miles of their journey.

Julián Cardona | Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua

AGUA PRIETA, SONORA, used to be a dull and dusty town where nothing ever happened, but when I arrived in May 2000, crowds of migrants from southern Mexico were showing up there. One afternoon, the phone rang in my hotel room and a voice asked if the pollos (chickens) were ready. Perhaps not as strange as it seems. The hotel was filled with guys drinking beer and blasting norteña music in the hallways, marking them as polleros: people smugglers. The guy was calling to check on his merchandise. I told him he had the wrong room and he hung up with an apology.

As I walked through town carrying my camera in a black nylon bag, I must have looked like a pollo, and so various polleros offered their services to cross me into the United States. The place buzzed with lawlessness—everyone was watching or being watched.

Migrants were packed into the downtown hotels near the border with Douglas, Arizona, but the people on the streets were mostly agents or guides. The migrants stayed out of sight until sunset, when they would come out in small groups. Some got into vans or pickups; others walked in groups of twenty in any direction they figured would take them to a place to cross the line. Lines of immigrants, hiding, waiting for their chance, spread out to the east and west of Agua Prieta, parallel to the seven strands of barbed wire that marked the line beyond the high metal wall near the official port of entry.

Sásabe, Sonora, an anonymous border settlement 375 kilometers to the west, has become a legend in the world of illegal immigration. Altar, a larger town a few dozen kilometers south of Sásabe, has become the hub where immigrants from Mexico and Central America gather before making the final jump to the line. Both towns are important stops on the migrant trail to the border.

People in Altar recall a time when there were three people smugglers in town, the kind of business that has always existed on the border. The local economy depended on agriculture and marijuana smuggling. But in 1999 thousands of migrants began to arrive, and with no housing available, they wandered the streets and slept on the plaza.

I spent three days in Sásabe, staying for eight dollars a night in a little wooden room barely big enough for a foam mattress, in back of a tortilla shop whose owner was cashing in on the new business. Many like him reacted quickly to the need for rooms. In Altar and nearby places, construction of cheap hostels has boomed, as have other small businesses aimed at the migrants: restaurants, phone booths, supermarkets selling industrial quantities of bottled water and electrolytes. Street vendors provide black jackets, caps, shoes, gloves, backpacks, and anything else perceived as necessary for crossing the desert at night. The town has never seen such prosperity.

IN THE EARLY ’90s, as a photographer for the newspaper Diario de Juárez, I often wandered west along the Río Bravo from downtown Juárez. Illegal crossing was easy and routine then. On weekend nights, girls in party dresses and high heels would climb through a hole in the fence on the “free bridge.” Heavy metal fans thought nothing of crossing for an El Paso concert—Van Halen, ZZ Top, Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest—and returning home to sleep. A trip across the river on an inner tube cost two dollars.

On September 19, 1993, things changed. Border Patrol trucks were parked every third of a mile along the river and helicopters patrolled overhead. The next day, our newspaper proclaimed: Border Sealed! Operation Border Blockade was under way, what is known today as Operation Hold the Line.

Men who had crossed daily to work construction, farm, or gardening jobs were tossing rocks at Border Patrol agents clad in gas masks and riot gear. A week into the blockade, the price to get smuggled into the United States rose from $20 to $100. Immigrants found more secret and dangerous routes, like the sewer tunnels under the river into El Paso. Three and a half months later, NAFTA went into effect and similar blockades were deployed in urban areas along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

The images pictured here date from the late 1990s, the beginning of the massive post-NAFTA wave of migration along the Sonora-Arizona border, through October 2006. During the same period, cities on the frontlines of globalization erupted in waves of violence that still rage along the border. For decades, growth and development in Ciudad Juárez has been distorted to meet the needs of the maquiladora industry and the greed of local bosses. Juárez has become synonymous with narco-trafficking; murders and disappearances; women raped, murdered, and dumped in the desert; and extreme violence against children. Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo, and other border towns suffer similar fates.

IN JANUARY 2003, I spent two weeks in North Carolina, one of the recent migrant destinations with a booming Hispanic population. Mario had arrived not long before, after a friend of his settled in the town of Carrboro and helped him get work. After saving some money, Mario brought his girlfriend, Angélica, to join him.

Just outside of Sásabe there is a big tree where immigrants dump their old clothes and put on new ones that make them look more “American.” Mario and I realized that we had both stopped under that same tree. I was doing a magazine story; Mario was crossing the border to meet his friend in North Carolina.

At their new apartment in Carrboro, Mario and Angélica talked for a long time about the details of their journeys. When visitors showed up, they always asked where I had crossed and were surprised to find out that I was in the U.S. legally—I was the only person they knew with papers. From them I learned that the illegal activity of the coyotes is governed by market forces. Mario paid $1,500 to cross and walked three days through the desert. Taking this knowledge into account, he paid $2,500 for Angélica’s trip, with only one day walking over an easier route.

Mario works for a construction company and Angélica has a job cleaning apartments. They say that as working-class people, they encountered more discrimination in Mexico; they don’t feel mistreated in their daily interactions with Americans. They can buy better clothes, food, and household goods in the U.S.—they even found a microwave oven for only five dollars! On the other hand, they are terrified at the possibility of getting sick.

During the time of my visit, the massive influx of Mexican immigrants to North Carolina was getting a lot of attention in the press. Immigrant communities were growing rapidly as men arranged for their wives and children and even their parents to make the illegal journey to settle permanently in the U.S. Many came from the states of Guanajuato and Chiapas and many, like Mario, worked in construction.

Immigrants often take on high-risk jobs. Death may come from a falling tree, or heat stroke while picking crops in the fields, or falling from a building under construction. Or, in the case of Alejandro González, crushed under the weight of a house being raised in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner in March 2007. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 100,000 Hispanics have arrived in the Gulf Coast area since September 2005. A construction supervisor in the region told me that if it were not for the immigrants, he would not have personnel to handle the jobs.

The meatpacking industry exemplifies the dependence of the U.S. economy on illegal immigration. A friend who worked in a plant in Dodge City, Kansas, told me that the workforce is 90 percent illegal immigrants. When an accident happens (and I heard of many during the week I spent there) and the worker returns to the factory after medical treatment, bosses usually ask for verification of their Social Security numbers. This results in many people getting fired after having lost their fingers or arms. They may get a small monetary compensation from the company, or they may not. A Salvadoran who lost two fingers and a Mexican who lost his left hand on the production line refused to be photographed or to talk on the record about their accidents. Both had no documents.

There is no place for these workers in the “open economies” adopted by Mexico and other Latin American countries in recent decades. Starting in the 1980s, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, led by the United States, promoted free trade as the savior of the region. But what actually happened is that rampant emigration spurred by these failed free-market reforms now sustains a whole continent. Mexico received $23 billion in remittances in 2006, and the whole of Latin America brought in $62.3 billion in the same period, the largest amount of any world region. For countries south of the United States, exportation of citizens is the only economic project that works.

Go to Oaxaca, or any other state in southern Mexico, to see the evidence. I visited the Mixtec region in June 2005. Magnificent new houses line the road into the center of San Juan Mixtepec, and cars sport plates from many different U.S. states. There are more grand houses beyond the town. And more and more. Similar developments can be seen in Guerrero, Tlaxcala, and Michoacán.

A year after that trip, I attended the St. John the Baptist Day celebration and Mixtec Festival in northern California. I asked the organizer, Héctor Hernández, why the Mixtecs build these giant mansions back home in Mexico.

“We have a dream,” he said softly.

“But why are the houses so huge?”

Héctor answered, “Because we have a really big dream.” 

Orion publishes six thoughtful, inspiring, and beautiful issues a year,
supported entirely by our readers – we're completely ad-free!

Please consider donating to help us continue to explore the future of nature.

Charles Bowden has lived along the U.S.-Mexico border for fifty years. His book Exodus, a collaboration with photographer Julián Cardona, was published by the University of Texas Press in fall, 2008.

Julián Cardona has spent most of his life in the U.S.-Mexico border region, and has covered related events and issues since 1993. He currently lives in Ciudad Juárez.

Book  Image

→   Purchase from

→   Purchase from an independent bookstore

Article Resources