In Deadly Desert, Border Crossers Opt for Capture

An immigrant gets his swollen feet washed

An immigrant gets his swollen feet washed at the aid station on the Mexican side of the border, in Nogales, Sonora. hide caption

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Border Patrol agents frisk illegal immigrants just caught in Nogales, Ariz. i

Border Patrol agents frisk illegal immigrants just caught in Nogales, Ariz. Ted Robbins, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ted Robbins, NPR
Border Patrol agents frisk illegal immigrants just caught in Nogales, Ariz.

Border Patrol agents frisk illegal immigrants just caught in Nogales, Ariz.

Ted Robbins, NPR

All day long, buses pull up about 100 yards short of the traffic-choked Mariposa port. The entry marks the boundary between Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, in the Mexican state of Sonora. The buses carry people who got caught trying to cross the border. If they have no criminal record, it is U.S. policy to simply drive them back to the border and drop them off.

They are the lucky ones.

U.S. officials say increased border security has resulted in fewer immigrants entering the country illegally. But a large number die trying: Since last fall, 150 bodies have been found in the rugged desert in one Arizona county alone. Border-wide, the death toll for the same period is at least 275.

Marietta Vallet is an emergency technician with the U.S. organization No More Deaths. The group, along with the Sonoran state government, runs an aid station on the Mexican side of the border. It consists of a couple of tents and a trailer on a patch of dirt in-between traffic lanes, just past the entry point to Nogales, Sonora. Vallet says about 500 to 600 people pass through the station each day.

"In the spring, we were seeing up to 1,200 people a day," she says.

On a recent day, three men disembark from a bus and limp toward the aid station. All three have bandages on their knees from falling on rocks in the desert. Volunteer Maria Delgado hands them each a piece of bread and a cup of soup. Jose, Luis and Edgar say they just spent two days and two nights walking north from the border, which is west of this spot. They saw — and smelled — things they'd rather forget, including a body decomposing in the heat.

"It was not an animal; it was a human being," one of the men says in Spanish.

Vallet says it's not an uncommon story. She says tighter security in safer urban areas has pushed people into the desert. And she blames unscrupulous smugglers who guide naïve crossers.

"The majority are from rural areas in Mexico, mainly southern Mexico," she says. "I think a lot of the time, people don't know what they're facing. ... They come from Chiapas, and they've never seen maybe a cactus before."

Jose, Luis and Edgar are from Mexico City, 1,500 miles south of Nogales. They came hoping to work in Houston.

Jose is clearly in pain. Vallet removes one of his shoes and looks at his foot.

"It's definitely edema," Vallet says. "It's very swollen and inflamed, and some kind of rash, as well." In Spanish, she asks whether the spot is especially painful.

Yes, Jose replies. He holds up his worn shoe. Cactus spines pierced the sole, going through the bottom of his foot.

The men say they walked about 50 miles, then ran out of water. Tired and dehydrated, they actually wanted to be caught. So they went to a highway, where U.S. Border Patrol found them.

The men say they are determined to cross. Injuries, of course, increase the chance that they won't make it. Vallet warns them to wait until they heal. The three men promise her they'll rest for a few days before trying again.

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