LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Every day the U.S. Border Patrol deports large numbers of men, women, and children who crossed into the U.S. illegally from Mexico. The U.S. has carried out some 400,000 deportations this year. The scale of the illegal immigration problem has so transformed border communities, that even the people who grew up there now find their hometowns unrecognizable. They include NPR's Claudio Sanchez who was born on the Mexican side of the border.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: The poor, working-class Mexican neighborhood where I was born isn't far from the 12-foot high fence that separates Nogales, Arizona from Nogales Sonora, Mexico. The dusty streets of Colonia Ingenieros seem more narrow now, with dozens of homes still perched miraculously on a rocky hillside.

Ilegales, men and women from all parts of Mexico, would come through here when I was a child. They'd knock on our door to ask for food and water on their trek north before vanishing into the nearby hills and gullies that people now call Cocaine Alley.

Today, no one dares open their doors, let alone help these people. Fear trumps charity. When I was a kid though, my friends and I would venture, unafraid, into the desert hills with wads of flour tortillas in our pockets that we could trade for a story or two about where these illegals were headed Phoenix, Los Angeles, Chicago, Kansas City places I knew nothing about, though I imagined them to be beautiful, florescent cities.

I'm sure people died trying to cross illegally back then, but the numbers today are unbelievable. Last July was especially gruesome: 59 bodies found in the desert ended up at the Pima County medical examiner's office in Tucson. It was the second deadliest month on record for the area. Cause of death? Exposure to the heat, hyperthermia in most cases.

I've come back to my hometown for the first time in years to, once again, look into the faces of these men and women. Although on this day, my only encounter is with those who've been deported.

(Soundbite of vehicle driving by)

SANCHEZ: I wait on a Mexican side, and from a distance, I see three U.S. Border Patrol Vans drive up and empty their human cargo - 25 to 30 people. They pass through a gate where Mexican government agents in orange windbreakers are there to welcome them back home. They board an old school bus.

(Soundbite of car door closing)

SANCHEZ: I get in a cab and follow them through downtown Nogales Sonora, past empty restaurants and shuttered shops. The place that made my favorite Mexican sandwiches tortas is gone. So are the Americans who used to spend their money here.

But it's not just that. Everything about this once quaint, tourist town looks and feels surreal. Heavily armed soldiers and police cruisers line the main drag. They look ill-at-ease, waiting perhaps for their next encounter with drug smugglers who are intent on showing who's really in control.

Sadly, my hometown has morphed into no man's land. The bus I've been following for the last 15 minutes finally arrives at an open-air shed attached to a tiny office run by Grupo Beta. It's a government sponsored agency, charged, among other things, with registering and debriefing deportados.

Mr. ROBERTO MONTIEL (Beta Agent): (Foreign language spoken)

SANCHEZ: In his welcoming remarks, a gaunt elderly man Beta Agent Roberto Montiel begins with a lecture about the importance of keeping the bathrooms clean. The men and women sit on wooden benches, their shoulders slumped, their clothes tattered and dusty. A little girl rests her head on her mother's bosom. She has a bad case of pink-eye and bug bites all over her swollen face.

(Spanish language spoken)

SOFIA: Sofia.

SANCHEZ: (Spanish language spoken)

SOFIA: (Spanish language spoken)

SANCHEZ: The little girl's name is Sofia. She's three years old. Her mother, in her early 20s, says her name is Maria Del Rayo Hernandez, from Mexico City.

(Spanish language spoken)

Ms. MARIA DEL RAYO HERNANDEZ: (Spanish language spoken)

SANCHEZ: (Spanish language spoken)

Ms. HERNANDEZ: (Spanish language spoken)

SANCHEZ: Her plan was to spend the holidays in New Jersey with the little girl's father. Now Hernandez says she'll have to go back home to Mexico City. Crossing illegally is too dangerous, she says, which is what Agent Montiel has been saying all morning.

Mr. MONTIEL: (Spanish language spoken)

SANCHEZ: And now that you're back in Mexico, he warns, don't let your guard down. Don't trust anybody. You see, Montiel continues, no matter how harrowing you thought your experience was on the U.S. side of the desert, there are people on the Mexican side who will prey on you. They'll kidnap you, he says, lock you up in a cheap hotel and hold you for ransom, demanding $3,000, sometimes $5,000.

Mr. MONTIEL: (Spanish language spoken)

SANCHEZ: According to Beta and Mexico's Human Rights Commission, the number of migrants abducted in the last year and a half was 9,758, a number that gets bigger every year.

Is there a place to eat? Asks one man in the group. About a mile up the street from Grupo Beta's office, the Kino Border Initiative, a binational group funded by the Catholic Church has set up a makeshift cafeteria under a tent large enough to feed 200 people.

Father PETER NEELY (Jesuit Priest, Directs Kino Border Initiative): (Spanish language spoken)

SANCHEZ: A Jesuit priest runs the place Father Peter Neely, a stocky man with a thick white beard. Volunteers from local churches and Bank of America, today, have prepared breakfast: a plate of refried beans, scrambled eggs, a small bowl of potato soup, corn tortillas, and a glass of sweet Jamaica water. Father Neely says relief operations like this one are now common on the border.

Father NEELY: Tijuana has stuff, Mexicali has stuff, Juarez - they all have these kinds of services. But Nogales, when they started diverting more people through the desert, you know, that's when we saw the big need here, to get, you know, people, you know, fed and clothed.

SANCHEZ: I don't want to get in the way here. I think you're ready to go.

Father NEELY: Yeah, we're ready to eat.

(Spanish language spoken)

SANCHEZ: Father Neely blesses the meal and offers a simple prayer we ask that you bless your sons and daughters, protect them against all evil, so they can reach their homes safely.

Crossing into the U.S. illegally is not a sin, says Neely. It's a misdemeanor, but the penalty for many is death. And it dawns on me, in my encounters with ilegales 50 years ago, people on their way north did sometimes talk about the risk of being left to die in the desert, but they mostly talked about hope and a better life.

As a child growing up in Mexico, I suppose that's why I latched onto those stories, convinced that just beyond that 12-foot high fence that separates Mexico from the United States, beautiful, fluorescent cities beckoned. And yes, in my innocence, I believed they were even worth dying for.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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WERTHEIMER: You can see photos from Nogales and additional coverage of immigration in border communities on our website at npr.org.

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WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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