Section One: In Search of a Better Life and the Crucible of the Crossing

In Mexico, Alma often couldn’t afford milk for her children’s bottles, so she filled them with coffee.

Today, the 39-year-old farmworker lives near Immokalee, Florida, the tomato capital of the United States. Like many of the other women interviewed for this report, she simply wants to spare her children the grinding poverty she experienced in Mexico. “I’d like to live (in the U.S.) for my kids — for them to study and not live the life I lived in Mexico, because it was very hard,” she says.

Like Alma, Maria Concepcion, 27, crossed the border illegally. Four years ago, she swam across the Rio Grande, badly injuring her leg during the journey. After the crossing, her husband left her. Now, she is a single mother living in Florida, with a son in Mexico. Her parents and her child rely on her to send money.

Back home, the pay was too paltry.

“For me, this place was a dream, a hope for me and my family,” she says. Here, with her meager wages picking oranges and working as a cook, she has basic conveniences she could never have had in Mexico: an air conditioner, a stove, a refrigerator, carpet on the floor.

“In Mexico, my house was open,” Maria says. “The cardboard walls would break and bend. My dream was to arrive here for my family, to work. Just that.”

Alma and Maria are among the estimated 6.7 million Mexicans living in the U.S. without legal status. Mexicans make up 62 percent of the country’s 10.8 million undocumented immigrants, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s most recent figures. Four million of these immigrants are women.1

Women like Alma and Maria help form the backbone of American agriculture. Their hands harvest the bounty that replenishes our tables. Their hard labor enriches the farmers and business owners who employ them at wages that are simply not enough for American workers.

A glance at basic economic statistics shows why millions of women like them are willing to risk detention, sexual assault, separation from their children and even death just for the opportunity to earn subsistence wages and live at the bottom of U.S. society. In the top four countries that provide the most undocumented immigrants to the United States — Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras2— the per capita gross national income (GNI) ranges from about $1,700 to $9,990 a year.3

In comparison, the U.S. per capita GNI hovers near $50,000 a year.4

By migrating to the United States, Mexican immigrants like Alma and Maria are able to increase their annual incomes by 2.5 times, on average, even after accounting for the difference in the cost of living.5

When such disparities exist between neighboring countries, is it any wonder that the poor will ignore the lines in the desert sand?

Looking for a decent wage
Time and again, these Latina immigrants say they don’t want anything given to them. They just want to work hard and earn a decent wage so that their children can get an education and climb the economic ladder, a path that immigrants throughout U.S. history have taken.

Gloria, a 37-year-old Mexican woman who works from July to December packing tomatoes, avocados, mangoes and papayas in south Florida, says she “risked everything” for the opportunity to work in the U.S. “That is the only objective that most immigrants have,” she says. “We don’t come to damage the country but to get ahead and progress.”

The fact is, they’re not eligible for most government benefits. Undocumented immigrants are prohibited from participating in most federal programs that benefit the poor and unemployed, including welfare, food stamps, housing assistance, disability and unemployment benefits, Medicaid and Social Security.6 Fear of detection keeps many from using the benefits to which they are entitled, such as emergency medical services.

But while they don’t receive federal benefits, most economists agree that their cheap labor results in a net benefit to the U.S. economy. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan told the U.S. Senate in 2009 that undocumented immigrants have “made a significant contribution to the growth of our economy.”7

In addition to their labor, each year undocumented immigrants contribute as much as $1.5 billion to the Medicare system and $7 billion to the Social Security system, even though they will never be able to collect benefits upon retirement.8

Deporting these immigrants en masse would shrink the American economy by as much as $2.6 trillion over 10 years, according to one recent study.9 

Migrant deaths along the U.S.- Mexico border have been increasing as tighter border controls have pushed routes away from population centers and into more remote, hazardous areas. Many migrants trek through the dangerous Sonoran Desert near Yuma, Ariz.

The decision to stay or go
The decision to leave their country and culture is not something taken lightly, the women say. Often, family members — children, husbands, fathers, mothers — are left behind. The dangers and cost involved in the journey do not allow for whimsy, and the pain of leaving loved ones is wrenching, often unbearable.

Gullermina, a 30-year-old farmworker in Florida, still cries when she remembers the painful decision she made with her brother to leave their mother behind in Mexico. “My mom became a widow when we were little. She always worked, and there wasn’t enough money. So we had to leave Mexico. Yes, it was difficult,” Gullermina says, her voice trailing off before she bursts into tears. “I don’t think I can go on,” she says, excusing herself from the interview.

One woman from El Salvador left behind three children and a 21-year-old son. Her wages there, $6 a day, were simply not enough to pay for food. She hasn’t seen her children in two years. “Now, more than ever, I feel like my hands are tied,” she says. “I asked myself what I’m doing here. I can’t see them. I can just call them. They have to eat every day, and they ask me if I can send them a little something. And my mom says that if I can’t, that they’ll come here, because they’re suffering a lot because of our separation.”

For many women, the decision to stay in the U.S. or go home is complicated by their children. There are currently 5.5 million children living in households with at least one undocumented parent; 4 million of them were born in the U.S. and are, thus, U.S. citizens.10

Edilia, 26, has been in the U.S. almost a decade. She always dreamed of saving enough moneyto build a home in Mexico “and not be here suffering any longer in the fields.” But she doesn’t earn much picking tomatoes in Florida — clearing about $30 a day after paying $10 for a babysitter.

Now, her mother is sick, and she would like to go see her in Mexico but cannot. “I haven’t gone back, because my daughter was born here,” she says. “She has papers and I don’t. How would I come back with her?”

Likewise, Lucila*, 34, had planned to work in the U.S. for only a year and then return to Mexico. She’s now been here for 15 years. “I worked in everything from factories to restaurants,” she says. “I had kids and I couldn’t go back. It’s not easy to go back with three kids.”

Contrary to the “anchor baby” myth, women like Edilia and Lucila are not eligible for citizenship simply because they gave birth here to children, who are automatically U.S. citizens. The fact is that children born in the U.S. to undocumented parents cannot petition for the permanent residency of their parents until age 21. Even if a 21-year-old child does file such a petition to legalize the parent, the parent will likely be subject to a 10-year bar — a requirement that she leave the country for 10 years before she receives legal status. Under this scenario, the parent would finally receive legal status when her child was in her 30s.

Crossing: The fallen have no names
Araceli knew if she stopped walking she would die.

The 26-year-old from Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico, had been trudging through thesands of the Sonoran Desert for five days after leaving the border town of Altar, just a one-hour drive south of the Arizona-Mexico border.

Altar was once a small farming community. Now, by some accounts, its entire economy is based on the smuggling of people across the border.11 For many undocumented immigrants, the town is the final way station before embarking on one of the most dangerous migratory treks on the planet. Popular routes are controlled by unscrupulous human smugglers and terrorized by predatory gangs. The desert, which covers much of the northern Mexico state of Sonora and stretches well into Arizona and California, ranks in some spots as one of the hottest places on the planet during the summer. “The desert deceives you,” Araceli says. “You don’t know where you’re going. You’re easily disoriented.”

This is where the nightmare often begins for women and girls. They are, by far, the most vulnerable during the crossing — and their experience can have an enormous impact on their lives in the U.S. Some academics and humanitarian organizations estimate that as many as six out of 10 women and girls experience some sort of sexual violence during the journey through Mexico into the United States.12 Definitive numbers are not available because the plight of women attempting to cross is severely underreported and understudied.

The accurate collection of data depicting migrants’ deaths is also challenging because of the number of agencies involved and the differing reporting standards. The U.S. Border Patrol does not include data from the Mexican side of the border, which almost certainly ensures that deaths are underreported.13

As illegal immigration began to increase dramatically in the 1990s, the U.S. began a massive buildup of forces along the border. In 1992, there were 3,555 Border Patrol agents assigned to the U.S.-Mexico border. That number increased to 8,580 by 2000. By the end of 2009, it had reached more than 17,000. Meanwhile, the Border Patrol’s budget has more than tripled in the last decade, rising from $1.06 billion in 2000 to $3.58 billion in 2010.14

But this manpower hasn’t stopped the migration of people like Araceli. The population of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has roughly tripled over the past two decades. University of California, San Diego, researchers have found that the vast majority of migrants — as many as 92 to 98 percent — keep trying to cross the border until they make it.15

Many of the women interviewed for this report said they were not successful on the first attempt, but kept trying.

“They grabbed me five times, and on the sixth time I finally got across,” says Carina, a 24-year-old woman from Mexico. “It was a hard trip. The last time when we crossed, we walked six days and nights. My mind was set that I was going to cross and come here to work.”

The Obama administration has continued the buildup of border forces, announcing in May 2010 that up to 1,200 National Guard troops were to be deployed to the border.16 The White House followed that move with a request to Congress for 1,000 more Border Patrol agents.17

This enhanced border enforcement may be resulting in more, not fewer, undocumented immigrants staying in the U.S. That’s because, with tighter border control, especially after the terrorist attacks in 2001, the “circular migration” of some migrants was interrupted. They could no longer work in the U.S. and then easily return home. According to one estimate, there were 3.9 million undocumented women in the United States in March 2005; by March 2008 that number had increased to 4.1 million.18

In recent years, the crossing has become more expensive and more dangerous. The U.S. government’s “prevention through deterrence” strategy, according to a November 2008 report by the Congressional Research Service, has “pushed unauthorized migration away from population centers and funneled it into more remote and hazardous border regions. This policy has had the unintended consequence of increasing the number of fatalities along the border, as unauthorized migrants attempt to cross over the inhospitable Arizona desert without adequate supplies of water.”19

The number of deaths of female migrants along this border has been trending upward since 2000, according to data provided by the Border Patrol. In the five-year period from FY2000 to FY2004, border officers recovered the remains of an average of 61 migrant women a year along the 1,952-mile Southwestern border. In the latest five-year period — from FY2005 to FY2009 — that number jumped to 77.20

There are surely many more who are uncounted. Often these migrants go unidentified, their fate forever a mystery to their families.

The Anonymous Dead
Araceli did not want to become another of the desert’s anonymous dead.

“What went through my mind is that this is where [the dead] stay, and the family doesn’t have any recourse,” she says. “There’s no way to claim those bodies. My children are waiting for me, and I don’t want to be like those people.”

Another of her fears had nothing to do with the elements. She was the lone woman in a group of 31 men. The trip was supposed to be completed in three days, but after five days the group from Mexico and Guatemala was still dodging authorities in the desert with very little food or water.

Araceli was falling behind. The smugglers — los coyotes — assured her they would not abandon her. But the mummifying bodies along the route, two young women and a man, told a different story. “I couldn’t stand to see those corpses.”

She questioned the smuggler. Though she never got a straight answer, Araceli suspected the bodies were once his clients and were left for dead when they could no longer keep up. She begged her companions to, if she could no longer walk, drag her to a spot where authorities could find her. The smuggler’s policy on saving stragglers frightened her. “He says, ‘I don’t know, but for one person we can’t risk the whole group, because it’s a lot of money.’”

More than 100 migrants, many of them unidentified, lie in this cemetery in Holtville, Calif., near the major crossing point of El Centro, Calif.

Typically, undocumented immigrants will pay smugglers anywhere from $1,500 to more than $10,000 to guide them and their families across the border. Often, amounts are far beyond their ability to pay, and they must borrow money or enter into repayment contracts that leave them in debt to the smugglers. Falling deeply in debt leaves immigrants even more vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. Araceli borrowed $2,500 to pay for her trip.

Finally, Araceli could no longer move. “I couldn’t walk forward or back.” She sat down under a tree. Overcome by the choking heat, she fainted. When she woke up, Araceli was alone. “They didn’t come back for me. I had to stay there for two days, conserving the little bit of water I had.”

She gave up hope. She thought of her four sons back in Chiapas. “I have a dream of being able to provide for my children,” she says.

Given the anonymity of the fallen migrant in the desert, there was a good chance Araceli’s death would not be recorded or noticed by authorities, let alone reported to her family. She waited for the end.

Luckily for her, a passing group of migrants stumbled across her. At great risk to themselves, they helped her out of the desert.

Today, Araceli is happy to be alive. But the experience has left her scarred. “It was a horrible nightmare that I would never want to repeat.” She eventually arrived in Georgia and took a job in a restaurant where her sister worked. Cutbacks left her without employment, however, and she migrated to Florida, where she found work at a nursery tending plants.

She lost the position, however, when a co-worker’s husband made an unwanted sexual advance. Though she says the man was clearly at fault, Araceli’s boss found it simpler to get rid of the undocumented worker. After losing her job in November 2009, she found temporary, part-time work picking fruit but was driven from that job, again, by sexually explicit overtures, this time from her supervisor. She lasted less than a few weeks at each job and has not worked since. “I’m leaving it in the hands of God to see what happens,” she says.

She is deeply concerned that she will not be able to repay the money she owes the coyotes who brought her over the border. “I owe $2,500, and I don’t know where to find the money to liquidate that debt. And so many problems on top of it.”

Araceli says she arrived in the U.S. with the sole desire of finding work and providing for her family but now feels lost. “I’d like to be in a job that’s well-paid, good treatment, to better myself and others,” she says. “But I’m seeing that everything is very bad.

Dangerous Road
Stories of violent abuse during their migration were common among the women interviewed. Many talked about the prevalence of rape — something so common that some women begin taking birth control pills before migrating to ensure they do not become pregnant. Some described trying to protect themselves from abuse by traveling with a male companion.

Thousands of migrants a year are kidnapped, assaulted, robbed or raped by criminal gangs.21 According to a recent report by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, as many as 9,758 migrants were kidnapped over a six-month period ending in 2009.22 They are often held until family members pay ransom. In these cases, such payments leave immigrants even further in debt and vulnerable to exploitation in the workplace.

Failure to pay kidnappers can result in death. In August 2010, Mexican authorities discovered the bodies of 72 migrants — 58 men and 14 women — at a ranch near the Texas border. A survivor told authorities that the migrants, believed to be from Central America, had been massacred when they refused to pay extortion fees to the gunmen who had kidnapped them.23

Miranda, a Guatemalan who works in a meat-processing plant in North Carolina, crossed into the U.S. as one of two women among 20 men. She asked a man named José to pose as her husband. The decision may have saved her from a horrific attack. “It’s difficult,” she says as she fights back tears, “because they raped my friend.”

Miranda says her friend was frightened into silence during the attack because she didn’t want to be left behind.

Elvira’s story
Elvira, a 32-year-old mother, grew up uneducated in a rural area of the central Mexico state of Zacatecas. She had eight siblings. Her father picked crops. “We were so poor that my eldest sister picked up cardboard boxes to make us sandals,” she says. “It made me so sad that it rained so hard that the rain ruined my sandals, and the water took them away.”

To help her family make ends meet, Elvira went to the state’s capital city to find work cleaning houses. She was, by her own admission, a country “bumpkin” in the big city. “I didn’t know what a phone or a TV was.” She quickly found work with the family of an optometrist, working seven days a week. “It was a two-story house, and I had to clean the optometry office, make food, wash dishes, take care of the kids, clean the tables, iron, wash clothes, everything.”

Elvira was painfully self-conscious of her humble origins but was determined to better herself. “They called me a ranch Indian, and (an) Indian with a mustache, an ignorant person. They said that everyone who lived on farms [was] ugly with big stomachs and with black skin.”

Though her boss resisted, Elvira was allowed to enroll in school with the condition that her studies not interfere with her duties. To keep her job and attend classes, Elvira began her day at 4 a.m. She eventually got her diploma.

The sense of accomplishment was short-lived, however. Her employers accused her of stealing money. Her boss apologized after it was determined one of the family’s children had taken the money, but the damage to Elvira’s pride was done. She returned home to her village and married. “What else can I do here except get married?” she asks. “There weren’t stores to work in, there wasn’t anything.”

Soon poverty forced her hand again. Her husband decided to go north into the U.S. She would follow later. Though they were living in extreme need, the decision was not easy.

“We didn’t have enough for food or shoes. We couldn’t do it anymore. But I thought, how? What if he dies? What if he doesn’t come back? What if he goes and leaves me? So many things go through your mind. But I thought, if I don’t risk anything, I can’t earn anything.”

Her husband crossed successfully. A year later, she attempted to cross. Her brother went first, while she waited in Nogales, a Mexican city along the border with Arizona. For three days, she heard nothing.

Then, while returning to the rundown motel where she was waiting, Elvira saw a “man who was walking with his clothes all ripped, all beat up, full of blood, full of mud and dirt. … It was my brother!”

He had been kidnapped and tortured by the coyotes he had paid. And he had a frantic warning.

“He ran and hugged me and says, ‘Don’t go. Don’t cross. No, let’s go back to the farm, but don’t go. Don’t cross.’”

Elvira was determined. She wanted to keep studying and become a teacher. She believed in the promise that the United States has made to immigrants for more than 200 years: If you work hard, you will succeed here.

After two unsuccessful attempts, Elvira left Juarez in the early morning hours as the lone woman in a group of migrants planning to cross the Rio Grande. Before entering the water, they stripped off their clothes. After reaching the opposite banks, they ran in different directions. As she prepared to sprint after the group, the coyote directed her down another path, telling her that she would be less visible if she didn’t follow the larger group. The skinny, tattooed coyote led her down an isolated trail. She asked him: “But why are you taking me this way?” His response was: “Don’t you want to go to your husband?”

As they continued running, Elvira grew uneasy. They finally stopped. Elvira said a quick prayer to herself. The smuggler continued: “Look little lady, if you want to arrive with your old man, you have to cooperate.”

Elvira says that a word popped into her head that she didn’t completely understand. As the smuggler inched closer, his intentions clear, she told him: “I have AIDS.”

The ruse worked. The man ran away.

“I thought, what could this be that I said? I’ve never told my husband this. Never. Maybe because, I don’t know … I don’t even like to remember it.”

Abandoned by her guide, her third attempt to enter the U.S. failed, and she was detained by the Border Patrol. She made it across on her fourth try with the help of two teenage boys.

Tales like Elvira’s escape from sexual abuse as she crossed the border are in the minority. Once in the hands of smugglers, migrants are typically at their mercy.

Antonia, who crossed into the U.S. in 2006, says that her group of 40 immigrants was crammed into a house when they first arrived over the border. “I felt panic because we heard that they were taking away the women,” she says. In reality, the smugglers were taking only the women from El Salvador.

“We didn’t ask where they had taken them,” says Antonia, who is Mexican. “One of the husbands said that he wanted to go with them, and (he asked) where were they taking them.”

The smuggler simply responded that they were taking the women to another hotel and that there was nothing the angry husband could do about it. “The girl was crying,” Antonia says of the man’s wife. “But what could they do?”

*Not her real name

1 Michael Hoefer, Nancy Rytina and Bryan C. Baker, “Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2009,” Population Estimates, Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, January 2010.

2 Ibid.

3 World Bank, Gross National Income per capita 2008, Atlas Method, http://data.worldbank.org/country.

4 Ibid.

5 Michael Clemens, Claudio E. Montenegro and Lant Pritchett, “The Place Premium: Wage Differences for Identical Workers Across the U.S. Border,” Working Paper Number 148, Center for Global Development, July 2008. www.cgdev.org/content/publications/detail/16352

6 Andorra Bruno, “Unauthorized Aliens in the United States,” Congressional Research Service, April 27, 2010. www.fas.org/sgp/crs/homesec/R41207.pdf

7 Nicholas Johnson, “Greenspan Says Illegal Immigration Aids U.S. Economy,” Bloomberg, April 30, 2009.

8 Eduardo Porter, “Illegal Immigrants Are Bolstering Social Security with Billions,” The New York Times, April 5, 2005.

9 Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, “Raising the Floor for American Workers: The Economic Benefits of Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” Center for American Progress and Immigration Policy Center, American Immigration Center, January 2010.

10 Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States,” Pew Research Center, April 14, 2009.

11 David Rochkind and Sacha Feinman, “Altar, Sonora: The Business of Smuggling,” Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, April 21, 2009. http://www.pulitzercenter.org/projects/north-america/altar-sonora-business-smuggling.

12 “Invisible Victims, Migrants On the Move in Mexico,” Amnesty International, April 2010.

13 Chad C. Haddal, “Border Security: The Role of the U.S. Border Patrol,” Congressional Research Service, August 11, 2010.

14 Ibid.

15 Wayne A. Cornelius et al, “Controlling Unauthorized Immigration from Mexico: The Failure of ‘Prevention Through Deterrence’ and the Need for Comprehensive Reform,” Immigration Policy Center and the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego, June 10, 2008.

16 Randal C. Archibold, “Obama to Send Up to 1,200 Troops to Border,” The New York Times, May 25, 2010.

17 Randal C. Archibold and Marc Lacey, “Obama Requests Money to Add Security at Mexican Border,” The New York Times, June 23, 2010.

18 Comparison of statistics in the Pew Hispanic Center’s “The Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S.,” by Jeffrey S. Passel, March 7, 2006, and “A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States,” by Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, April 14, 2009.

19 Chad C. Haddal, “Border Security: The Role of the U.S. Border Patrol,” Congressional Research Service, August 11, 2010.

20 Correspondence with U.S. Border Patrol

21 “Invisible Victims, Migrants On the Move in Mexico,” Amnesty International, April 2010.

22 “Special Report of the National Committee on Human Rights on the Cases of Kidnapping of Migrants,” June 15, 2009. www.cndh.org.mx/INFORMES/Especiales/infEspSecMigra.pdf.

23 Randal C. Archibold, “Victims of Massacre in Mexico Said To Be Migrants,” The New York Times, August 25, 2010.