Parallels
1:58 am
Thu March 27, 2014

Crossing The Desert: Why Brenda Wanted Border Patrol To Find Her

Originally published on Mon March 31, 2014 11:18 am

It's hard enough to drive through the Arizona desert, where the sun is harsh and the distances immense. This is the story of people who walk it.

In particular, it's the story of Brenda, who asked us to use only her first name. She told us yet another of the unbelievable stories you hear in the Borderland.

We met her in Nogales, Sonora, on the northern border of Mexico opposite Arizona. She was living in a shelter for deported people, where she told us of her brief and difficult stay in the United States.

She'd come all the way from southern Mexico, and crossed the border into Arizona early this year. Then her group of migrants was spotted by the U.S. Border Patrol somewhere outside of Tucson. How did she escape? "I ran," she said simply, but she was separated from her group, and was soon lost in the desert.

Outside settled areas, southern Arizona features stark mountains and cactus-filled valleys, breathtakingly beautiful but difficult to survive in. In this landscape, she wandered for three days.

"I kept seeing lights," she said. "I'd walk toward them but get no closer." She was, she said, "dying of hunger." And she might have actually died except that in all that vastness, she discovered a discarded cigarette lighter.

She used it to light a brush fire so that she might be spotted by the Border Patrol helicopters flying over the area.

The desert had become so intolerable that she was, she admitted, all but begging the Border Patrol to come and remove her from the country.

Arizona remains a major corridor for cross-border smuggling and migration, though much of the traffic has shifted eastward to Texas. Improved border fences in recent years have made it harder to bring vehicles across — some of the border fences are built using recycled train rails. Such fences do not stop people on foot; for them, the true barricade is nature.

Some of the most severe territory is also some of the busiest: near the Tohono O'odham reservation that straddles the border. Here we met Malcolm Lewis, the public safety director for the Tohono O'odham Nation.

He has a chart depicting scores of dead people found year by year on tribal land. "Our highest was 125, which is really a real burden on us because of the possibility of it being a homicide," he said.

Investigators have to determine whether the deaths were caused by the elements, or by people.

We took a drive in the desert with tribal public safety officer Lt. Michael Ford, who has spent 17 years on this police force, though he's not a member of the tribe. He's an African-American from Michigan who has gradually learned this landscape.

"When people cross these mountain ranges here, those are huge mountains. And it takes awhile to get out there to do the recovery, and bring people back," he says.

He knows from experience: Collecting bodies was the job of the last unit he supervised.

"The way I always like to look at it is, the worst possible scenario already happened. That person lost their life. They're gone," he says. "At least you can help them get back to where they belong to and help somebody somewhere have some resolution and have some closure for something that happened."

There are always some bodies that are never claimed, though.

"It's like an ocean. And there's just some people that are lost at sea that you're never going to find," Ford says.

Driving along the border fence, we saw many signs of people who had tried to prepare themselves to cross it. The area was littered with empty water bottles.

People also left signs that they were avoiding detection. Once, we stopped to look at a pair of overshoes made out of white carpet, which could hide tracks along the roadway.

These carpet shoes were discarded right by some tire tracks.

Yet the same people who try to hide from the authorities sometimes end up needing them, like Brenda, who set the fire to signal the Border Patrol in the desert. The Border Patrol says in the last fiscal year, it rescued 2,346 people — from lost hikers to lost border crossers.

As we drove the border fence, Ford pointed out yellow warning signs: "Don't expose your life to the elements; It's not worth the trouble," one reads in Spanish.

Smuggling organizations, people known as coyotes, push groups of migrants through harsh territory at a pace the migrants might not expect.

Yet even people who know the journey sometimes find it worth the risk.

After being rescued from the desert, Brenda ended up resting on the Mexican side of the border at Nazareth House, the shelter for deported women in northern Mexico.

Asked whether she meant to cross the border again or give up and return south, she said she'd go south.

But then she gave it some thought.

"Maybe later," she said. "Maybe later I'll try again."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Our road trip along the U.S.-Mexico border was easy, in some ways. We had a car; we just drove for miles and miles. But all along the way, we encountered people who were crossing that border on foot, often moving through a brutal desert landscape. This next story explores just what that crossing can be like. It begins in an apartment building in Northern Mexico.

We walked up a darkened set of stairs to apartments that serve as a shelter for migrants. And that's where we met Brenda. She asked us only to use her first name, and she told us yet another of the unbelievable tales you hear in the borderland. She came all the way from Southern Mexico, and crossed the border into Arizona early this year. Then her group of migrants was spotted by the U.S. Border Patrol.

You got away from them.

BRENDA: Si.

INSKEEP: How'd you get away from them?

BRENDA: (Speaking foreign language)

INSKEEP: You ran. She might have been relieved to escape, but then reality set in. She was separated from her group, and she was running in the desert. Outside settled areas, Southern Arizona features stark mountains and cactus-filled valleys - breathtakingly beautiful, but difficult to survive. In this landscape, she wandered for three days.

BRENDA: (Speaking foreign language)

INSKEEP: I kept seeing lights, she said. I'd walk toward them, but get no closer. I was completely lost. I was dying of hunger.

How'd you get out of there?

BRENDA: (Speaking foreign language)

INSKEEP: Thanks to a cigarette lighter, she said, a lighter somebody had thrown away. In all that vastness, she discovered that tiny item; and she used it to light a brush fire so that she might be spotted by the Border Patrol helicopters flying over the area.

So things were so bad in the desert that you were actually saying, please, come deport me.

BRENDA: (Speaking foreign language)

INSKEEP: Yes, she said. Though the region is heavily patrolled, it is so immense that she had to keep adding to the fire for two hours before she was spotted. Brenda's story is normal for Arizona. That's what we learned when we visited some of the starkest territory of all.

Is this one of the major corridors for...

MALCOLM LEWIS: One of the major corridors for...

INSKEEP: ...illegal movement into the United States.

LEWIS: Yes.

INSKEEP: Malcolm Lewis is the public safety director for the Tohono O'Odham Nation, American Indians whose land straddles the U.S.-Mexico border. He showed us a chart depicting scores of dead people found year by year on tribal land. That's a lot of dead people found in the desert.

LEWIS: Yeah, yeah. And our highest was 125, which is really a real burden on us because of the possibility of it being a homicide.

INSKEEP: Investigators have to determine if the elements killed people, or if people did. We took a drive in the desert with a tribal public safety officer. Lt. Michael Ford drove us southward through a region of sand and cactus. Some of it is saguaro cactus, the kind with upraised arms which can almost seem human.

I keep seeing images of people in the cactus. Like there was one shooting a lay-up back there.

MICHAEL FORD: Yeah, and there's some that at sunset, they look like people. There's one I call cowboy cactus. So you see him? he looks like a cowboy that's standing there.

INSKEEP: Michael Ford has spent 17 years on this police force, though he is not a member of the tribe. He's an African-American from Michigan who has gradually learned this landscape.

FORD: And when people cross these mountain ranges here, those are huge mountains. And it takes a while to get out there and up there to do the recovery and bring people back.

INSKEEP: Which he knows from experience.

FORD: So all of the border deaths that you hear about from exposure and people dying in the desert, the last unit that I had that I supervised, that's what we did - went out and collected the bodies.

INSKEEP: Must take some getting used to.

FORD: The way I always like to look at it is, the worst possible scenario already happened. That person lost their life. They're gone. At least you can help them get back to where they belong to, and help somebody somewhere have some resolution and have some closure for something that happened.

INSKEEP: There must be a number of bodies that are never claimed.

FORD: Yeah, it's kind of like - it's like an ocean. And there's just some people that are lost at sea that you're never going to find.

INSKEEP: Lt. Ford drove us for a while along the U.S. border fence. If you look at a map of Arizona, we were driving that diagonal line on the bottom left. Look at Google maps. It's almost all brown, though when we drove it, we saw it was covered with greenery in spring. The fence is made of recycled railroad rails strong enough to stop a vehicle.

People on foot could slip over or under that fence, but the real barrier for them is nature; and we saw many signs of people who tried to prepare themselves to cross. The area was littered with empty water bottles. People also left signs they were avoiding detection. Once we stopped to look at a pair of overshoes made out of white carpet.

FORD: So you put those over your shoes and you walk with those on, and if you walk not so much in a sandy area, it doesn't work well in the sand but along here, it can disguise the tracks along the roadway.

INSKEEP: These carpet shoes had been discarded right by some tire tracks.

FORD: If you look here, it's kind of - you can see someone here backed up. Someone might have gotten in a vehicle or put something in a vehicle and then, since they were no longer worried about being detected anymore, they took the carpet shoes off.

INSKEEP: Yet the same people who try to hide from the authorities sometimes end up needing the authorities - like Brenda, who set the fire to signal the Border Patrol in the desert. The Border Patrol says in the last fiscal year, it rescued 2,346 people. They ranged from lost hikers to lost border crossers. As we drove the border fence, Lt. Ford pointed out yellow warning signs.

FORD: Don't touch snakes.

INSKEEP: This says: Warning, don't - don't expose your life to the elements, it's not worth the trouble. That's what it says in Spanish?

FORD: Uh-huh. Well, a lot of people don't know or understand what actually they're going to be up against, when they cross.

INSKEEP: Smuggling organizations, groups known as coyotes, push groups of migrants through territory the migrants do not know.

FORD: They'll start off with one guy, and he'll push them really hard and keep them moving fast for like, a day or two. And then they'll meet up with another guy along the way who's fresh, and he's ready to push them again hard. So the other guy's not as tired as you, but he's going to keep you moving. And if you fall behind, you just get left behind.

And a lot of people don't know and understand when they come here that there is no amount of water that you can carry on your person that's going to be really enough. You're still going to be sick, even if you survive this.

INSKEEP: Yet even people who know the journey sometimes find it worth the risk. Brenda, the woman rescued after she lit that fire, ended up resting on the Mexican side of the border. She was at Nazareth House, the shelter for deported women in northern Mexico, where we met her. I asked if Brenda meant to cross the border again or give up and return south. (Speaking foreign language)

BRENDA: (Speaking foreign language)

INSKEEP: I'll go south, she said, in effect saying she is giving up trying to reach the United States. But then she gave it some thought. Maybe later, she said. Maybe later I'll try again.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And Steve's road trip across the borderland comes to an end tomorrow when he arrives at the final stop, the Pacific Ocean at Tijuana, Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.