Before crossing the political boundary between Mexico and the United States, many migrants prepare for the journey in the small town of Sasabe. Numerous shops offer bottled water, canned foods, and life-sustaining items needed for the trek ahead.
Migrants hoping to enter the U.S. without authorization have been pushed into remote areas of the Sonora Desert. Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is one of the many federally protected areas on the US southern border. Due to the high risk of traveling through Cabeza Prieta, undocumented migrants tend to follow coyotes or guides working for smuggling organizations.
Trail routes often are marked with bandanas, water jugs, or in this case the popular energy drink Red Bull. A marker also may indicate the location of a migrant's death. It was near this spot that fourteen migrants perished in May 2001. An estimated 5,000 undocumented migrants have died in the US-Mexico borderlands since 1994.
The Sonora Desert is characterized by climatic extremes. In the summer months, temperatures regularly reach 37-49º Celsius (100-120º Fahrenheit). Migrants often build shelters that blend into the landscape to shield them from the sun and avoid detection by Border Patrol helicopter patrols.
Water bottles point to the physical risks of journeying north without authorization. The human body requires at least two gallons of water per day to sustain physical activity in the desert during summer months. Most humans are incapable of carrying enough water and many succumb to hyperthermia, even within short distances of the political boundary.
Along with coins, matches, candles, prayer cards, family photographs, and scapulars, migrants leave cards featuring the patron saint of their homeland. Seen here are the Virgin of Guadalupe (important throughout Mexico), the Virgin of Juquila (worshiped in Oaxaca), and the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos (worshiped in Jalisco); Oaxaca and Jalisco are Mexican states with significant out-migration. Also pictured here is Toribio Romo, a priest who was martyred during the Mexican Revolution and reportedly appears regularly to distressed migrants in the desert.
The water jug and scarf left on this barbed wire fence suggests a migrant was present, perhaps waiting along this north-south road for pickup, either by his or her contact or the Border Patrol. Highway 286 ends at the border town of Sasabe and is a well-traveled route for migrants, the Border Patrol, and humanitarian groups like the Samaritans. In the background, a Wackenhut bus passes by; Wackenhut is a private contractor hired by US Customs and Border Protection to transport migrants to detention centers for processing.
Women's undergarments in trees indicate sites where migrant women have been raped. Colloquially, these sites are called “Triumph Trees” or “Rape Trees.” Although adequate research is lacking, migrant women frequently report being the victims of rape by male members of smuggling organizations, bandits, and US border enforcement personnel.
Since the late 1990s, Border Patrol operations have pushed unauthorized border traffic into rural areas, especially public lands. As people move through these landscapes, they follow existing trails and forge new paths.
If U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehend migrants traveling without authorization, they are turned over to Wackenhut, a private contractor who transports them to a detention center for processing. Migrants often await transport for long hours without food and water.
A woman of the Tohono O'odham Nation saw the Virgin of Guadalupe in this sahuaro in summer when it was crowned with white blossoms. The cactus quickly became a shrine. Migrants traveling north regularly visit the shrine.
This shrine appeared in 2006 at a rest stop along a heavily used migrant trail about 30 miles north of the U.S. border. That undocumented migrants carry prayer candles such great distances is a testament to their faith.
Hundreds of men, women, and children have died in their attempts to enter the US. Volunteers with humanitarian groups like the Samaritans, No More Deaths, and Humane Borders who come upon the bodies of perished migrants commemorate the locations with altars.
The Virgin Mary is a central figure in folk Catholicism in Latin America, especially Mexico. Also called the Patroness of the Americas, the Virgin of Guadalupe is featured on many objects migrants take on their journeys, from prayer cards, bandanas, to t-shirts. Her presence on migrant trails indicates the importance of spirituality and faith to migrants.