Border Crossing by the Numbers

Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 10.00.31 AM

US/Mexican border fence, Southern Arizona
Photo by Matt Nager

Juan Manuel, featured in The Undocumented (airing April 29 on Independent Lens), lived in the United States more than 15 years. Eventually, he was deported to Mexico, away from his children. He died crossing the U.S. border to see his kids again.

“I think Juan Manuel’s story is common for people that come from humble families,” said an attendee at Manuel’s funeral in The Undocumented. “They look to improve their lives by learning. They decide to go to the United States in search of something more. Instead they find themselves dead in the desert.”

A woman holds up a photo of a missing family member.

A woman holds up a photo of a missing family member.
Photo by Marco Williams

Indeed, Juan Manuel is not alone. In the past decade, reinforcements to the U.S.-Mexico border have pushed immigrants to the Sonoran Desert, one of the most desolate and unforgiving sections of the border. Even though attempts to cross into the United States have dropped, deaths have risen. Here is a snapshot of border-crossing by the numbers:

  • In 2000, the Border Patrol captured 1,636,883 Mexican citizens trying to cross the U.S. border illegally.
  • By 2012, that number had plummeted to 265,755. According to The New York Times, “high rates of unemployment here and intensified border enforcement have discouraged many migrants from Mexico and Central America from attempting illegal crossings, officials said.”
  • However, the number of border-crossing deaths rose 27 percent from from 375 deaths in 2011 to 477 in 2012, the second-highest number in over a decade.
  • In addition, the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border has risen. In 2008, Border Patrol intercepted 8,041 unsupervised minors of all nationalities, and by 2012, that number skyrocketed to 24,481.
  • 1539: The year a Spanish explorer penned the first written record of contact with Native Americans in the Sonoran Desert.
  • The Sonoran Desert spreads out over 100,387 square miles between Arizona, California, and Mexico.
  • The U.S.-Mexico border is 1,954 miles long.
  • The Desert receives as much as 20 inches of yearly precipitation at higher elevations, but much of the low-lying landscape gets as little as 3 inches.
  • In the Sonoran Desert’s extreme climate, temperatures reach as high as 118°F. After a summer monsoon, the temperature could suddenly drop to 50°F.

Although the Sonoran Desert is one of the deadliest stretches of land on the planet, economic needs and familial desires continue to beckon people to make the ultimate gamble. To learn more about the human rights organization featured in The Undocumented, visit Derechos Humanos.

Watch Forensics Cannot Explain Why Mother and Daughter Died Alone on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

Watch The Undocumented, premiering Monday, April 29 at 10pm (check local listings). Also, learn more about The Migrant Trail, a video game that introduces players to the hardships and perils of crossing the Sonoran Desert, coming in June.

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  • Laszlo Santha

    Powerful and uncompromising introduction. Congrats to the premier on PBS’ Independent Lens.

  • Daniel

    First and foremost we must see them as people, made of flesh and blood, ones that beleive in god and freedom. I do not view them as illegal immigrants but refugees, fleeing for thier lives. I just dont understand why we Americans are so quick to help overseas contriies and can turn a blind eye to what is going on in Mexico right next to us. Shame on us for calling ourselves Americans, because if we truly believe in freedom we would be lending a helping hand to those in need and it would not be determined on Oil..

    • Cecilia Sims

      We bailed out the peso several years ago for $16 Billion or so. Money sent back home to Mexico by workers in the US has been either #1 or #2 (compared to oil income) money-maker for the Mexican economy. But Mexico’s population quadrupled in the last 50 years!!! US population did not even double in that 50 years, including all the immigrants we took in!

    • Diana Diaz

      I also hope that they ban Monsanto’s evil genetically engineered corn from going down to Mexico. They have their own native varieties and this should not be tampered with.

    • rjohnson

      I firmly believe that America should help Mexico out of their dilemma. For years I have wondered why r we aiding other foreign countries when we have neighbors in such dire need. I think Mexico should work on getting heaps of foreign aid from us. I think they would make for a safer hemisphere.

  • r.markstevenson

    good journalism. i hope this stirs up the realization that the system is drastically in need of reform. sadly, most media is owned by special interest and real human interest is left unknown and unreported. thank you for your work pbs and independent lens.. good work

  • Marie Adams

    Should be required viewing for all US lawmakers.

  • Bill Jamison

    PBS, funded by the taxpayer again rides the anti-American horse of “poor illegal.” I do not care how many are captured nor how many do not make it. One segment tonight explained the death of a woman who tried with her FIVE YEAR OLD GRANDSON as “she applied for a Visa but got impatient.” The flow of illegal migrants into America is a national security risk. We no longer need workers to move here and ASSIMILATE. Go home, we’re full up. You hate America but want our jobs and money.

    • Diana Diaz

      She got impatient because she was desperate to see the family that was here in the US. Perhaps you don’t know how it feels to be that desperate to see your family. We don’t know how long it was going to take for her to get that Visa. I’m sure if she had known how bad it would be to make the crossing that she would have waited.

      “I don’t care how many are captured nor how many do not make it.” Well, great!! You sound like a wonderful human being! NO human being deserves to die out in the desert like a dog.


      Who says they hate America?


    I cannot remember having ever seen anything sadder on TV in the 60 years that that I have been watching TV. Every politician who thought it was a good idea to close our southern border in the manner it has been done should be required to watch this film alone in darkened room with no distractions.

  • lazy tigerz

    This documentary is biased. How do I know this? Simply by the failure to use the ‘i’ word. Juan Manuel was an ‘i’llegal alien. If you are trying to get America boohooing about something, try the misuse of social security by illegal aliens; the massive drugs being brought into our country by illegals; the over load on our police and prisons caused by illegal alien criminals… Funny how you are ok with illegal alien activity. Wonder what other illegal activities PBS is ‘ok’ with?

  • Garden_Salsa

    I wish there was a way to find these criminals that leave these people to die in the desert. Who the hell takes a grandmother on a three day hike through the desert?

  • Eric

    These people know what the risks are when they come to a country illegally. The sad fact is they bring their children and they die in the desert. But America cannot take care of the whole world! We have the Cubans, Jamaicans, Haitians and Puerto Ricans taking over the East Coast. The street signs in Miami are already in Spanish – so an English speaking native can get lost in Miami. On the West Coast you have the Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Gauatemalans and others trying to sneak into the country. These are not people with Ph.d’s. These are uneducated and very poor people who cannot lend much to our economy. They have not been immunized from many diseases and some even have disease when they reach America. I know this because I was a Coast Guard Officer who intercepted illegals everyday and took them back to their countries and dropped them off. Can you imagine what would happen to the social income structure of America if all of these people made it here? The millions of dollars that America spends in deterrence is astronomical – but the alternative may be a lot worse. Do we feel sorry for these people? Of course we do. But we cannot feed them ALL!!! This is tearing this country down and people need to know this. It is a national security threat when we have to deal with the sophisticated terrorists and we have to watch these guys too. When and Where does it stop? It doesn’t. They just keep coming and want more and more.

    • Diana Diaz

      People do not know the risks. The coyotes lie to them as it says in the film. They don’t know the desert because they have not been that way before. Many of them are trying to get back into the US to see their families. if the coyotes were totally honest about how hard it was and they were adequately prepared you could say they KNOW. Why would a coyote lie? They are trying to make some money. Illegals do not account for all of the criminals – just because someone “looks Mexican” or speaks Spanish. or has a Spanish surname doesn’t mean they are illegal.

      • rjohnson

        let’s demand foreign aid for south America.

        • Diana Diaz

          We could also grant asylum to those who are escaping bad circumstances which fit the definition for granting asylum.

          • Daniel

            One has to understand that the Mexicans fleeing Mexico cannot get a Visa to come here. First they have to have money to pay for it. They are being robbed, killed by the police and drug cartel. Again the US is taking a blind eye because there is no bennefit to them.

  • Rebecca Auble

    Thank you, Marco Williams, for making this emotionally stunning, visually searing documentary, It was quietly, gently devastating.

  • Cme

    Many tragic stories, heartbreeaking. However, the Mexican people must figure out how to fix things in their own country. Do they perhaps need to think about birth control for starters. Mexico is hardly the only country with poverty, and the US is slowly going down the drain with our huge deficit. We can’t help all the poor people, we don’t even take care of our own. I’m sorry, but opening our borders and letting immigrants come in and breed like rabbits is not helping anything. We need even tougher immigration laws.

  • andres

    Great show. really hearth breaking documentary

  • Eric

    These people know the risks when they try and sneak into a country illegally. The sad thing is when they bring their children to die in the desert. America cannot feed the world. That is a fact. The social welfare system is already broken. These are not people with Ph.d’s. They are uneducated and very poor. I don’ t blame them for that – it cannot be helped. I was raised poor too. So I know what it is like. But America has the Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans and Haitians taking the East Coast. The street signs in Miami are already in Spanish. An English speaking native can actually get lost in Miami! How pathetic is that? You have the Mexicans, Guatamalans, Nicaraguans, and everyone else coming in from the West. America cannot feed them ALL. I know these things because I was a Coast Guard Officer and I took boat loads of them back to their countries everyday and dropped them off. Can you imagine what would happen to this country if they all made it here? Think about the social structure for a minute – how could America sustain such a barrage of immigrants? The fact is, America could not. Do we feel sorry for these people – of course we do. But we cannot feed them all. And with national security an everyday occurence now, can America afford to allow this to continue. When does it become a security risks? We do not have any responsibility in these deaths. We have a responsibility to keep the Americans who are born and naturalized here SAFE!!! PERIOD!!!

    • Diana Diaz

      The street signs in Florida are in Spanish because the Spanish (from Spain) settled it FIRST just like California and Tejas. Anyone can get lost in Miami. It’s a big city.

  • Espy Victorino

    This was a gruesome film. Mexico (LINO Y QUEDIRO) SHOULD BE AHAME OF ITSELF !! One person in the film did say that Mexico is to blame for not providing jobs in Mexico. Next, people should NOT have so many kids that they know they can not support. But that’s not what they are thinking about – only about the good times in bed. Next, where do they get $2,000.00 for the coyote ???? Shouldn’t it be better to use that money to start a business and support themselves ??? But Mexican people are so one sighted, that they blame the United States for their troubles. Put the blame where it belongs, with MEXIO !!!

    • Diana Diaz

      Having a large family used to be considered a blessing. Now people condemn those who have children as almost immoral. This bothers me. On a farm, many hands make short work. Are you saying that the poor shouldn’t have relationships or families? What business would you like for them to start? Will you volunteer to give them some of the education they might need to run a business? Are you forgetting that they are not only undocumented but often completely uneducated and unsophisticated people? They probably borrowed a little bit of money from everyone they know hoping to go to America for a better life. America, land of the free (?) where to a poor person the streets seem paved with gold.

  • greg andrews

    I am mad that you lay this on the American people. Of coarse it’s tradgic! But we are a nation that has to protect our own first. There are billions of people that want to come here but what are we to do? They need to put there energy into improving there own country and conditions. We did! This is a political gains issue and you know it.

  • April Goddard

    Heartbreaking…but I do not believe the US are responsible. Mexico should be able to take care of their own, especially having Carlos Sim as THE Richest man in THE WORLD. It’s time for their country to manufacture and employ their own.

    • Cecilia Sims

      And Mexico quadrupled her population in just 50 years!! While America did not even double in that time, including all the immigrants we took in.

      • Diana Diaz

        Mexico most likely ends up with many of the immigrants we reject. Again, you’re picking on the poorest of the poor with your very modern morals; shaming people for not believing in in abortion and birth control, not having access to it, and not having a store nearby to purchase it. Meanwhile, the big cities are getting Walmart which they need like a hole in the head.

  • JohnRedican

    Clearly the show reflects a sympathetic view of the “rights” of illegal Immigrants.
    “Undocumented” suggests some sort of oversight, a small matter of paperwork that was overlooked. In fact, these people are invading a foreign country. No other developed country on the planet allows this, and for good reasons. The sad stories are tragic, but that situation is what we should expect from sending mixed signals to potential immigrants. Now we’re discussing amnesty (though this word is avoided) for those not caught for several years. We are debating whether to reward law-breaking, and just how many and which law-breakers should be rewarded. When people say we can’t deport all the illegals in this country, what they are saying is we can’t enforce our laws, so why even try? This position is offensive to me.

    • Diana Diaz

      If you want to talk about “invading” isn’t that what happened with westward expansion and colonization? Or is it only “invading” when it’s poor Mexicans?

  • lucho ramirez

    Powerful film. It’s tragic. I couldn’t imagine having to do what they do. To all of those, pinning immigration on the migrant- consider the effects of US foreign & trade policy on economies and societies. It’s very easy to say to others ‘fix your country’ when you are unaware of the impact the US has on others from Mexico to Cuba to the Marshall Islands and beyond. Between wars, embargoes, and occupations, the damage ripples for decades. Immigration, including amnesty to the undocumented, is the price to pay for living in the belly of the American empire.

  • disqus_C6vasm5Ldu

    The American people do have some blame to take on this issue. Many American industries thrive on undocumented workers ie people who will work without the basic rights that are awarded to us citizens. And not just the us…the entire world market relies on oppressing groups of people for the benefit of the bottom line. Most of the things Americans own were manufactured by people who are purposefully kept poor and oppressed for the intention of exploiting their poverty for profits. Most of the wonderful things Americans have we’re made off the backs of those who are oppressed whether it is here in the us or in another country and as long as there are profits to be made there will always be a job for the undocumented migrant, if he is “lucky” enough to make it alive. Capitalism kills.

  • disqus_C6vasm5Ldu

    Wonderful documentary, very haunting and brings light to an important and mostly unknown issue. Thank you.

  • Sarah

    Thank you for making this documentary. These are humble people in difficult situations. Ironic that they are only trying to come into an area where most of their ancestors came from and their nomadic ancestors hunted and farmed and were pushed out for white settlers over several hundred years for the best lands in the southwest and southern CA. I think many people don’t know the history of the western part of the USA. These are not invaders. These are humble travelers searching to visit a relative or find a better life. Most people don’t realize how very few people from other countries can even temporarily visit the US. And if you are a poor Mexican, you are not likely going to be allowed this no matter how much paper work you fill out.

    • Diana Diaz

      “And if you are a poor Mexican, you are not likely going to be allowed this no matter how much paper work you fill out.” This is so true! If you are truly poor in Mexico you didn’t get the same kind of education as kids here in the States. You are lucky if you can read and write AT ALL much less fill out complicated paperwork full of legalese. The most likely person to get a VISA is someone who is very wealthy or a student traveler who they are mostly assured is well enough off to want to return home.

  • John Lucas

    It’s hard to make sense of this: when the Border Patrol finds a body, which is a sad thing, why does the medical examiner go thru the expense of conducting a full autopsy when all they need to be doing is conducting an identification autopsy. The show seemed to go out of it’s way to show the expense for everyone involved; but they seem to be overdoing it. It also seems that people want to blame those not involved for the decision of each individual. The worse part is the role the “coyotes” play in the tragic death of the boarder crossers.



    • Diana Diaz

      They are trying to put skeletal remains back together for identification purposes in many cases. Please have some compassion. This is someone’s loved one, it’s important in any culture to get the remains back to the family. Often fingerprints aren’t going to do it. These people may not be documented AT ALL and not traceable by fingerprints. I agree that the coyotes are basically evil for not making sure the people are thoroughly prepared for the journey. It’s criminal to leave someone in the desert to face certain death.

  • earthie48

    The Undocumented DRIVE DOWN our Wages and Way of Life, sorry, despite what you suffer to get here, you are forcing Americans to accept lower wages, and Living Standards based on your UNDOCUMENTED LABOR!~

  • earthie48

    Sorry, I don’t feel sorry for them as long as they CAUSE our Criminal Behavior to increase, because AMERICANS CAN’T FIND DECENT COST OF LIVING JOBS!

  • Patricia

    Again my question is where do the people get the money to pay the “Coyote” Keep it at home to take care of your own.

  • angelosdaughter

    I only caught a part of this documentary and it brought me to tears. My father was a legal immigrant from Italy, but I know he, the elder brother of a boy who starved to death in WWI, would have understood the misery and poverty that would drive desperate people to want to try to get into America however they can, a country where in my father’s time it was said, “the streets were paved with gold’. This documentary puts faces on those people whom some of our citizens demonize with the dehumanizing term, ‘illegals’. It’s heartbreaking, and I wish there was a way to help them or at least prevent the ‘coyotes’ from taking advantage of their poverty and naivete. When ‘coyotes’ are caught, they should receive very heavy punishment for lying to and leaving these poor people to die in the desert. At the very least, the officials in Mexico should be hunting down these criminals.That is where they recruit their victims.

    • Emmanuel Barthe

      It is funny how the people who educated (those who understand grammar and spelling) see the broader issue. The issue is that these are people who are trying to survive. There is something called “life chances” which states that where you are born dictates a lot of what your life will be like. So, those righteous “americans” should realize that they are able to look down on others just because of where they were born. They did not earn their quality of life, they were born into it. So, chill out, and have some compassion.

      • Humberto Orozco

        well put!

  • Margi

    When I watched this documentary, I was so thankful for the existence of the Human Borders individuals. Another tragedy is the narrow view of the responses I see seemingly forgetting we are discussing human beings, desperate human beings.

  • Margi

    This film has troubled me over the past week. I continue to think of those at this moment who may not survive in the desert trying to find a way back to their loved ones or to a home which in the not too distant history was actually their own ancestral home. The Sonoran desert belonged to Mexico not too long ago.

  • kdpowames

    this is a biased attempt by the timing to support the illegal immigration act ion in our congress in this next week. The fact is these people are invading a sovereign nation and any other country in the world would have shot them or imprisoned them. lets not be fooled if we have amnesty for those who are here now in 10 years we will have a civil war and blood shed in the street because that supposed lie of 11.1 is really 20 plus million and with additional family will well to 60 million. In ten years that will be an additional 100 million Mexicans who will vote and then the blood shed will begin
    lets not be fooled America we have the tools to fix this but we don’t have the political will in Washington. deport them now.

  • kdpowames

    very biased and with political intent. these are illegals and should be deported. only nation in the world to put up with this criminal act. deport them now
    we don’t need to have open borders so 10 years from now we have an additional 1 00 million Mexicans voting. if that is the outcome and it will happen if amnesty is granted then this will be a country in civil war.

  • Gilbert Iglesias

    I am an immigrant who came to this side of the border, a few years ago. Fortunately, i did not have to crossed the border walking through the desert. However, i feel the pain that my people endure; i feel their desperation when trying to scape from the inmense poverty that is killing them alive. I feel their pain when all they do is trying to cross to border to find a job and to feed their families, who often times have nothing to eat, that they (we) left behind. The price to pay is inmense. On the other hand, the inmense poverty and the super corrupted governemnts that we have are the main reasons we come to this country risking our lives; enduring mistreatment; and racism from people who do not understand and have no idea of why it is that we come here. i nticed that there is a lot of ignorance, hatred, racism, and luck of knowledge about people’s own history. Have you forgatten that your forefathers come to this land illegaly? hove you forgotten that your ancestors stole the native amricans’ land natural resources, tried to change the native americans’ way of life, their culture, their langauge and forced them to live in reservations? Do you know that you are a product of an illegal imigration that commited one of the worse genocides in histsory? Yes, we, new, immigrants crossed the border illegally but we do it following a right, a right that every one has, and that is the right to survive. And no moral and judicial law should try to stop someone who is following the natural right to subsist.


  • Humberto Orozco

    Only the work that lazy Americans are unwilling to take (fruit pickers, construction workers to name a few). That is all.

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  • Diana Diaz

    I had a short reply about something that concerns me personally. That doesn’t excuse the attitude people hold today which relegates the poor coming here for a better life to a position lower than a dog. The United States expansion was a necessity for whom?? The United States government. I enjoy the freedoms I have here, but I certainly do not agree with every decision that our leaders have made through the years. Study some history – the US was more than happy to import people here by force (slavery) or for convenience sake to get some work done with indentured servants and finally by opening the borders to work in Sowuthwestern mines or in whatever industry needed hands since the West was relatively unpopulated. In those Wild West days they would take anyone they could count to claim vast territories, and when we were at war, it was the Mexicans who worked in this country to keep it strong on the homefront. Look it up. I don’t care to keep arguing with you or anyone else you won’t convince me and I won’t convince you.

  • Diana Diaz

    And by the way, maybe the Spanish did squeeze out the natives, why that sounds just like what you were saying about the Spanish empire no longer being relevant. What mattered to the Spanish was settling THEIR empire – like to the United States it mattered to settle the USA. I think they treated the native people abominably.

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