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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 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.