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Crossing with the Virgin

Stories from the Migrant Trail

Kathryn Ferguson

Publication Year: 2010

Over the past ten years, more than 4,000 people have died while crossing the Arizona desert to find jobs, join families, or start new lives. Other migrants tell of the corpses they pass—bodies that are never recovered or counted.

Crossing With the Virgin collects stories heard from migrants about these treacherous treks—firsthand accounts told to volunteers for the Samaritans, a humanitarian group that seeks to prevent such unnecessary deaths by providing these travelers with medical aid, water, and food. Other books have dealt with border crossing; this is the first to share stories of immigrant suffering at its worst told by migrants encountered on desert trails.

The Samaritans write about their encounters to show what takes place on a daily basis along the border: confrontations with Border Patrol agents at checkpoints reminiscent of wartime; children who die in their parents’ desperate bid to reunite families; migrants terrorized by bandits; and hovering ghost-like above nearly every crossing, the ever-present threat of death.

These thirty-nine stories are about the migrants, but they also tell how each individual author became involved with this work. As such, they offer not only a window into the migrants’ plight but also a look at the challenges faced by volunteers in sometimes compromising situations—and at their own humanizing process.

Crossing With the Virgin raises important questions about underlying assumptions and basic operations of border enforcement, helping readers see past political positions to view migrants as human beings. It will touch your heart as surely as it reassures you that there are people who still care about their fellow man.

Listen to readings by the authors here.

Published by: University of Arizona Press

Title Page, Frontispiece, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-x

List of Illustrations

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xiv

Many people have contributed to this collection of stories. It would be impossible to list them all, but we are grateful to those unnamed as well as the ones mentioned here. Justin Colussy-Estes was of paramount importance in editing Norma’s stories, Gregory McNamee edited the first version of the manuscript, and Stephen Romaniello edited photographs. Thanks to Moses Thompson and Dr. John F. Chamblee, who...

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pp. xv-xviii

The hospitality of the Southwest with its wide open spaces and quaint, white-washed adobe brick towns is a myth. From its inception in the “American” national discourse this has been a contested territory. Here the relationship of power that exists between the United States and Mexico gets played out on a daily basis, a quotidian push and pull that encompasses all those who make this region their home. Southwest...

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pp. xix-xxii

Every year for a decade, hundreds of people have died agonizing deaths as they have struggled to cross the desert of Arizona, risking everything to find jobs or join families. In Crossing With the Virgin: Stories from the Migrant Trail, three Samaritans relate stories told to them by people they have met on the migrant trails winding through mountains and...

Discovering the Migrant Trail

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Volunteer - Ted Parks

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pp. 1-5

In the fall of 2005 a friend told me about a press conference being held at a church not far from my house. It had been called to publicize the plight of two young people volunteering for an organization called No More Deaths. They had been charged with crimes relating to their transporting three migrants in their vehicle to Tucson for...

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First Samaritan Patrol - Norma Price

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pp. 6-9

No one disputes that southern Arizona is very hot. During the summer months the temperatures in the desert range from 105 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. On the desert floor it can be 130 degrees or higher. It was June of 2002, the “dry-summer” season in the Sonoran Desert, and the hottest month of the year. Here in southern Arizona we have two types of summer, as designated by the Arizona- Sonora Desert Museum: Foresummer, or dry-summer, is the months of...

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It’s Personal - Kathryn Ferguson

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pp. 10-14

It was low, slow, and mournful. He dragged the scarlet notes across the floor like a velvet gown. I sat on the couch, next to two basset hounds, and listened to Bill play the trumpet. Light shined through the French doors where vines wrapped around panes of glass with orange and yellow flowers hand-painted by Angie. Bill was a musician...

Stories from the Migrant Trail

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Story One - Norma

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pp. 17-20

It has been four days since Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe, December 12, and the image of the Virgin at St. John’s Catholic Church in Tucson is covered with flowers. One month ago I watched a parishioner with a paintbrush touching up the gold paint on the design imprinted on the Virgin’s dress. I am standing outside of St...

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Story Two - Kathryn

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p. 21-21

We crossed the border from Sonoyta, Sonora, Mexico, onto American soil. A friend and I were driving along the dark Arizona highway at midnight when suddenly lights blinded us. Big stadium lights so bright we had to lower the windshield visors. It was a Border Patrol checkpoint, rigid-faced uniformed men with guns...

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Story Three - Norma

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pp. 22-25

Do you have other children?” I asked Alicia. She said no, then nothing else. She remained silent, looking straight ahead, eyes fixed on the car in front of us. She had been discharged from the hospital two days before, leaving behind the remains of her baby that had been born dead less than a week after she began her trek through the desert. We were sitting at a stoplight, and I glanced sideways at her...

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Story Four - Kathryn

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pp. 26-32

His skin was marble smooth. A fine coat of dust covered his chest; tiny pebbles stuck to the coffee-colored skin where his back lay flat against the dirt. Levi’s hung loose around the long outstretched legs. His face was turned to the sky, a carpet of black eyelashes holding down the eyelids. The lips were slightly parted. Although...

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Story Five - Ted

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pp. 33-35

We sit inside the church the night before a patrol. There are fifty-plus of us. We were told it was important to be there, because some valuable information was going to be shared. Our General in this battle is passionate about the cause and must be, absolutely, for we are completely outnumbered in every way imaginable, except in faith. In this our little army is strong. Those whose beliefs...

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Story Six - Kathryn

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pp. 36-43

Blood was up to his anklebones. His Wellington boots were orchid red. The humid room smelled of death, and he wasn’t used to the stench. As bile came up from his throat to his mouth, he gagged. He glanced around the kill floor to see if anyone noticed. Next to him, his compadre with the missing fingers made a hard slice...

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Story Seven - Norma

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pp. 44-47

Jesús recently sent me an e-mail in response to the photograph I sent of the completed labyrinth in our backyard. He says that he is doing well and his health is good. He is sorry that he was not able to complete the project he helped to begin. Jesús is happy to be back in Mexico and appreciative of all of the concern shown him and...

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Story Eight - Kathryn

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pp. 48-51

T wirling headsets in her hand, the woman in a gray suit walked over to two U.S. marshals sitting on a bench on the other side of the polished wood rail.
“I forgot to tell you what he said after that,” she whispered.
“What?” the marshal asked.
“That this is America and you’re not guilty until proven guilty.”
“But he broke the law,” the marshal laughed. “It’s black and...

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Story Nine - Ted

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pp. 52-55

Have you ever looked into the eyes of your child, or your wife or husband or lover, and seen a look of panic, a sense they are stepping off into a zone they will or will not return from without some bloodletting? Ever seen it in a complete stranger? Ever...

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Story Ten - Ted

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pp. 56-60

Today is a day for our cause to marshal the forces of the media. I don’t realize it at first, but it is soon to be in the forefront of my consciousness. I receive a message from the person who schedules trips advising me that a young woman in our group will be leading an ABC weekend news team on our outing into the desert. They’re doing...


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Story Eleven

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pp. 63-66

I never met Lucresia, but her father, a kind and grateful man, occupies a unique niche in our community and a special place in our hearts. We became friends with Cesario during the several weeks he spent in Tucson while he made daily treks into the desert to search for Lucresia’s body. It was early July, before the rains arrived, and the...

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Story Twelve

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pp. 67-68

Isabel hobbled toward me as she made her way on crutches down the hospital corridor. She wore an inexplicable large grin for someone with one broken ankle and the other ankle severely sprained. She was very overweight, but this did not slow her down as she moved rapidly on her muletas. It had taken me all afternoon to locate her...

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Story Thirteen

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pp. 69-73

It was mid-January when we arrived very early at the Mariposa port of entry on the border. We zipped our jackets snug for warmth, and I wrapped my wool scarf tightly, hoping to stop my teeth from chattering. Two other Samaritans and I had driven the sixty-five miles from Tucson to bring supplies and to assist the local volunteer workers...

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Story Fourteen

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pp. 74-78

The tan Jeep Cherokee drove at patrol speed heading south on Route 286, the north–south secondary road that parallels the border of the Tohono O’odham Nation land for forty-seven miles leading to the U.S.–Mexican border town of Sasabe. Looking east from here you can see the jagged horizon of the Cerro Colorado, an...


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Story Fifteen

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pp. 81-85

It is early June, and we have been blessed by rain in the desert. We had received only half an inch until yesterday, when the clouds marched strong and fast into the Tucson basin and left one third of an inch of rain, almost equaling the total for the year so far. Of course, it was only recorded out at the airport, this third of an inch of...

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Story Sixteen

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pp. 86-90

W e drive south into Mexico in a two-car caravan, my truck loaded with shoes and socks, gallons of hydrogen peroxide, bandages, foot cream, baby formula, a scale, and pregnancy test kits, the other car loaded with a doctor, a nurse, a photographer, and a translator...

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Story Seventeen

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pp. 91-96

I received a call last night from the person who schedules our daily patrols. A young man has lost his brother out in the desert fifty miles west of Tucson and is worried sick about it. He has been separated from family. Our job will be to try and find him in the great stretch of desert west of the Baboquivari Mountains. It will be next to...


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Story Eighteen

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pp. 99-110

A ll strangers, they began the journey down the rabbit hole where night becomes day. They would travel in darkness at night and stop to rest amid the rattlesnakes in sunlight. Only two nights and a day, assured the tall pollero, the guide (literally “chicken wrangler”). We’ve gone this way many times...

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Story Nineteen

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pp. 111-116

Kachung! He heard the sound long before he felt anything. He was gripping a bar at the back of the railcar, hanging on the outside with his feet propped against the base of the car. Shielding himself from the November night wind, he tucked his head down...

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Story Twenty

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pp. 117-120

It was still dark when I arrived at the shed behind the church. Winter, 5:45 a.m. Your senses go into high gear when you are alone and in the dark. I looked around the parking lot to see if anyone was nearby, friend or foe. Even though the shed is behind the all-embracing Southside church, in the dark of the morning not everyone walking the...

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Story Twenty-one

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pp. 121-126

There is great variety to the women you might encounter in the desert. We come in many forms.
Three of us Samaritans were talking about egg rolls as we walked the trail. It was a hot June morning. We had hiked a couple of miles and were already talking about food...

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Story Twenty-two

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pp. 127-128

Over there, navy-blue mountains are barely visible. Closer to us, the low hills are weighted down with charcoal clouds. Closer yet is the silhouette of a naked mesquite tree, black arms supporting eleven vultures on this cold winter dawn. A light rain falls. As we search in the Buenos Aires refuge, we walk nearer to the birds. This...


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Story Twenty-three

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pp. 131-132

I awoke this morning early and left for the shed a little after 6:00 a.m. The dawn is coming earlier now as the earth begins to tilt toward the sun in the northern climes, and everything is ghostly bluish as I pedal the few short blocks to the church. At the shed one of my companions from last week is loading the truck. The third of our party arrives, and we are together again the same as last week, three musketeers, or...

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Story Twenty-four

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pp. 133-135

Rain and snow came to the desert in the form of a fast-moving storm that originated way up in the northern climes. It is brutal in its cold swiftness. On Sunday morning the newspapers report that four migrants are dead from hypothermia or exposure, and...

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Story Twenty-five

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pp. 136-138

Today I travel with two experienced Samaritans. One of my companions has a very good sixth sense and guides us to an area I’ve never been before as a Samaritan. We look for migrant sign and come across some fresh water bottles and footprints. We notice a truck coming up fast. We get back in our truck and start cruising, and...


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Story Twenty-six

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pp. 141-145

Miracle Baby, that’s Veronica. It was early summer, and I had just spent the afternoon holding that little creature, born on the desert floor of southern Arizona, among saguaro, cholla, prickly pear cacti, and creosote bushes. She was not yet three weeks old and already had an aura of strength and independence. Plump little...

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Story Twenty-seven

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pp. 146-148

Beatriz crossed the border at Sasabe. She traveled alone in the desert for twenty-three days. Injured and with no provisions, she made her way north, drinking water she found in discarded water jugs and eating cactus fruit. Day after day she struggled along looking for others. “I could not believe there were no other people.” Her...

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Story Twenty-eight

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pp. 149-150

Little Jessica stood with her mother and eight other migrants on a bare area of roadside. Her mother appeared much more frightened than four-year-old Jessica. The others squatting on the ground just looked tired and discouraged. The Border Patrol agent in charge gave us permission to hand a toy to the child. Her eyebrows...

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Story Twenty-nine

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pp. 151-156

It was the middle of May. In the fellowship hall of a Tucson church we sat around a table with containers full of food. A group of us had brought dishes for a potluck supper for the family of Juan de Jesús Rivera Cota. Juan’s aunt, Gloria Michel Galaviz, had arrived from Los Angeles the day before to help with funeral arrangements and to...


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Story Thirty

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pp. 159-160

You might not even notice it. An ordinary shrub with a potent name—ironwood tree. Its wood is so dense it cannot float in water. But there is no water to be seen. Surrounded by low rocky mountains, the valley spreads in all directions. The vast floor is covered with varying sizes of ironwood, punctuated by cholla and towering...

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Story Thirty-one

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pp. 161-166

We are smack in the center of the days of death. Even though I have experienced this heat every summer of my life, it is always a shock. I step out of the cool car into the white-hot heat. It is the moment that begins to unravel the thread from comfort to alarm. Heavy heat wraps around, like too many blankets. It begins cooking from the outside, heating the epidermal layer of skin, while...

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Story Thirty-two

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pp. 167-170

If it had gone another way, it would have been a normal day. We would have helped some people and moved on. But it turned out differently.
Just past the bridge on Arivaca Road, we pulled over to take a short break. We were three Samaritans in a four-wheel-drive Rodeo. It was noon, and we had been searching for people in distress since 6:00 a.m...

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Story Thirty-three

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pp. 171-174

Tick-tick-tick. One second at a time. One thought at a time. Epifanio couldn’t make it happen faster. He knew they should move, but it was so hot. He touched his wife’s face. It burned. Marcela was sitting with her back against the trunk of a mesquite tree with her head back, eyes closed...


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Story Thirty-four

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pp. 177-182

Benjamin Hill is the name not of a Spanish-speaking migrant but of a simple little pueblo ninety miles south of the Arizona- Mexico border. It is a place where trains and migrants rendezvous. Here in this community, with only a few paved streets, no stoplight, and three churches, freight trains from southern Mexico arrive full of cargo inside and migrants on top. In this village they change to trains...

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Story Thirty-five

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pp. 183-186

I had been told that Enrique, the man I was about to see, had lacerations on his face and eyelid, but still I was caught off guard. When Enrique looked directly at me, his face was lopsided and distorted with swelling. The right eyelid was swollen and his right eye protruded, bulging out like a Cyclops eye. For a split second I was taken back...

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Story Thirty-six

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pp. 187-190

Luis was one of the commuters, a man who would have preferred to stay in his home country and work if he could have found employment, if he could have earned enough to support his family. In Guatemala, Luis made $2.50 a day. To do so, he traveled from his home to coffee plantations three days away...


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Story Thirty-seven

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pp. 193-198

It is 5:00 a.m. and I am wide awake, having tossed and turned all night waiting for this hour so I can arise. The ride home will be a mouthful of yawns for me. I am returning to Sasabe and Ladrillal, the brickyard. Three vehicles, six other people, and twice the amount of...

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Story Thirty-eight

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pp. 199-200

Today was different. I traveled alone. I traveled to some places I had not been before. I went to a hill off Brown Canyon with a sign that says, “Vehicles prohibited beyond this point.” That doesn’t keep the Border Patrol from climbing up to the crest in their vehicles. I drove up. And of course it was obvious. You can see every thing...

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Story Thirty-nine

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pp. 201-204

We Must Control Our Border,” screams the headline in the local paper (Arizona Daily Star, Saturday, July 22, 2006). So says Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who is in the area setting up photo ops and grazing the media for his reelection. The present administration’s quest for a “comprehensive immigration bill” has driven the Speaker to come down to...

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Homage - Kathryn

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pp. 205-206

We walk the remote trail, heads bent into hot wind, following footprints blowing to memory. Prints skim the surface of the earth like a blanket of parched stars fallen from a burning sky. We move into desert, mesmerized by moon dust sand that shines like ground glass. No human lives here. Two thousand square miles of...

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pp. 207-208

We keep learning. At the end of each day on the trail, we return home overloaded with new experiences. We have learned that it doesn’t stop. Migration historically has been an integral part of the borderlands and still is. But, primarily, what we have learned is that the deaths in the desert result from a clash between the...

Further Reading and Resources

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pp. 209-210

About the Authors, About the Contributors, Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780816521210
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816528547

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Illegal aliens -- Mexican-American Border Region.
  • Humanitarian assistance -- Mexican-American Border Region.
  • Border crossing -- Mexican-American Border Region.
  • United States -- Emigration and immigration -- Social aspects.
  • Mexico -- Emigration and immigration -- Social aspects.
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