Fences dot the 3,000km border, mainly in urban areas [GALLO/GETTY]

With the US elections a year away, illegal immigration promises to be a key campaign issue.

As part of Al Jazeera's Walls of Shame series, Shaun Devitt travelled to Arizona to find life in communities on either side of the border is dominated by the subject.

The Sonoran desert in the south of the United States is a harsh, hot and unforgiving landscape that straddles the country’s border with Mexico.

The desert constitutes a natural barrier between the two countries that thousands of would-be illegal migrants attempt to cross into southern Arizona every year.

For them it represents the gateway to a better life but in reality it is a perilous journey that many fail to complete.

The migrants attempt the arduous desert crossing to avoid a series of steel and concrete walls which have been erected to mark the border in urban areas.

In video


Shaun Devitt reports from the border

Kathryn Ferguson and Norma Price are Samaritans in Arizona who patrol the roads in the desert near the town of Tucson to help those who have been physically and mentally defeated by the oppressive conditions.

"We look for people, anybody who could be out here that could be standing on the side of the road if they've made it this far and are in need of help," Ferguson tells Al Jazeera.

But surveillance posts indicate Kathryn and Norma are not the only ones on the lookout.

Human traffic

In an attempt to secure its borders, the Bush administration is spending billions of dollars on enforcement.

It is money many argue is doing little to stop the human traffic just merely re-routing it.

"Since they've closed the ports it’s forced people out into this arid desert and people are dying," Ferguson says.

"They really don't know what they're facing. They don't know how hot and dry it is. Most of them don't know the desert. We see women here in high heel shoes, wedge shoes, sandals; and they'll have one bottle of water."

"Freddy" is picked up
by the US border patrol
While Al Jazeera is traveling with Ferguson and Price the plight of those crossing the desert is highlighted when a man emerges from the scrub ahead who has decided to seek help rather than endanger his life further.

The man is frightened, disoriented and when approached by Ferguson says he was part of a group of 25 migrants, but was left behind when he could not keep up.

"Freddy" has been on his own for five days; he says he owes money back home which forced him to attempt the trip.

He says he wants to go back to Mexico now but US law means the Samaritans can do nothing but call the border patrol as placing an illegal migrant in their own car would mean a possible prison sentence.

"
Anyone that gives him a ride could be arrested. We can't do that," Ferguson says. "They could spend five years in prison for transporting an illegal alien and 10 years for conspiring against the US government."

Zero tolerance

With little time to collect his thoughts and belongings the Mexican man is arrested by the border patrol.

If the authorities in Arizona appear to be taking a hard line they say there is a reason for their lack of hospitality: Many of those who attempt to cross illegally will do so again until they succeed and that means zero tolerance from the American side.

A series of fences dotted along the 3,000 km border between two countries are designed to stem the flow of illegal migration in urban areas but based on current estimates, the system is a failure.

Judith Gans, an academic and expert on immigration in Tucson says the statistics speak for themselves:

"Since 2000, people have been entering at the rate of 850,000 a year," she says. "There are currently an estimated 12 million people living in the US, they are going to different states.

"The walls have not been an effective deterrent; they changed the way and the cost, at the time when the fence was put up in California the assumption was that the desert itself would prevent people from crossing."
 

George Bush has approved another 1,000km
of fencing [GALLO/GETTY]

Despite this, the walls continue to go up, with George Bush, the US president, signing off on the Secure Fence Act in 2006 approving the construction of a wall stretching 1,000 kilometres.

On the other side of the fence, the lure of the American dollar appeals to both citizens and the Mexican government alike.

"Mexico benefits tremendously from having its workers here, I think it's the second largest source of foreign currency; at the same time it relieves a lot of social pressure, so Mexico doesn't have a real incentive to stop this," Gans says.

Although Mexico is a country of 100 million people, more than 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line.

For many that poverty could end at the border with the US, but as well as official patrols standing in their way there are volunteer citizen groups such as American Border Patrol.

The organisation is led by Glenn Spencer; his Arizona ranch sits directly on the border which, thanks to Glenn, anyone can patrol on the internet via a series of wireless cameras.

Election issue

Spencer says the US governments' secure border initiative is a disastrous failure and has complied hours of video footage that he says proves the point.

"We can walk through [the border] even in daylight even with a huge atomic bomb on our back and they wouldn’t know," he says.

"You have to understand this goes on for 1,500 miles of the United States border. They're hiding, they don't want to be seen."

To make sure they are being seen, American Border Patrol is spending millions of donated dollars on surveillance equipment including a remote-controlled aircraft they call the "Borderhawk".

Mike King has gone even further. When the federal aviation authority stopped him flying unmanned aircraft along the border area he purchased a real Cessna aeroplane which he customized to allow him to make his own surveillance flights.

"There's a lot of it, they're everywhere; for three weeks straight I caught like 500 people."

Such measures may seem excessive, but for Spencer the billions of dollars being spent on border enforcement is being wasted:

Mike King says he has taken
matters into his own hands
"Look how much money we're spending on defending the borders of Iraq and our borders are wide open and the government knows it. Its open to drugs terrorists," he says.

Melissa Owens says she lives with the reality of illegal migration.

Amongst the picturesque landscape near the town of Bisbee her ranch resembles a fortified compound, enclosed by razor wire, to keep her safe and the intruders out.

"I had some men attempt to break into my house, they were trying to kick in the door, I think I'm pretty tough but I don't want that," she says.

"I don't want people I don't know. I don't care if they're from Finland, I don't want them."

An emotionally charged issue, illegal migration has split American opinion and many argue it is merely the symptoms that are being addressed, not the cause.

"I think its shameful that both our countries can't work together to find a solution that's shameful to me," Melissa says.

With a presidential election looming the issue of immigration continues to be debated in Washington DC. But it is the individuals on the border who are directly affected.

"At the moment it's very quiet here with beautiful big clouds but at certain times of day there are helicopters out here, there are horses, there are all terrain vehicles around," Kathryn Ferguson says.

"There are guys who look like Darth Vader – they're dressed in black and carrying guns and they're out here looking for people like the man we met out here today.

"It's another way to instill fear in Americans."

Click here for more on Al Jazeera's Walls of Shame series.

Source: Al Jazeera