Editor’s note: Due to the current political climate and protection of sources in the story, The Journal has given a source an alternative name. Sources spoke in Spanish through a translator.
Isabella crossed the border wall from Mexico into the U.S. at 14-years-old with her older sister. She said crossing a river became the most terrifying part of her journey.
“It was very high in some cases and I didn’t know how to swim,” Isabella said. “[My sister and I] were walking inside the water holding hands.”
The Pew Research Center estimates as of 2016, 10.7 million unauthorized immigrants lived in the United States. Benjamin Johnson, a history professor at Loyola University who specializes in North American borders, said the border wall remains ineffective when stopping illegal immigration.
“I don’t think anyone who studies the border takes it seriously as a device that’s actually going to stop or control people or things from crossing the United States,” Johnson said.
Jana Jeffords attended the Donald Trump Make America Great Again Rally in Murphysboro, Ill., and is a supporter of the border wall. She said she thinks people should cross legally to prevent potentially dangerous people from entering the United States.
“You can’t trust everyone, and just to let people come over in droves and not have any kind of regulation is not good,” Jeffords said. “You don’t know who you have coming, and you’ve got to protect your family.”
Sacrificing for a new life
Isabella said she and her sister paid someone to help them cross the border after seeing her parents struggle. She said she and her sister were hired for housework upon entering the U.S.
“I saw my father’s struggles to feed us, to clothe us, to give us school,” Isabella said. “That was the reason for [my sister and I] to come here.”
Leticia Guzman is the media coordinator and organizer at Border Angels, a nonprofit organization campaigning for issues surrounding the U.S-Mexico border. The organization provides assistance to immigrants crossing the border and helps them adjust to life in the U.S.
Guzman said migrants enter the U.S. for a better quality of life. She said they weigh the cost of staying in their home countries versus the cost of a dangerous trip to the U.S.
“They know that there’s opportunity here, and they know that there’s opportunity for their children,” Guzman said. “So they would make that sacrifice because, I guess you could say, it’s just a different life here compared to where they’re fleeing from.”
Camila entered the United States legally 30 years ago with a visa. She said she met her husband and started a family with two children in the U.S. However, the loss of her visa meant she returned to Mexico, and she said she crossed the border illegally as a result.
Camila said when she crossed the border, she brought her two other children from Mexico with her. She said the journey felt difficult because they often walked for long periods of time at night.
“I thought about my children that were [in the U.S.], and I would ask for the help of God,” Camila said. “I would tell God, ‘Help me cross because I want to see my children.’”
Johnson said migrants cross the border because of violence, oppression or lack of economic options in their country. He said he understands why migrants would move to a country for the promise of a better life.
“If I put myself in their position and fear for my life, or especially my children’s life, and think that we’re going to be safer, that we’re going to be able to eat or to make a decent living or get an education somewhere else, then I understand that motivation,” Johnson said. “I think it’s one of the reasons why migrants have always come to the United States.”
Guzman said migrants crossing the border face issues such as dehydration and sickness. She said women migrants often hire a smuggler for protection when crossing the border because of potential danger.
“A lot of people don’t end up in the right hands, and they get hurt or in dangerous circumstances,” Guzman said. “There was a woman that I have talked to that had to really load up on birth control because of how common it is to be raped out in the crossing routes.”
Isabella crossed over the border again, four years after her initial journey to the U.S., after returning to Mexico to visit her family. She said her sister did not return with her.
Isabella said she felt terrified the second time when she crossed the border via an inner tube.
“There was a lot of people along the river, bad people wanting to do something harmful,” Isabella said. “I was fearful but nothing happened. They did follow us, but nothing happened.”
Starting a new chapter
Camila said when she first came to the U.S. alone, she did not know anything about the country. She said it was difficult to find resources that would help her obtain citizenship.
Guzman said navigating the U.S. is difficult for migrants who do not have family members to help decipher what steps to take once they enter the country. She said not knowing how to become a U.S. citizen remains one of the reasons the undocumented immigrant population remains high.
Isabella said her sister returned to Mexico after four years, leaving her the only member of her family in the U.S. However, she said her reason for staying changed.
“My life changed because I got married,” Isabella said. “I have three children. So now, my motive is different because now my family is here.”
Jeffords said when she thinks of people coming over the border, she becomes fearful. She said while she understands immigrants founded the U.S., she worries about the values of people coming to the U.S.
“I’m sure that a lot of them are generally nice people wanting to come and better their families because that’s where we all come from,” Jeffords said. “But it honestly kind of scares me a little bit because there’s so much terror going on.”
Johnson said looking at the underlying issues of why people choose to immigrate, such as foreign policy issues and drug use, could limit the amount of people seeking a better life in the U.S.
Johnson said in history anti-immigration politics and nativism arise every time there is an influx of an immigrant population. He said the only difference is who the rhetoric is directed at.
“We’ve seen this story before,” Johnson said. “We’re just reading a new chapter in that larger story.”
Camila said she currently has Lawful Permanent Resident status and is working toward her citizenship. Isabella said she is unable to obtain citizenship because she cannot afford to.
Isabella said she fears going out and being caught by Border Patrol because of her status. She said she is at risk anywhere she goes.
“It’s a sense of going out and not knowing that I’m going to come back to see my children because I’m at risk,” Isabella said. “Anywhere that I am, the Border Patrol can be there.”