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Why I Smuggled Myself Across the U.S.-Mexico Border

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Christof Putzel is a Vanguard correspondent. As part of his investigation into the immigration debate, he crossed the border from Mexico into the U.S. on foot.

Americans may be preoccupied by the economic hardships they face because of the Great Recession. Unemployment is stuck close to ten percent; poverty claims a larger share of the population each year; many older people without the means to retire fear they’ll never work again.

But for millions of people looking at the United States from afar, America is still worth risking everything just for a shot at a better life.

The presence of illegal immigrants, now estimated at eleven million, is a source of bitter and emotional controversy among us. They build our houses, clean our office buildings, harvest our food, care for our kids, cut our lawns and hire themselves out for a pittance to do odd jobs. They’re fixtures in restaurant kitchens, poultry processing plants and jobs considered too dirty or too menial for others to do. Yet they keep coming, especially from the south, sneaking across the border from Mexico any way they can. It’s a dangerous dash, often into the arms of waiting border patrol.

Nearly all of us are descended from immigrants, of course. But in recent years, as living standards have stagnated or declined for all but the wealthiest and most fortunate Americans, the political pressure to choke off illegal migration has exploded. Billions of dollars are spent on higher, stronger fences, sophisticated sensing technology and more border patrol agents.

Tighter security has pushed would-be migrants to try more and more remote and treacherous areas along the nearly 2,000-mile US/Mexico border. Fewer get through. More die on the way. Yet hundreds of thousands try it every year. This year, officials say, more people have died in the desert on American soil than ever before.

To understand what crossers go through for a shot at the American dream, I went to the small Mexican town of Altar, a hotbed of human smuggling, where migrants pay coyotes—smugglers—to take them across. On assignment for Current TV’s documentary series, Vanguard, I found a coyote willing to allow me to accompany him across the border and into southern Arizona desert.

The trip frequently takes three or four days to reach a road north of the border. The coyotes restrict each traveler to two gallons of water, which often isn’t enough to survive. Authorities have found the remains of more than 250 people already this year, and they estimate that for every body they discover many more lie unfound under the brutal southern sun.

For me it was humbling to experience first hand just what so many people go through for a chance at a better life.

My report, "Life and Death on the Border," premieres Monday, November 15 at 9/8c on Current TV.