Ramirez is in Nogales on the Mexican side of the border with the US — sitting in a shelter eating breakfast — no more than 100 yards from an Arizona town bearing the same name. But for this 18-year-old from the state of Oaxaca, that line in the desert might as well be on the other side of the world.
Three weeks ago, Border Patrol agents arrested Ramirez and her brother, along with a small group of migrants, as they tried to cross illegally into the Arizona.
“The experience left me traumatized. I have never tried crossing before,” Ramirez told CNN. “I was scared.”
She was quickly deported to Mexico, and when CNN spoke with her she was waiting for her brother to be released so they could figure out what do next.
Ramirez says poverty drove her to make this journey north. She wants to find work in America to support her elderly parents.
“We want to find a dignified job,” Ramirez said. “We didn’t even have enough money for me to finish going to school.”
A dangerous journey
Crossing the border illegally into the United States is a danger-filled journey. Immigrant rights activists have long warned that the human smuggling routes, often controlled by ruthless “coyotes” (smugglers), are potentially deadly threats for female migrants.
According to the US Border Patrol, of the almost 409,000 migrants apprehended in 2016 along the southern border, 101,000 were women.
Statistics for assaults of female migrants are difficult to collect because many of these crimes often go unreported. In 2010, Amnesty International reported that as many 60% of migrant women and girls traveling through Central America and Mexico were sexually assaulted.
Women and migrants are urged to travel in groups, not to carry identification or phone numbers of relatives in their wallets or backpacks.
A team of volunteers cooks meals for the migrants. The shelter offers free phone calls to relatives, basic medical checks and clothing and shoes.
The Kino Border Initiative opened in 2009 and is run by Jesuit priests and several humanitarian organizations. Father Sean Carroll greets the migrants many mornings. He says part of his mission is to “humanize” the people he sees every day.
Father Carroll has sensed an increasing fear in the United States of the threat perceived to be pouring in through the country’s southern border. He worries that fear has made many Americans lose sympathy for migrants who are risking their lives in search of a better life.
“People are concerned for their safety. They are concerned that there is a real lack of order,” Father Carroll said. “We need security. We need safety. But I don’t believe border security and respect for human dignity are mutually exclusive. We can do both.”
Father Carroll and many immigrant rights activists insist comprehensive immigration reform is the best way to ensure border security.
“So the more we address the root causes of this issue, I think we are going to have fewer migrants crossing. That would mean we would need fewer resources to secure the border and those resources can be really focused on people who want to do harm,” Carroll said.
Securing the border
On the other side of the border, the tools for capturing migrants have grown as sophisticated as ever. In the past 10 years, border fencing and barricades have grown to cover nearly 700 miles. There is an elaborate system of cameras and underground sensors monitoring vast swaths of the borderlands.
There are roughly 20,000 Border Patrol agents working in the agency, but the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing the agents, says the force is down 1,600 agents.
The National Border Patrol Council is celebrating the election of Donald Trump. Spokesman Shawn Moran says the Border Patrol has never received public support, and employees are eager to see what happens.
“The day after the Election Day, we were slapping each other on the back and hugging,” Moran told CNN.
“Anytime we talk about a general amnesty or immigration reform, we see these surges,” Moran said. “We have a serious issue with allowing immigration reform to go forward.”
Moran says before the country can have immigration reform, the border must be secured.
And, in some areas, there are private citizens taking the pursuit of border security into their own hands.
Tim Foley created a band of border vigilantes called Arizona Border Recon. He moved from Phoenix to the border town of Sasabe and now spends his days tracking migrants and drug smugglers. Foley says he could spend his life taking vacations and sitting on his couch but he’d prefer to spend his time patrolling the front lines.
“All the major activity takes place in the mountains,” Foley told CNN. “They love the mountains because less road means less border patrol, and less border patrol means easier times.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which says it monitors hate and extremist groups in the United States, says Foley’s group is made up of “native extremists.”
“I’ve been called everything in the book,” Foley told CNN. “I’ve been called a domestic extremist.”
Foley says he has about 250 volunteers from around the country who carry out surveillance missions in this border region south of Tucson.
The teams place hidden cameras in the areas most often used by drug smugglers. Foley downloads the videos and often shares what he calls “the intelligence” with Border Patrol agents.
Foley says he’s spent $120,000 on cameras and electronic equipment to do this work. But, he argues, Border Patrol agents need to work more effectively.
“You need boots on the ground,” Foley said. “When you are reactive to a problem, you are always going to be behind the solution.”
Foley is unapologetic and welcomes the criticism of his tactics. He spends his days traversing the terrain, and even though he supports Trump, his faith in the “system” is minimal.
“Do you know why they call it the American Dream?” Foley asks as we drive through the desert hills near his home. “Because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
But on the other side of the Arizona-Mexico border, it’s that idea of the American Dream that Jesus Garcia is chasing.
He left Honduras the day before Trump was elected. Garcia says he wanted to reach the United States before Trump assumed office and feared the new President would start cracking down on immigration laws.
“I want to work and find a better life for me and my family,” Garcia told CNN as he sat just feet from the border strategizing the safest way of sneaking across the border.
Garcia has spent almost two months traveling along the borderlands. He’s made three attempts to cross, but he’s backed out each time. A few weeks ago, he got lost in the desert in the New Mexico hills for five hours, eventually turned around and returned to Mexico.
Garcia pulls out a map that’s specifically made for migrants. It shows the safest and most effective ways to cross through Mexico. It includes details of where rail lines are located and where shelters are located and the services they offer.
It’s a snapshot of how this underground world operates.
“It’s not easy to cross the border,” Garcia told CNN. “People think it’s easy, but without a smuggler it’s not easy.”
CNN’s Jason Morris and Joel De La Rosa contributed to this report.