For​ most of US history no one much cared that Latinos were entering the country and driving the economy of the south-west. In the 1920s the US introduced restrictive immigration laws but it didn’t have Latinos in mind: the perceived dangers were ‘inassimilable’ Italians and Eastern European Jews. During the Second World War the government laid on trains to bring thousands of Mexican labourers across the border to work on farms and ensure food security. In the 1950s the US started deporting Latin Americans who hadn’t arrived through official recruitment channels but this was mostly as a result of pressure from Mexico, where landowners were angry about workers being poached. US government-backed recruitment of Mexicans continued, and there were no limits on the numbers who could enter until a quota was imposed in 1965. In the 1990s the North American Free Trade Agreement threw Mexico’s rural economy into turmoil: migrant numbers rose dramatically and the Clinton administration began to militarise the border. The 9/11 attacks were used to justify even more fences and security personnel. Today the US-Mexico border is tightly monitored and in places absurdly fortified; it is patrolled by helicopters and night-vision aerostats.

Until recently the main gateway for Latinos was Arizona, where these fortifications were weakest. But in the last 18 months Texas has become the preferred destination. The number of ‘unaccompanied alien children’ arrested shows this clearly: in Texas last year almost 50,000 were cuffed by border patrol compared to 8000 in Arizona: total border crossings show a similar ratio. The nationality of those crossing has also changed: once almost all of them were Mexican; now equal numbers come from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico. The security deals agreed by the US and Mexican governments appear to have reduced the number of Mexicans who try to cross the border, but why are more people arriving from other Central American countries?

The end of a truce last year between the two most powerful Salvadoran maras – self-repatriating gangs originating in the US – is responsible for some of this increase. The region as a whole is racked by violence and ruled by repressive regimes. Washington has sponsored one military coup after another. George Kennan sketched out the programme in 1950, promising ‘coercive measures which can impress other governments with the danger of antagonising us’. In 1961 a strategy note prepared for Kennedy by the Joint Chiefs of Staff advised: ‘Latin Americans must … discard the philosophy that a corps of US-trained country personnel are dangerous to the indigenous governments.’ At the end of the 1970s the Sandinistas did away with the ancien régime in Nicaragua and, despite a CIA-backed rebel insurgency, a largely homegrown political arrangement survived, but Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have long been shell states with nothing to offer most citizens, economically or politically. Hundreds of thousands are leaving, and the shortest route takes them to Texas.

If you take Route 281 south from San Antonio, past the billboards (‘We buy ugly houses – call this number’; ‘AAA finance loans from $50-$1280’), you eventually reach Falfurrias, the largest place in Brooks County but still a one-horse town. The Dairy Queen burned down in May and the Walmart closed in July. Falfurrias once had a reputation as a hub for illegal gambling but this summer the gaming houses were raided and shut down. The town seems abandoned, apart from a border patrol station and a detention centre. The United States Border Patrol operates checkpoints on main roads many miles from the actual frontier. Falfurrias is 70 miles from the border and one of the inspection points is just outside town. If you’re an undocumented migrant this is where you leave the highway and walk for miles through the wilderness. More migrants die from thirst and injury in Brooks County than anywhere else in the United States.

In Falfurrias I met Lavoyger J. Durham, a large man with a deep voice who drives a big 4x4. He was born on the King Ranch – Texas’s best-known agribusiness, roughly the size of Cornwall – and he has been a cowboy all his life. In his home he has framed copies of magazines in which he’s featured: on the front of the Cattleman he appears on horseback lassoing a calf. He has managed the El Tule ranch, just outside Falfurrias, for 25 years. His grandfather, he told me proudly, signed up with Captain Leander McNelly, a Confederate officer and Texas Ranger, to ‘clean South Texas’ of ‘bandits’, most of them Mexican: McNelly’s militia hanged hundreds of people in the 1870s. But Lavoyger is now worried about the number of would-be migrants dying on south Texas’s ranches. He’s half Mexican himself – what would his grandfather have made of that? – and speaks fluent Spanish. On the way to El Tule, he gossips about the Bush family – ‘Barbara was at my second wedding but not, well … involved’ – and plays around with names for the borderlands that don’t quite hit the mark: the ‘catch me if you can’ zone comes after the ‘free nilly willy’ zone, and so on.

I asked him how many people had been found dead in Brooks County so far this year. He wasn’t sure of the exact number and phoned the sheriff. ‘How many dead people we got this year?’ The answer was 28. ‘Tell your daughter I love her.’ That the remains of 28 migrants had been discovered in just one of Texas’s 254 counties in a six-month period ought to be remarkable, especially given that the sheriffs estimate only 10 to 15 per cent of those who die are ever found. There are no figures on the total number of undocumented migrant deaths in Texas. Lavoyger himself has come across more than two dozen bodies over the years. On the ranch he showed me a clearing littered with half-rotten clothes, although these filthy coats and jeans in this macabre collection didn’t necessarily come from dead bodies; as Lavoyger explained, most of the dead are found without clothes, and usually it’s the local wildlife – vultures circling or coyotes playing with the bones – that point to their whereabouts.

So how does an undocumented migrant end up dead on Lavoyger’s ranch? After migrants cross the Rio Grande they make their way north, often on the 281 and often in a vehicle, until they leave the highway to avoid the checkpoints. The ground is treacherous. The arid landscape is littered with mesquite and cacti and almost unbearable in the summer. Minutes after you move off the roads hairlike spines somehow make their way into your legs and hands, and burrs attach themselves wherever they can. There are rattlesnakes. Fire ants crisscross the ground. Birds of prey, including the caracara – the Mexican eagle – fly between trees stripped by drought and fire. A border-crosser will usually have to walk through this terrain for days. Exhaustion or a minor injury will mean a migrant is often left behind; thirst usually does the rest. I imagine the last-minute stripping off of clothes is a confused reaction to dehydration, or perhaps it is just the heat, but it must be a terrible death.

In contrast to Arizona the Texas borderlands are privately owned, and so are the facilities where migrants end up if they get caught. The Karnes county ‘residential centre’, which houses women and children, is one such place. Karnes is run by the GEO Group, which describes itself as ‘the world’s leading provider of correctional and detention management’. In its white, bleached-clean waiting room the GEO Group’s management team is pictured in a pyramid of cheery mugshots. Sonia Hernandez Amaya, a Salvadoran woman who crossed into the United States without documentation, had been held in Karnes for more than a month. She fled El Salvador because her neighbourhood in the capital had become a place of anarchy, as so many have, with daily shootings. Gangs – particularly the two largest, MS-13 and Barrio 18 – had been tearing the city to pieces. Sonia swam across the Rio Grande with her three children – Josselyn, 10, Valentin, 9, and Moises, 3 – but they were picked up by the border patrol. If the border patrol misses them, women have a lower chance of making it through the wilderness because they usually have children with them; often they hand themselves in rather than attempt the journey. When I visited Karnes there were around 450 women and children in detention. The facility had a bad reputation; two women detainees had recently been on hunger strike. The management claimed that the inmates were treated with dignity: they were after all ‘permitted’ to clean their own detention centre in exchange for $3 a day.

The staff looked at and spoke to the inmates with disgust. The feeling, Sonia said, was reciprocal: she told me in a whisper that the guards were often violent and that one of the male staff had come to the cell of a fellow detainee two nights earlier and tried to force her into a sexual favour. The food was terrible: a mix of bad fish and bread. Her three-year-old was ill with diarrhoea but had been given only paracetamol. None of the women had been charged with any crime, and that goes for almost all of the 34,000 migrant detainees in the US. So why are they there? Once arrested by the border patrol, ‘undocumented aliens’, or ‘illegals’ as they are more often called, are detained while their asylum claims are investigated. They are usually offered bail, but most of them don’t have any money left after what they’ve paid for the journey.

The immigration court in San Antonio is at 800 Dolorosa Street, just across from Central Texas Detention Facility, a formidable concrete box also run by GEO. Inside the court rounds of hearings determine whether the migrants can remain in the US. Many of the hearings are conducted by video link. A barely audible, low-definition video feed connects the judge with a room in the detention centre. The women sit in three rows of four or five, wearing ill-fitting, standard-issue T-shirts. They wait patiently to be called to a single chair in front of which there is a camera. They are then asked to explain to the court why they entered the US, which usually means recounting stories of serious violence. All of this is done through an interpreter, who is also struggling to hear. Next comes a fuller, formal hearing, known as a ‘credible fear’ interview, at which the migrant’s asylum claim is determined. The women have no access to representation unless they can barter for it and it falls to legal aid agencies to advocate on behalf of those who can’t pay but there aren’t enough pro bono lawyers to go around. There’s always a lawyer representing the federal government. The judge when I visited was a soft-spoken, seemingly kindly woman from Ohio who nonetheless rattled off standardised questions and usually concluded that the woman in question could be bailed until her next hearing at the price of a few thousand dollars.

Not long ago detained border-crossers in southern Texas who could post bail were released directly from detention centres; now they are dumped at San Antonio bus station with a brown folder of official documents and an electronic ankle bracelet. Inside the folder is a piece of paper that entitles them to a ticket or book of tickets. One young man I met had tickets for a series of eight buses that would take him from San Antonio to New York, where he was to stay with a distant relative. He couldn’t speak or read English. Migrant-support volunteers spent a good forty minutes deciphering, then translating and transcribing his route for him. He would have to wait nine hours before the first bus left. If he made it, he will by now be attending immigration hearings in New York and growing accustomed to the ankle bracelet.

Sister Pam Buganski is co-head of the South Texas Human Rights Centre. The centre has a tiny office in Falfurrias; when its three-person staff aren’t repairing water stations in the wilderness – vandalised by locals who look less charitably on migrants – they are helping the authorities respond to distress calls. The sheriff’s office gets regular cellphone calls from people who are stranded and dying or from the friends who’ve left them behind. When the sheriff doesn’t have the manpower, or the inclination, to search, STHRC fills in. ‘They’ll say things like “We left him under a mesquite tree next to a fence,” well there are probably a million mesquite trees so it isn’t much help,’ Buganski told me. There aren’t enough signal towers in south Texas to enable accurate triangulation so the odds on finding those who call are long. Earlier this year Buganski and a group of volunteers got word that someone had given more detail about his whereabouts than usual, and seemed to be on a private ranch where the owners were prepared to give the volunteers access. They searched for the lost person, racing against the sunset. They never found the caller, but came across three other bodies before darkness fell. ‘That shows you just how many are out there dying without anyone knowing.’

Most of the dead are never identified. There’s often no autopsy performed and DNA testing is rare. In Brooks County the final resting place for unidentified border-crossers is the Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias, well tended and adorned with plastic flowers. In 2013 researchers from Baylor University in Waco identified a corner of the cemetery where funeral companies had dumped the bodies of undocumented migrants. They exhumed a mass grave containing 110 bodies, some buried only four inches below the surface. Corpses had been interred in bin liners, or with no covering at all. The grave wasn’t marked. Last year another exhumation was performed in a different corner of the cemetery. It was the same story: 52 bodies. All over Sacred Heart there are little mounds crowned with metal plaques: ‘unidentified human remains 629667’.

The Rio Grande narrows at Laredo. From the north bank you can see people fishing, or pretending to fish, on the other side of the river. There are three bridges: two in the centre of the city and one on the outskirts for heavy vehicles. Wading or swimming across the river is a way into the US for those who can’t get a temporary visa. Fifteen people had already drowned there this year and I watched the body of a young man being dragged out by Mexican authorities after a fisherman saw it floating downstream. A pair of red and black boxer shorts and a tattoo – ‘Efrain’ – were all there was to go on. The only other way to cross is the railway bridge, which is always busy. I saw a huge train of freight trucks – Kansas City Southern, Union Pacific, Swift – rumble by at a snail’s pace on its way to Mexico.

In November 2014, announcing an executive order on immigration reform, Obama pledged to expand an existing programme known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which currently allows for those who entered as children and who have been in the US since July 2007 to get a two-year reprieve; a new programme would extend a similar provision to those who are in the US illegally but whose children have US citizenship. The Republicans claim that Obama wants to let in Latin American migrants because they are future Democrat voters. But his proposals still haven’t come into effect and are being challenged in the courts. Despite his recent rhetoric, he has presided over the greatest incarceration of children in American history. He has also promised more men with guns on the border. Die-hard Republicans can’t recognise an ally when they see one.

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