Each day, her daughter’s spine continued to curve forward, forcing her body to close in on itself and slowly crush her lungs.
Desperate to get better treatment for cerebral palsy, Lucy brought her daughter, Linda, to the United States from Mexico in 2005, but they soon found themselves in a new quandary. They had overstayed their one-year humanitarian visa and were now “trapped” in Chaparral, New Mexico, an isolated desert community above the Texas state line.
There was a specialist about four hours away in Albuquerque who could perform the life-saving surgery Linda needed, but they would have to cross checkpoints set up by US Border Patrol to verify if motorists are in the country legally. And since the officers surround Chaparral, attempting to get through them meant risking deportation back to Mexico and losing access to better medical care.
“We felt trapped,” Lucy told BuzzFeed News. She declined to use her or her daughter’s real name out of fear of retaliation. “She was in pain. Two parts of her spine were basically folded, but we couldn’t cross the checkpoints and had to cancel the appointment.”
Most Americans don’t know that there is a 100-mile zone that extends inland from the edge of the US, and within that zone, border patrol agents have the authority to stop and search motorists, for any reason, to investigate whether they are here legally — though they can arrest and question people anywhere in the US.
That means undocumented immigrants who have settled in small towns within the zone are under constant threat of being stopped, arrested, and immediately deported for something as small as a broken taillight. The threat looms particularly large under a Trump administration that has made practically every person living in the US illegally a priority for deportation.
Border Patrol Checkpoints in Southern New Mexico
Linda was eventually able to get the surgery she needed five months later in El Paso, Texas, which is reachable without running into a Border Patrol checkpoint, but the cat-and-mouse course they had to navigate is not unique to many undocumented immigrants in the Southwest.
Critics say it's part of a government strategy to make life so miserable and inconvenient for undocumented immigrants that they eventually self-deport out of frustration.
And now, with President Trump’s executive orders calling for an additional 5,000 Border Patrol agents and 10,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, activists and scholars worry they could see current conditions along the Southwest border expand to other areas of the US.
“A lot of what the government implemented in the US–Mexico border, we have reason to believe it could happen elsewhere,” Vicki Gaubeca, director of the ACLU of New Mexico’s Regional Center for Border Rights, told BuzzFeed News. “Anything that you actually see, that expanded authority that Border Patrol has in the border region of the US and Mexico, there’s no reason they couldn’t use that same expanded authority in other parts of the country.”
BuzzFeed News spent four days speaking with undocumented families in this region of New Mexico who grapple with the constant threat of being caught, the daily frustrations of feeling hemmed in by checkpoints, and the worst-case scenarios many are now considering in the Trump era.
BuzzFeed News agreed to using pseudonyms for the immigrants, who fear retaliation, so that they could speak more freely about their situation.
These are their stories.
In 2005, Lucy made a decision she never thought she’d have to make: to leave her children behind in Mexico to find a surgeon in the United States who could operate on her 10-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy.
The surgeries to help repair Linda’s body were too expensive in their native Zacatecas, so Lucy was able to get one-year humanitarian visas to the US.
She recalled entering the country with her daughter strapped uncomfortably into a cheap plastic stroller.
“We couldn’t even afford to get her a wheelchair in Mexico, but when we got here the hospital helped us get one almost immediately,” Lucy said. “At the time, something as simple as that seemed impossible to me.”
Once the year was up, her older daughter, Lucia, who had immigrated years earlier and settled in New Mexico, convinced her to stay so Linda could continue to get the medical care that had seemed unattainable years before. So they overstayed and joined the ranks of the 11 million estimated undocumented immigrants hiding in the shadows.
The pair easily blended into the mostly Latino desert colonia of Chaparral, a quiet area largely made up of trailer homes surrounded by yucca and mesquite trees. On a hot Tuesday morning, the silence of the unincorporated community was pierced by the booms of a nearby military base testing weapons, which the locals blame for cracking their walls.
Linda, a 22-year-old who was recently able to get temporary protection from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, celebrated her quinceañera here and graduated high school. She can’t speak, but laughs often. Her underdeveloped hands curl on the sides of her black wheelchair and her feet hang close to her body.
Her 59-year-old mother, Lucy, speaks slowly and choses her words carefully.
Lucy and Linda have lived in the region undetected for years, but at a cost. Chaparral is surrounded by five Border Patrol checkpoints. The largest cities they can access for medical care are El Paso and Las Cruces, but going beyond that could put them in the sights of Border Patrol agents.
“There are moments when you feel desperate,” Lucy said. “My other kids live in California and I want to see them, but how am I going to do it? Sometimes you get brave enough to almost do it, but why risk it?”
As Lucy fed Linda tortillas softened with chicken soup because she hasn’t yet learned to chew, her oldest daughter, Leticia, said the fear that’s plagued the undocumented community in recent months was very similar to the angst the community felt after immigration raids in September 2007.
According to media reports, Otero County officials detained 28 immigrants, including 11 children, at Chaparral schools on Sept. 10, 2007, as part of the federally funded “Operation Stonegarden.” Immigrants reported sheriff’s deputies entering homes without warrants and being asked to show proof of citizenship inside homes or during traffic stops.
People are more wary of police now and tense up when someone knocks at the door, Leticia said. A neighbor calls her every day to ask if she’s seen or heard of any immigration agents in the area.
“I’m scared of going to El Paso because I worry the cops will pull me over and report me to ICE,” Leticia said. “Now, you only go out if you really need to go out. We have always been careful, but now you have to be even more careful.”
Sonia knows that if she had been able to go to court to face the woman who sold her less than an acre of land instead of the 1¾ acre they had agreed on, she would’ve prevailed instead of losing about $2,000.
But because the single mother of four was undocumented, she didn’t dare cross the Border Patrol checkpoints on US Routes 54 and 70 to get to the courthouse in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The landowner had taken Sonia to court after she stopped making payments for three months in protest of what she argued was a bad deal. But the court ruled against her last year, and and she was given four days to move the trailer off the property.
With the help of Sister Chabela Galbe of the Flor y Canto convent in Chaparral, they were able to move the trailer just before the deadline. But because of the rush, two of her children had to stay in a shelter while she sometimes slept in a van with her oldest son.
“All because I couldn’t go to court, because I can’t cross the checkpoints,” Sonia said in a low voice.
Most people who don’t live in border towns like Chaparral don’t know the network of checkpoints and how they affect life for immigrant families with members who are undocumented, Galbe said.
“It’s like living in a small cell, wide, with space, but they know their space for movement is limited to 50 miles or less,” Galbe said. “There’s no way to avoid a checkpoint — we’re surrounded by them, for ‘security.’”
A native of Juarez, Mexico, Sonia used to be able to work in the chile, onion, and walnut fields nearby, but shortly after the presidential election, the work dried up. Employers didn’t want to risk being fined for hiring undocumented immigrants and she was told to bring in a fake Social Security card. If they were caught, the blame could be shifted to her, they said.
“Where would I even get one?” Sonia said. “And if I do and get caught, I’ll be arrested.”
Farmers in the region who depend on immigrant labor declined to speak to BuzzFeed News. And many officials in the area did not return requests for comment, except for Ramon Gonzalez, a local county commissioner who said immigration enforcement was a federal, not local, issue.
In the meantime, Sonia tries to make ends meet by selling burritos to construction workers and cleaning houses, but it’s never enough.
Each night, she heads home to a beige and brown trailer, stepping over a living room floor caked with dried paint, and washes up in a bathroom with unpainted walls.
“I ask God for a [Social Security number] so I can have a stable job, a stable life,” Sonia said. “It’s all any undocumented immigrant dreams of, being stable and not in the wind.”
But with Trump vowing to ramp up deportations, Sonia is now planning for the worst. All of her children’s documents are being kept by Sister Galbe, who has been tasked with reuniting the family in Mexico should Sonia be deported.
“I try not to tell them about the plan because they’re already scared — they hear things at school,” Sonia said. “These days it’s a concern for the old and young. These are tough times for immigrants.”
Thirty-five permanent checkpoints are operated by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which described them as "highly effective tools in halting the flow of illegal traffic into the United States."
CBP declined to give BuzzFeed News a breakdown on apprehensions made at the checkpoints. However, the agency told The Atlantic’s City Lab that in fiscal year 2014, agents made 9,548 arrests at the stops, just under 2% of the total 486,651 made that year.
They may contribute to only a small proportion of overall arrests, but proponents say the interior checkpoints act as a second layer of security and help stop illegal drugs from getting deeper into the US — even as recent Senate testimony revealed that the number of people attempting to cross the Southwestern border illegally has dropped by 67% since Trump took office. While the number of border apprehensions fluctuates, there has been a drop-off since 2008, a trend that is most likely tied to the recession, experts say.
Even so, Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for restricted immigration, said there needs to be a system to stop those who have already crossed the border illegally.
“You need these checkpoints to be a backstop for Border Patrol efforts on the border itself,” Krikorian told BuzzFeed News. “Maybe an ancillary benefit is that it makes it hard to live there for illegals.”
But Ray Harris, a former Border Patrol officer, told BuzzFeed News he doesn't buy the notion of a negative daily effect on immigrants who he says have become adept at avoiding authorities.
“People would be stupid to live in an area where a checkpoint affects their daily lives,” Harris said. “Few undocumented aliens live anywhere near a [Border Patrol] checkpoint, and the ones who do know how to circumvent them.”
Even outside the 100-mile limit, though, the stakes are higher.
Expedited deportation used to be reserved for undocumented immigrants who were in the US for fewer than 14 days and apprehended within 100 miles of the border. Now, immigration authorities are allowed to arrest and deport anyone in the US who they believe has been living here illegally for fewer than two years without seeing a judge, said Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies.
That raises the potential effects of Border Patrol agents who have wide latitude in stopping and questioning people about their legal status.
“The 100-mile limit is erased if they believe you’ve been in the country without authorization within the last two years,” Heyman said. “The things people have been putting up with in the El Paso and Texas for decades, well that’s coming to you now.”
Despite the pressure from immigration authorities to self-deport, families with undocumented members say they’ll put up with just about anything to keep from splitting up. For people like Maria, that means living life in a cocoon surrounded by family members who are legal residents.
Maria, who along with her husband agreed only to be identified by pseudonyms, is the only one of her family who is undocumented. Because she re-entered the US after being deported, Maria isn’t eligible for any type of legal status. She, her husband, and four of their six children live in Hatch, New Mexico, a village about an hour north of Chaparral that is famous for its chiles.
It’s 80 miles from the US–Mexico border, but the Border Patrol maintains checkpoints on two roads that lead to the village of about 1,600 people, which makes venturing out a risky prospect for anyone who is undocumented. So whenever the family has to run errands in the nearest town of Las Cruces, Maria stays behind inside their large trailer home, which is kept impeccably clean despite the coming and going of four kids.
“It’s like the song ‘The Golden Cage,’ I have everything around me, but I can’t enjoy it because I’m here...locked up,” Maria said in Spanish. “My kids, my husband go and I stay behind, sad, here in my house.”
Even so, she’s willing to put up with it if it means her family stays together.
“I have 15 years in the US, right, honey? Locked up here?” she asked her husband, Fernando.
“Whatever is necessary,” he replied.
“Yes, whatever is necessary,” Maria said. “It’s better to be like this than be separated.”
Maria, a short woman with a shy smile, said she goes through periods of depression because she feels cut off. The Fernando secretly consults lawyers so as not to get her hopes up, but they all tell him to do nothing for now.
“Attorneys have told me, ‘Don’t stir the pot ... they’re going to take her away from you,’” Fernando said.
Sitting in front of a US flag that takes up most of a wall, 16-year-old Claudia, a US citizen who declined to use her real name to protect her mother, said her mom tenses up whenever they’re driving and come across police lights or a border patrol car. Claudia and her siblings live in constant fear that they are always just one broken taillight or missed stop sign away from losing their mom, she added.
“You’re stopped and everything goes bad and I don’t think it’s fair,” Claudia said of her mother. “She’s kind of just living in the shadows.”
Since Trump’s election and a series of nationwide raids that put undocumented immigrants on edge, Maria doesn’t even dare to walk to the nearby gas station or supermarket because she’s scared of running into a Border Patrol agent conducting a random patrol.
Jim “Slim” Whitlock, the tall, fast-walking owner of Jim’s Supermarket, told BuzzFeed News he believes in securing the borders, but worries that immigration enforcement decisions will be made by officials in Washington, DC, who don’t know what it’s like for people living in communities like Hatch.
“These problems will be decided by someone who has never been here, that’s never seen the people, never looked into the eyes of these scared kids that don’t know what their future holds,” Whitlock said. “It’s not healthy for a community to be at that level of anxiety — it’s just not helpful.”
For Elena, a 40-year-old mother of four, one of them undocumented like her, that anxiety is ever-present. Her family has considered moving, but the places they can afford aren’t as safe as their quiet “ranch” and her kids don’t want to leave their friends.
It hasn’t been as much of a problem up until recently, when doctors discovered her 16-year-old son's heart abnormality. Nearby doctors couldn’t determine what it was and referred them to specialists in Las Cruces about 50 minutes away.
Elena stays behind inside their trailer home, darkened by thick drapes that keep the desert sun out, while her husband, who has a work permit, drives to doctor's appointments.
“I can’t go with him,” she said of her son, crying. “I’m his mother — I’m supposed to be there for my kids and I can’t. It’s really tough on me.”
She also misses birthday dinners, back-to-school shopping trips, and her kid’s sports games, but she’s used to it, if not a little bored. She’s even considered going back to the beaches of her hometown in Mexico, but her husband keeps asking her to wait just a little longer for immigration reform.
“It’s hard, but no one has us here by force,” Elena said. “We’re here because we want to and we’ll figure out a way to live here one way or another.”
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