• Migrants set out to cross the US-Mexico border. (SBS Dateline)
As Trump pushes forward with his Mexican wall, Dateline meets those still desperate to cross the border and chase the American dream. But what awaits them, if they make it through alive?
Tuesday, November 7, 2017 - 21:30

NOTE: Apologies, but this story is no longer available for copyright reasons - you can however read the transcript below.

Construction of US president Donald Trump’s controversial border wall has commenced.

The wall has become a symbol of the Trump administration’s program to stem undocumented immigration from the south.

This week on Dateline, reporter Stef Biemans follows migrants as they travel north through Mexico, in a desperate and dangerous bid to reach the US, before the border becomes more fortified than it already is and the journey more dangerous.

“We’ll be cold, hungry, thirsty, it’s agony,” one migrant tells Dateline. “But the need to get there gives us the strength to keep going.”

For decades, the US has made efforts to better secure its southern border – a national security policy the Trump administration has adopted and amplified.

The first federally funded border walls between Mexico and the USA were constructed in the 1990s, along the southern edge of California. The purpose was largely to direct migrants east towards the desert. During the late 1990s and 2000s sections of fencing were built along the Arizona border with Mexico, which had become the main source of border apprehensions, as well as the New Mexico border. In recent years, most migrants coming from Mexico and Central America try to cross into the US further east, through Texas.

Donald Trump’s planned border wall, which was mandated via an executive order on his fifth day as president, would plug many of these gaps along the Texas border – if the administration is able to secure permission to build on private property.

One popular route for migrants is via the Sonoran Desert, which stretches tens of thousands of square kilometres – covering parts of Arizona, California and several states in Mexico’s northwest.

The conditions in the desert are brutal. Humane Borders, which maintains a system of water stations for migrants in the desert, estimates 170 people died crossing the desert in 2016.

Ely-Marisela Ortiz’s brother and cousin died there in 2010 – after they were left in the desert by people smugglers. Each month, he and a team of volunteers called the Eagles of the Desert drive to the Sonoran and other deserts along the border, searching for migrants they can help. Often what they find are the remains of migrants, who’ve perished in the desert.

“It happened six years ago, but I can't forget it,” Ely says of his brother and cousin. “Every time we find a body, those images come up again.”

Another team of volunteers search the desert for very different reasons.

Members of the white supremacist National Socialist Movement’s Arizona branch dress in military garb and patrol the desert, hoping to capture immigrants and hand them over to US authorities.

Harry, a member who Dateline filmed with, drives a ute around the desert with a rifle and swastika-emblazoned flag. He says it’s an “active area” for migrants.

Despite the dangers of trying to reach the US, in towns across Mexico there is no shortage of migrants preparing to make the treacherous journey.

Altar, a small town which has been called the ‘migrant oasis’, the last stop for many hopeful migrants trying to reach the US by crossing into Arizona.

Locals in the town sell special fleece soles that migrants can attach to their shoes to stop them from leaving footprints, which is what many Border Patrol officers look for. Many migrants also buy large black water bottles, which are less reflective than regular bottles and hence less likely to attract attention.

But to even get to a town near the border such as Altar, people often travel thousands of kilometres by foot. In the southern Mexican town Chahuites, far from the US border, a migrant called Osman tells Dateline he’s travelled almost 1,000 kilometres from Honduras on foot, passing through Guatemala. His feet are covered in blisters – he’s still 3,000 kilometres away from the border.

It’s a long and risky journey, and many don’t make it. Even for those who do, life’s not always what they hoped for.

“I thought I could really make it here,” one of the Eagles of the Desert members told Dateline. “I haven't been able to live out my dreams.”

“We’re humiliated, mistreated and underpaid here.”

“It's not the American dream if you don't achieve what you hoped to.”

Watch the full story at the top of the page.


Border walls are ineffective, costly and fatal - but we keep building them
There is a proven correlation between the fortification of borders and the number of people who die trying to cross them.
The environmental costs of Trump's wall
Trump's wall will threaten 111 endangered species and pass through important wildlife reserves on both sides of the border.


Reporter / Director: Stef Biemans

Camera: Pim Hawinkels

Sound: Sander den Broeder

Producer: Barbara Smit

Editor: Femke Klein Obbink

Commissioning Editor: Stan van Engelen

Grading: Gerhard van der Beek

Post Producer: Anastassia Smirnova

Additional Editing: Micah McGown


SONG (Translation):  When I left my country El Salvador with the intention of reaching the United States, I knew that courage alone wouldn't be enough and that I stood a good chance of dying along the way.

The 5000 kilometres I travelled I can remember every step of the way. Now that my status is finally legal I've done well after the suffering I had to endure this song is for all people without documents and everyone who has gone through the same ordeal.

REPORTER:  Are we in Mexico or the states?

MAN:  The United States, Houston, Texas.

WOMAN:  Houston, Texas, home of the Texans.

REPORTER:  And you feel more Texan or Mexican?

MAN:  Texan.

REPORTER:  Really?

MAN:  Definitely.

REPORTER:  Could you say that you are the generation of immigrants that are living the American dream?

WOMAN:  Absolutely, yeah.

REPORTER:  You're living it?

WOMAN:  Yes, Sir. My parents worked hard to educate my sisters and myself. They worked in the fields, in the farm. So that to me meant that my parents were doing everything they could to raise myself and my family. Yeah.

REPORTER:  What about you, are you living the American Dream?

MAN:  Oh yeah.  Definitely. I mean we’ve gone through school here. I don’t know what living Mexico is. I don’t think I could live over there. But I love the USA, I’m more American than anything, I’m proud to be an American. I’m an American citizen and I love it here.

For many migrants, this right here is the American dream, a national ethos where anyone can work hard for a chance at a better life, as long as you can make it across the border.

REPORTER (Translation):  Do a lot of migrants pass through here? They do?

MAN (Translation):  Lots walk past here every day. But not me! My family lives on the other side.

REPORTER (Translation):  How do you feel about the wall?

MAN (Translation):   It's great. It's a big help.

REPORTER (Translation):   Why?

MAN (Translation):   It keeps our cattle from straying.

The first border fences between Mexico and the USA went up in the late 1990s, redirecting migrant traffic into the desert. Trump's new wall will plug the gaps. So south of the border the race is on. I'm going there.

OFFICER:  Hello, gentlemen - are you US citizens?

REPORTER:  No, from the Netherlands.

To Mexico and the start of the most heavily used human migration route on earth…  I want to find migrants on their way to the American dream, before Trump makes this desert crossing near impossible. This town is a last stop for thousands of hopefuls on their way to illegally crossing to the US. From here it's a 3-day walk at least.

MAN (Translation):   Do you think it’s too big?

SALESMAN (Translation):   It has to be big.

REPORTER (Translation):     What are those for?

MAN (Translation):    To avoid leaving any tracks.

REPORTER (Translation):   To prevent footprints? Why?

MAN (Translation):    Because the Border Patrol can track our footprints. It’s not usually people they look out for, but footprints. 

REPORTER (Translation):   What do you put under the sole?

SALESMAN (Translation): Fleece. It leaves no tracks.

MAN (Translation):   We used to buy white bottles, but they were too reflective. The Border Patrol, you know…These ones attract less attention.  We’ll be cold, hungry and thirsty. It's agony. But the need to get there gives us the strength to keep going.

About 10,000 people have died along the US-Mexico border since the '90s. In this church there's a map of the desert where each dot represents a deceased border crossing. There is also a special prayer dedicated to migrants. It's the last bit of peace they'll face before either making it to the other side, being caught, or worse.

SONG (Translation):  Let us walk this path together for there are so many things, I can tell you about my country.

MAN (Translation):   Is this where your crossing starts?

REPORTER (Translation):  Over there?  Well, good luck! Take care

Walking is the most common way to get to the US from Mexico.

OSMAN (Translation):   Will it hurt?

MAMA RUBY (Translation):   A tiny bit.

OSMAN (Translation):   Then I’ll brace myself.

In this village, Mama Ruby makes a living from battered feet.

MAMA RUBY (Translation):   So I'll get started now. It will hurt a bit, okay?

These blistered ones belong to Osman who has travelled north from Honduras by foot. That's almost 1,000km away.

OSMAN (Translation):    It hurts!

MAMA RUBY (Translation):   I know sweetie.

Osman left his family behind in the hope of reaching the US. He still has another 3,000km to go before the border.

MAMA RUBY (Translation):   I have to do it because your blister has broken.  But remember why you left your country and who you left behind there, your family. Think of your American dream and once you cross the border, work hard with your head high. OK?

OSMAN (Translation):    Yes. Thank you.

MAMA RUBY (Translation):   No, it’s my pleasure.  Just a bit more.  Easy now.

To speed things up, some test their fortune by riding on the Beast, a train that runs straight across Mexico, all the way to the American border. It can save a long walk that can take more than a month.

MAN (Translation):   It's better to take the train here, they don't patrol further ahead.

OSMAN (Translation):   Where is the best place to run?

MAN (Translation):   Over there. It’s not moving so fast there. Down there it rushes by. Here it’s still going slowly.

OSMAN (Translation):   I saw that too.

MAN (Translation):   The only problem is they use dogs up ahead. They were searching one of the carriages there yesterday.

OSMAN (Translation):   Then we'll head that way. Thanks. Call the others too.

REPORTER (Translation):    You're nervous, aren't you?

OSMAN (Translation):    A bit.

REPORTER (Translation):   What are you worried about?

OSMAN (Translation):    Falling off the train.

REPORTER (Translation):   Are you sure you want to go?

OSMAN (Translation):    Yes.

REPORTER (Translation):   You seem very young to go on such a long journey. Aren’t you?

OSMAN (Translation):    I don’t know.

REPORTER (Translation):   Don’t you think he is young?

MAN (Translation):   All I can say is that he should keep his spirits up. It may get rough, but we'll make it with God's help.

REPORTER (Translation):   Will you look after him?

MAN (Translation):   If we're together.

REPORTER (Translation):   When is the train coming?

MAN (Translation):   We don't know exactly when, but it won't be long now.

Osman's here too, taking his chances on a train alongside others, including Isai, a young man from El Salvador.

REPORTER (Translation):  Isai, good luck. I hope your dreams will come true.

Sadly enough, Isai's dreams did not become a reality. He didn't survive his journey to the US. He was caught by border guards and then deported back to El Salvador. He was then murdered by a street gang. But at least Isai's family knows what happened to him. Countless others never find out the fate of their loved ones. Many die on the way and never get found. I'm now back in the US with a group called the Eagles of the Desert.

ELY-MARISELA ORTIZ, EAGLES OF THE DESERT (Translation):  What's up? Did you find something?

Migrants who have made it and look for those who haven't.

EAGLE OF THE DESERT (Translation): There's a body here, friend. It's two hundred yards right of the blue flag.

ELY-MARISELA ORTIZ (Translation):  We’re some 50 meters away now. Already there’s a strong odour.

REPORTER (Translation):   I can smell it.

ELY-MARISELA ORTIZ (Translation):  Let's go over there. I don't know how well prepared you are to see a body in a state of decomposition.

REPORTER (Translation):  Have you seen one?

ELY-MARISELA ORTIZ (Translation):  Several times. I suffered emotional trauma when I found my relatives.

REPORTER (Translation):  Your relatives?

ELY-MARISELA ORTIZ (Translation):  My brother and cousin just like this. It happened six years ago, but I can't forget it. Every time we find a body, those images come up again.

EAGLE OF THE DESERT (Translation): It looks like he came from a good family. His teeth are in good condition. Or he could be young. His skull is quite small.And his hands, the way he’s dressed...

REPORTER (Translation):  How long has he been out here?

ELY-MARISELA ORTIZ (Translation):  About two or three weeks.

REPORTER (Translation):  That long?

ELY-MARISELA ORTIZ (Translation):  Yes. It can't be any longer, or there’d be less flesh left on his bones. Like on his skull. But there's still some on his body. His ribs have been almost picked clean by the animals.  I think it was his first attempt. He didn't know the area yet. There's a water tank down there.  This boy probably thought people were camping there.

REPORTER (Translation):  He was afraid.

ELY-MARISELA ORTIZ (Translation):  Possibly. Afraid of being handed over to the Border Patrol.

REPORTER (Translation):  Is making this journey worth it if this can happen to you?

ELY-MARISELA ORTIZ (Translation):  Of course not.

REPORTER (Translation):  But Has it been worth it for you?

ELY-MARISELA ORTIZ (Translation):  I thought I could really make it here.  But that didn't really...I haven't been able to live out my dreams. We’re humiliated, mistreated and underpaid here. It's not the American dream if you don't achieve what you hoped to.

REPORTER (Translation):  Your dream was never fulfilled?

ELY-MARISELA ORTIZ (Translation):    Not really.

It's now up to the Arizona authorities to identify this boy so that someone in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras, someone can start their mourning process. This isn't the only group patrolling the desert on this side of the border. Vigilantes look for migrants and hand them over to the US authorities.

PHONE MESSAGE:  You’ve reached the National Socialist Movement. We’re the only political party in America dedicated to white interests and a proud heritage that our nation was founded on. White America’s solution to the problem is the national socialist movement.

HARRY, NATIONAL SOCIALIST MOVEMENT: Where they at boo? You go and get them? You go find something?

REPORTER:   Is this a good area to hunt for immigrants?

HARRY: Ummm… Generally it’s… it’s a hit and miss. We never really know for sure but this has been an active area. This is the icon of juggling human smuggling in Arizona.

WOMAN:   Are you picking it up? Or you’re leaving it there?

HARRY: I think my German Shepherd wants a new chew toy so we are going to keep this one.

WOMAN:   Blondie loves those things.

REPORTER:   You have a German Shepherd called Blondie?

WOMAN:   He does. But every time he brings one home, she just plays with it four hours.

REPORTER:   Why is she called Blondie?

HARRY:   Uhh… because I inherited Blondie. The previews owner named her that.

REPORTER:   Was his name Adolf Hitler?

HARRY: He had a dog named Blondie, but the spelling is a little different.  I spell mine IE.

REPORTER:   You are not a fan of Hitler?

HARRY: I’m not a fan of really anybody.  A lot of people… I studied from him. I learned from him. But I wouldn’t say I was a fan. I’m not a fan of any of our political leaders in this country simply because they’ve systematically betrayed us at every twist and turn of the game.

REPORTER:   But you’ve studied him?

HARRY: Oh yes.

REPORTER:   So Blondie is going to play with it.

HARRY: She’s going to chew it to pieces.

REPORTER:   What are you making Harry?

HARRY: I got beef brisket, and I have kind of a chilli here, there’s a combination of things. There are some jalapeños, black beans, and uhh.

REPORTER:   Chilli con carne?

HARRY: Kind of. Yeah.

REPORTER:   Isn’t that Mexican food?

HARRY: Uh in some cases yes.

REPORTER:   It doesn’t matter?

HARRY: I don’t have a problem with eating burritos, and I like chillies and Tortillas, there’s nothing wrong with those foods.

REPORTER:   I eat a lot of beans, because I am married to a Nicaraguan woman. Could she be part of your movement?

HARRY: We have criteria. One: You have to be white.

REPORTER:   She’s not white.

HARRY: Well, that’s one of our criteria but we accept only people who are white.

REPORTER:   Could I, married to a non- white person, be part of your organization?

HARRY: We probably wouldn’t encourage it, no.


HARRY: It would be awkward.

REPORTER:   When would it be awkward?

HARRY: Well. If she came to one of our events it would be awkward.


HARRY: Because we’re only open to white people, so if you bring a non-white spouse…No, you couldn’t join our organization either.



REPORTER:   Is this your flag?

HARRY: Yes, this is our flag.

REPORTER:  Can I open it?

HARRY: Sure.


HARRY:  Woooh. Yeah! That’s an attention getter. Isn’t it? Yeah, there’s a… cultural symbol on here.


HARRY:  It’s been around for some five thousand years. It’s been around. The Hindus use it. The national socialists of Germany used it.It’s a symbol that is synonymous of anti-communism. That’s why we still use it.

REPORTER:  Is it legal to use it here?

HARRY: Oh, sure.

REPORTER:  Because in the Netherlands it’s not.

HARRY: Yeah, they probably wouldn’t let me in.


HARRY: I’d probably get stopped at the border.


HARRY: Although I’m not really a Nazi.

REPORTER:  Not really?

HARRY: Well, Nazi is a European thing and I’m a national socialist here in United States, there’s a difference.

REPORTER:  I am a little bit out of words after seeing your flag. OK I’ll let you just enjoy your Mexican meal.

Many months after I started this film, I was relieved to hear one of the migrants I met in Mexico had crossed the border. Osman, who I originally met at the food clinic, is one of the lucky ones.

OSMAN (Translation):   How are you?

REPORTER (Translation):  I’m so happy to see you. Is this where you work?

OSMAN (Translation):   Yes, I work here.

But is he living the American dream?

REPORTER (Translation):  Osman, do you have a work permit?

OSMAN (Translation):     No, no.

REPORTER (Translation):     Then how can you work here?

OSMAN (Translation):    There are lots of undocumented immigrants here and you can always find work because they pay us less than people who are legal.

REPORTER (Translation):   Aren't you afraid that you will be arrested by the authorities?

OSMAN (Translation):    Everyone who does this has to live with that fear. You always have to be very cautious. It's always at the back of your mind. You need to be on your best behaviour here. If you make even the tiniest mistake while you're here you'll be arrested and deported.

SONG:  He’s a red blooded true blue American Boy…

OSMAN’S CHILD (Translation):   I've never been to the movies.

Osman made it to the US but he may not see his children for many years or even decades.

OSMAN’S CHILD (Translation):   I want to go to the cinema to see the movie Captain America.

OSMAN (Translation):   You can go with Mommy. I miss you a lot, son.

OSMAN’S CHILD (Translation):   Me too. 

SONG: He’s a red blooded true blue American Boy…

I don't know wherever it's because I'm married to a Nicaraguan woman or because I saw the determination in their eyes, but it's hard not to have respect for Central American migrants in pursuit of the American dream. Trump's wall may change things for a while but despite their illegal status I expect they will continue to find a way to keep the dream alive.

stef biemans

pim hawinkels

barbara smit

story editor
femke klein obbink

post producer
anastassia smirnova

additional editing
micah mcgown

micah mcgown
simon phegan
david potts

titles music
vicki Hansen

7th November2017