Learn about 3 migrants who died along the border

March 11, 2014 10:55AM ET

The six participants of ‘Borderland’ will walk in the footsteps of three people whose journeys ended in the desert

Customs and Border Protection
The case file for Nelson Omar Chilel López, one of three migrants whose lives the “Borderland” participants will explore.
Al Jazeera America

“Borderland” premieres Sunday, April 13 at 9E/6P

For Al Jazeera America's original series “Borderland,” the six participants were divided into groups of two to re-enact the journeys of three deceased migrants who attempted to cross the border into the United States. Learn about their lives below.

Nelson Omar Chilel López

Omar grew up amid the coffee farms of El Porvenir, Guatemala, a poverty-stricken area located about an hour south of the Mexican border. In search of higher-paying work, his mother, Fermina, left the family behind in 2006, crossing illegally into the United States and settling in Phoenix, Arizona. Omar’s older brother and older sister soon followed. Crushed by their separation, Omar persuaded his mother in 2010 to pay a "coyote" to lead him and an older family friend, Doña Teresa, through the Arizona desert. Omar was 13 at the time.

They crossed the desert in early July, the height of summer. Several days later, the "coyote" called Fermina to explain that on the first day, Doña Teresa fell behind and Omar chose to stay with her. The "coyote" told Fermina not to worry. He said that Border Patrol would pick them up and they would be fine. That summer, Arizona passed S.B. 1070, the strictest anti-immigration law in recent U.S. history. Fermina was afraid to report her missing son to the authorities because she was scared they might deport her. 

Almost two years later, the partial skeletal remains of an older woman and a young boy were found in southern Arizona. Through the work of Greg Hess’ team at the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office and the Guatemalan Consulate, Fermina was finally reunited with her son. Omar’s story is representative of a new trend on the border. In 2013 authorities apprehended nearly 14,000 minors, twice as many as in the previous year.

Claudeth Sanchez

Claudeth was the only daughter out of six siblings and her mom’s favorite. She was a bright, ambitious young woman who grew up near Tapachula in southern Mexico, the main gateway for Central Americans heading for the United States. The siblings grew up seeing people return to town from the U.S. loaded with money. Relatives say she was always restless at home, and after graduating from high school (and seeing many of her schoolmates leaving for the north), she decided to contact a local "pollero", or smuggler, to take her into the U.S. She wanted to make money to send back to the family. None of them had ever ventured north before. Her mother begged her not to go, but to no avail. 

After her departure, she made a last call home. She spoke with her brother Sami, on his birthday. She sang him “Happy Birthday.” She crossed into the U.S. from Altar, in northern Mexico. She and the smuggler both died in Pima County, where her dental records, her clothes and DNA tests confirmed that bones that had been found were hers. She was 21 when she died. 

Sami, who helped her prepare for her trip, finds it hard to come to terms with her death. He now volunteers at a women’s shelter and talks to groups of young locals about the perils of the journey, hoping to encourage them to try to make a life for themselves in Mexico.

Maira Zelaya

Whereas the other two migrants were crossing into the United States for the first time when they died, Maira had crossed before — nine years before — and spent the intervening years living among other undocumented Salvadorans in a quintessential American locale, Des Moines, Iowa. Her story is all too common under Barack Obama’s administration, which has deported a record 400,000 people each year

Maira’s mother emigrated from Usulutan, El Salvador, to Iowa in the 1980s to escape the violence of their country’s bloody civil war. Maira was a young girl at the time and stayed behind to take care of her aging grandmother. After her grandmother's death, Maira, then 30, decided to head for Iowa too, where she lived in the shadows, making minimum wage (if she was lucky) on after-hour cleaning crews at banks and office buildings. With her mother, Maira attended a Spanish-speaking Methodist church where nearly all the parishioners were Salvadoran. 

Then one morning in 2009, nine years after she arrived in Des Moines, immigration agents did a sweep of her apartment complex. They were looking for somebody else but they found Maira. Within weeks, she was deported back to El Salvador, where gang violence was terrorizing the country. Against her mother’s wishes, she decided to make the treacherous journey again, paying a smuggler to guide her through the Arizona desert. She never made it. Despite the efforts of a fellow traveler who risked his life carrying her to Border Patrol agents, Maira died at age 39.

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