by John de Dios
Written by Nohemi Ramirez / Arizonanewsservice.com
They struggled through the spiny desert and felt the harshness of cold winter nights, all before getting caught by U.S. Border Patrol agents and sent back to Mexico.
And now Sofia Torres, 36, her niece Sandra Torres, 20, and Aurora Angeles, 45, sit disappointed in a shelter in Nogales, Sonora, after getting caught when they attempted to cross the U.S./Mexico border illegally.
They are not the only women who try to cross to the U.S. through the Sonoran Desert. The number of female border crossers jumped 37 percent from 1994 to 1998, according to a continuing study by University of Arizona anthropologist Anna Ochoa O'Leary.
O'Leary pointed to a 2006 study that showed that 48 percent of the people who move to or who try to cross the border illegally through Nogales, Sonora, are women. She cited the decline in the Mexican economy and said that it all seemed to begin with the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"With NAFTA they disrupted a lot of the economies in rural and impoverished parts of Mexico," she said.
So women increasingly cross into the United States to try to earn money to survive.
Standing next to a bunk bed inside the girls' room of San Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, the three women—all from the Mexican state of Hidalgo—said they were aware of the difficulties they might encounter crossing into the United States, but the prospect of jobs was too enticing.
"It's because in Mexico, (it's) the minimum (wage), and with the minimum people can't live," Sofia Torres said. "I wanted to earn more to give the best to my children."
Sofia Torres made the 35-hour bus trip with her niece Sandra to Sonoyta, Sonora, where they were to meet the coyote who would smuggle them into Arizona. It was their first attempt.
While travelling, they met Angeles, who had the same plan. They said they were three of the five women who tried to cross with a group of about 35 men. They said they do not know what happened to the other two women.
"We were in the wilderness; there were a lot of branches," Angeles said about the trip through the desert. "I had gloves and a hat because my son told me the desert is dangerous because the branches hit you in the face."
After walking a couple of hours in the desert, they stopped to wait for the smuggler to provide directions, and that's when the Border Patrol found them.
The Torres women were planning to go to Oakland, Calif., where they were to meet with family members who would help them find jobs. Angeles was headed to Oregon, where her son lives.
"A lot of our friends have crossed," Sofia said. "They have their houses. They have built houses for their parents. They have progressed."
Hilda Lourerio, founder of the San Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, said that the number of women in the shelter has increased in recent years.
"A lot more women," she said. "I think since three years ago."
Her shelter has helped deported migrants for 28 years. It offers dinner and breakfast, beds to sleep in and showers for men, women and children who find the shelter, Lourerio said.
It serves about 40 women and 100 men a day.
The women who cross the desert know that the risks are enormous.
"They can get hurt," O'Leary said. "They can die. They can get attacked. They can be sexually assaulted. Even if they don't die of thirst, they can cause damage to the organs."
Women are 2.7 times more likely to die in the desert than men, she added.
The women said there are even more dangers.
Angeles said she was kicked in the stomach by one of the Border Patrol agents.
"It took out the air from me," she said.
The three women said agents also could not control their horses, and a couple of the people in their group were kicked and hurt.
Jose de Jesus Gomez, an migrant at the shelter, said he believes it is more dangerous for women to cross the desert because they are exposed to abuse that men don't have to worry about.
"It's very dangerous because they can get raped," Gomez said. "The majority of the smugglers use drugs and when someone is on drugs and they see a woman, the first thing they think about is you know what."
Despite the risks, women still attempt to cross into the United States in search of a better life. Many of them try again and again.
As for the Torres women and Angeles, they were waiting for their families to send them money so they could return home. The $400 each of them saved to make their trip is gone.
"Thank God we are here to talk about it; not like others," Sofia said. "We are now returning to our towns."
Nohemi Ramirez is a junior at the UA School of Journalism and the Spanish editor for El Independiente, the bilingual newspaper that covers the City of South Tucson, Ariz.