Ten times,Adrian Calderon swam the Rio Grande in the dark trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States, carrying nothing more than an extra pair of jeans in a duffel bag. Ten times, he was turned back by border patrol officers. Finally, he had had enough. Standing on the banks of the river, he stared at the water. In disgust, he threw his bag into the current and watched it wash away, along with his hope of earning enough money to buy the equipment to work as an optometrist, a career he had been training for in Mexico City.

“I gave up,” Calderon says. “I was so tired.” He went home to Lazaro Cardenas, Mexico, but his father encouraged him to try one more time. That time, he made it across, guided by a coyote, a man he paid $540 to lead him across the desert. It was 1983; he was 20 years old.

“We would walk at night and jump under bushes like rats when we would see immigration planes,” he recalls now, years after he abandoned his plans of being an optometrist and went to work for Dallas home builder Charles Breckenridge, owner of Breckenridge Luxury Homes. He now serves as the company's quality control inspector. “I didn't realize how dangerous [the trip] was,” he adds, shaking his head. “I don't know how I did it.”

It is a story told time and again by men and women, some of them little more than children when they made their journeys. Most were desperate to escape grinding poverty and willing to risk their lives and endure any sacrifice to provide for their families. Others fled Central American countries torn by violent battles between the government and rebel fighters, such as the 36-year civil war in Guatemala that officially ended in 1996.

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Concrete workers from Fredericksburg, Va., (right) march toward the White House, proclaiming support for a guest worker program and fair labor practices. More than half of day laborers, for example, in the Washington area have experienced at least one instance of nonpayment or a bad check from an employer, and one-third have been abandoned on job-sites, according to a UCLA study. Julio  left his family in Guatemala two years ago and rode 16 days in a van before arriving on U.S. soil. The majority of day laborers have been in the country less than five years.
Concrete workers from Fredericksburg, Va., (right) march toward the White House, proclaiming support for a guest worker program and fair labor practices. More than half of day laborers, for example, in the Washington area have experienced at least one instance of nonpayment or a bad check from an employer, and one-third have been abandoned on job-sites, according to a UCLA study. Julio left his family in Guatemala two years ago and rode 16 days in a van before arriving on U.S. soil. The majority of day laborers have been in the country less than five years.

Immigrant workers solicit a would-be employer at an informal day labor gathering spot. While many day laborers have had access to formal education in their native countries, their lack of English fluency—and, in many cases, their illegal status—makes career advancement an uphill struggle.
Immigrant workers solicit a would-be employer at an informal day labor gathering spot. While many day laborers have had access to formal education in their native countries, their lack of English fluency—and, in many cases, their illegal status—makes career advancement an uphill struggle.

At 17, Darwin Fuentes (right) was sent north by his family in search of a higher wage than the standard take-home pay of $5 per day in his native El Salvador. Once in the United States, he spent more than $7,000 on attorney fees and filing penalties in a green card application process that lasted nine years (he obtained legal status in 2004). Fuentes works as a forklift operator, carpenter, and de facto translator for ACE Carpentry in Beltsville, Md. His Salvadoran wife, Mayra, works for a mortgage company and is training to be a loan officer. They have two boys: Darwin Jr. (left) and Walter (right). “I still send money home to my mom in El Salvador,” says Fuentes. “It's hard to live there.”
At 17, Darwin Fuentes (right) was sent north by his family in search of a higher wage than the standard take-home pay of $5 per day in his native El Salvador. Once in the United States, he spent more than $7,000 on attorney fees and filing penalties in a green card application process that lasted nine years (he obtained legal status in 2004). Fuentes works as a forklift operator, carpenter, and de facto translator for ACE Carpentry in Beltsville, Md. His Salvadoran wife, Mayra, works for a mortgage company and is training to be a loan officer. They have two boys: Darwin Jr. (left) and Walter (right). “I still send money home to my mom in El Salvador,” says Fuentes. “It's hard to live there.”

Almost universally, their journeys involve paying coyotes who congregate in towns along the U.S.-Mexican border, today charging thousands of dollars for a dangerous journey through miles of desert, often on foot, without even the barest essentials for survival. Robbery, rape, and death are horrifying, yet all-too-common, possibilities along the way.

For those who make it to safety, the real struggle then begins: to find shelter, food, and—the ultimate goal—work. A job is vital not only for life's essentials but also to pay debts to the coyotes, who don't hesitate to threaten the travelers' loved ones to ensure payment.

“The coyote lives in the area where I live in Mexico, so he knows where to find me,” says Imelda Olguin, 45, from Hidalgo, Mexico, who has made the border crossing twice to support her children after a divorce left her with nothing. “It's better to pay to avoid problems.”

FAMILY MATTERS Mickey Hernandez, 24, a project manager for Legacy Homes in Dallas, explains why undocumented immigrants are willing to make extreme sacrifices, break the law, and literally risk their lives for the chance to work in the United States. Born in Puerto Rico, Hernandez came to this country on a college baseball scholarship and had a brief stint in the minor leagues before switching to home building last year.

“Family is everything in the Hispanic culture,” he says. “They feel very proud of what they provide their families, like a color TV.” If they can't provide for their families on the wages they can earn locally, they will go anywhere they can find work. A day laborer working on a landscaping crew in Atlanta can make $10 an hour; in Mexico, the same kind of work might only pay $1.20 an hour.

“Here, even if we just work one day, we can survive for a week,” says Juan Gomez, 45, of Hidalgo, Mexico, who came to the United States in 2004 and sends money home to his wife and a daughter he hasn't seen since she was 4 months old. “In Mexico, I can work always and hardly survive. And there are more possibilities to find jobs here than in Mexico.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Dallas, TX.