Greg Smith  /  Corbis Saba
Family from Mexico City is waiting in a sewer culvert to go to Los Angeles.
updated 3/29/2004 12:27:45 PM ET 2004-03-29T17:27:45

What makes people willing to risk their lives in pursuit of the American Dream?  And, do they achieve the dream when they get here? “Chasing the American Dream” includes rare footage of one Mexican family’s high-risk journey across the deserts of Arizona in search of a better life in America. Inspired by her experiences growing up in Los Angeles, National Geographic Ultimate Explorer host Lisa Ling explores the issues surrounding immigration into the United States, including looking at the lives of undocumented workers revitalizing dying heartland towns in such unexpected places as Oklahoma. 

Hispanic immigrants living illegally in the United States are estimated to contribute billions of dollars to the country’s economy each year, and their labor supports industries ranging from agriculture to manufacturing to food service. Many come to the United States to escape poverty, often working several low-wage jobs to earn money for both themselves and their families back home. But without proper documentation, these men and women struggle to live and work under the radar of immigration authorities.

It is a difficult life, fraught with low wages, long hours, bottom-of-the-ladder jobs, no healthcare and a deep-rooted tradition of exploitation. Yet despite the frustrations of living without documentation, an estimated half-million immigrants continue to risk their lives each year crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. More people have died crossing this border than died trying to cross the Berlin Wall during the Cold War.

Fact sheet: What you need to know about U.S.-Mexico immigration

  • One of out 20 working people in the U.S. are thought to be illegal. At least 55 percent of Mexican immigrants in this country are vulnerable to arrest and deportation at any moment.
  • As many as 10 million undocumented immigrants live in the U.S. More than 60 percent of them are Mexican.
  • The San Ysidro border in Southern California, just across from Tijuana, Mexico is the busiest international port of entry in the world. An average of 5,000 vehicles pass through San Ysidro every hour. There was a time when checkpoints like San Ysidro were the entrance of choice for illegal immigrants into the U.S. People used to just sprint across at will, but the laws changed in 1994.
  • Over the past ten years, the Federal Government has pumped more than 20 billion dollars into security at the four major border checkpoints: San Diego, Nogales, El Paso, and McAllen. But the number of illegal Mexican immigrants coming into the U.S. has actually climbed. They’re just not using the same door to get in.
  • An estimated 2 out of 3 people who try to cross the U.S.-Mexico border never make it. More than 2,000 immigrants have died in the wilderness since 1994.
  • In 2002, hospitals in Arizona provided more than $40 million in care to illegal immigrants and didn’t get reimbursed a penny from insurance companies or Medicaid. Jim Dickinson, Director of Copper Queen Hospital in Bisbee, Arizona, says they’ve seen almost a 500% increase in care they’ve had to render for immigrants that are coming from Mexico to the U.S.
  • Remittances from the U.S. are the second largest contributor to the Mexican economy – second only to oil. ($14.5 billion a year)

No matter how we come down on the issue of illegal immigration, it’s unlikely to disappear anytime soon. The truth is, we could build a fence from sea to shining sea, and still people would find a way into the promised land… as immigrants always have.

'National Geographic Explorer: Chasing the American Dream' premieres March 28, Sunday, 8 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

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