There are about 11-12 million undocumented (or illegal) immigrants in the United States.
So how do they enter the country?
1. Legal Entry: Believe it or not, many undocumented immigrants actually start out as legal immigrants. They obtain a legitimate visa and pass through immigration control at the airport or at a border checkpoint. They become undocumented immigrants when they remain in the country after their visa has expired.
Examples: Someone from China comes to the U.S. on a tourist visa, but does not fly home when the tourist visa expires. A Canadian enters on an H1-B temporary work visa, but remains in the country after the visa’s 3-year term. Someone from Senegal enters the U.S. on an F-1 student visa and continues living and working in the country illegally after graduation. A person from Ireland enters on a J-1 summer work visa and stays in the country illegally after the term of the J-1 expires.
2. Illegal Entry: Other undocumented immigrants enter the U.S. without legitimate documentation. To do this, they may present a fake green card at a border checkpoint, walk for 1-7 days through the desert along the U.S.-Mexico border, or travel on a makeshift raft from a Caribbean island to the shores of Florida.
How can someone cross the U.S.-Mexico border and walk through the Arizona desert without getting caught by Border Patrol? It’s not easy. Most who enter through the desert generally pay guides—so-called coyotes and polleros—to walk them through the most remote, uninviting, and least patrolled areas of the desert. This means hiking up and down mountains in temperatures of up to 115 degrees for three, four, or five days. The trek is extremely dangerous, and the cost of hiring a coyote generally ranges from $2000-$5000—equivalent to about a year’s salary in the Mexican or Central American communities where many undocumented crossers originate. For a fantastic account of what it’s like to cross through the desert, check out one of my favorite books, The Devil’s Highway.