For the past ten years, I have focused on documenting the human, social and environmental issues that face the Americas. I found myself especially drawn to the plight of immigrants in the border area that divides Mexico and the United States.

Of all the borders dividing the US with Mexico, the city of Nogales has seen the largest number of undocumented migrants during the last decade. After all, the city lies on both sides of the border, making it a truly international city. Sadly, it also has the most recovered remains of migrants who perished in the extreme conditions of the southern Arizona desert in their attempted crossing.

Due to increased border enforcement, the number of migrants from Mexico entering the US illegally has plummeted in recent years (despite a certain political figure’s infamous claims to the contrary). Many are caught; many more give up long before crossing the border. Since 2005, the US has spent billions on border security, and there is evidence that the spending has significantly deterred illegal border crossing. As a result, the Department of Homeland Security estimated in 2015 that the probability of getting caught by the border patrol is 54 percent, up from about 36 percent in 2005.

Many of the migrants deported to the Mexican side end up at the San Juan Bosco shelter in Nogales, Sonora, a quiet neighborhood just south of the border. The shelter, which is operated by Francisco and Gilda Loureiro with the help of their family and private donations since 1982, is open daily for those who were deported by border patrol and dumped back in Mexico. Despite the fact that fewer migrants try to cross into the US, the misery of those who do is shocking, and their suffering is profound.

Over the past three years, I have photographed both sides of the border in Nogales. I followed deported migrants as well as people who tried to cross the border in an attempt to find work or reunite with families living in the US. I wanted to know more about these people—often referred to as migrants or illegals—and learn why they risk their lives to cross the unforgiving desert. We are all familiar with their plight, as we have seen many photographs depicting migrants on their route. In my photographs, I put the focus on their faces. I hope to create an emotional connection between the viewer and the subject while simultaneously evoking interest in their individual stories.

—Petra Barth

Editors’ Note: “The Backpackers” will be exhibited at the Biennale in Venice from May 13 to November 26, 2017. The series was also shown at the HCP (Houston Center of Photography) from July 22 to September 4, 2016.

If you liked this article, here are a few more to explore: The Human Apart, David Molina’s documentation of the items left behind by migrants at the border of Hungary and Serbia; Souvid Datta’s Calais: Jungle Life, which chronicles the stories of people living in the now-defunct Calais Jungle; and Kirill Golovchenko’s Bitter Honeydew, a series on migrants from places like Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia who sell fruit at a late-night roadside market near the Black Sea.