Postcards From the Edge

Rudy Adler steps into the den of his parents' house, a sprawling, ranch-style home in an old-moneyed section of Paradise Valley, and pulls up some scanned digital photos on his PowerBook.

"This is a nice one," he says, staring at a shot of what looks like an empty stretch of highway in the desert with seven men standing on the other side of the road, emerging from some bushes.

"We heard this story a lot when we were down there. Someone's standing lookout on one side of the highway, waiting for all the cars to disappear from sight. Then they give the signal, and all these guys come out from crouching in the bushes and run across the road. That's why we never saw any people while we were driving -- and we drove all around these highways all summer."

Then Adler comes upon his favorite, a shot of a young guy and his girlfriend standing sardine-like in one of the minuscule rooms the migrant houses -- temporary shelters used by Mexicans preparing to cross the U.S. border -- typically offer for couples. "You find a lot of these tiny, condensed rooms," Adler says. "It's really only big enough for a bed. But I love the way he's standing there, brushing his girlfriend's hair."

There's a certain dignity in the way the young woman holds her head up, smiling Mona Lisa-like, in the cramped, dimly lighted room, and devotion in the steady expression of the young man brushing her hair. Behind them, tacked up to a small shelf crowded with cologne and deodorant bottles, is a small banner that reads, in English -- and, for some reason, backward -- "God Bless America."

Adler, a graduate from the University of Arizona's business school, is reviewing the first seven rolls of film he's gotten back from an ambitious summer project he's just completed with Brett Huneycutt, a buddy he's known since elementary school in Phoenix, and Victoria Criado, a mutual friend.

The trio of scary-smart 24-year-olds -- Huneycutt's both a Rhodes and Fulbright scholar now pursuing an M.Phil. degree in economics at Oxford University near London, and Criado is a Puerto Rico-born prodigy who interned on the U.N. Business Council before taking a lucrative job as an analyst specializing in Latin American markets on Wall Street, where Adler also worked -- spent a good part of this summer tooling around the border towns from Arizona to Texas, passing out disposable cameras to Mexican migrants preparing to cross the desert.

It's an idea the three cooked up in the midst of shooting an amateur documentary film along the U.S.-Mexico border on illegal immigration. Long a hot topic in the Southwest, with an estimated 1.1 million illegal immigrants apprehended in the United States last year (and half of those entering at the Arizona border), the immigration issue began heating up again in September when Governor Janet Napolitano agreed to send the southern Arizona counties $1.5 million in emergency aid to step up law enforcement, repair fences along the border and, in a grisly subtext to the measure, handle "costs related to illegal immigrants' deaths." Since 1998, more than 2,500 people have died making that often four-day hike across the Sonoran Desert, some buried unceremoniously in unmarked graves in Tucson's Evergreen Cemetery.

Frustrated from trying to find a fresh angle from which to address the eternally debated topic, the three friends wondered: What if they could put cameras into the hands of the Mexicans preparing to cross the border themselves? Obviously they couldn't part with their $2,500 Panasonic camcorder -- placed in such desperate hands, that would only end up being re-sold to an American tourist before the end of the day.

But among them, they certainly had enough in savings to buy a bunch of $8 disposable cameras. What if, instead of completing the film documentary -- at least for the moment -- they passed out a few hundred single-use cameras and persuaded the migrants to take pictures of their adventure crossing the desert, and then send the cameras back, in enclosed, self-addressed stamped envelopes? There's a good chance whatever they got back would make for one killer art gallery exhibit.

That's how Adler, Huneycutt and Criado spent the better half of their summer vacations: passing out cameras in places known to shelter would-be illegal immigrants -- migrant houses, agencies providing water and desert-survival necessities, and even stores specializing in migrant gear, like backpacks and heavy-duty shoes -- instructing the migrants to use the cameras to document anything along their treacherous journeys they found significant. "Documenting the Undocumented" was the catchy title they gave the project to sell it to potential galleries.

Toward the last couple weeks of their project, they also began passing out cameras to the Minutemen, the controversial citizen-patrol group on the U.S. side whose volunteer members sit on lawn chairs all night and call the Border Patrol whenever they spot a migrant. In their early incarnation, the Minutemen attracted headlines for their forceful measures, which sometimes included lining up the migrants at gunpoint and waiting for Border Patrol to arrive (at one point, even President Bush called them "vigilantes"). Now, Adler says, the Minutemen pretty much just call in locations on their walkie-talkies and keep a lower profile -- although almost all of them still carry concealed-weapons permits, a fact not lost on the better-informed migrants.

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern