Jocelyne ZABLIT - The two teens had trekked in the Sonoran Desert’s searing heat for four days and were lost and almost out of water when border patrol agents in Arizona spotted them.

Now, hours after being deported back to Mexico, 19-year-old Rodriguo and his 17-year-old brother Jose sat quietly on a recent evening in El Comedor, a shelter in the town of Nogales within sight of the US border and its promise of a sweeter future.

Around them, some 60 other freshly deported migrants from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala waited, forlorn, for the evening meal served by charity workers.

“Tomorrow we go back home to Oaxaca (in southern Mexico) and we will tell our mother that we failed,” said Jose, who asked that the pair’s last name not be used.

“But we won’t give up, we will attempt the crossing again,” he added, matter-of-factly.

The shelter in Nogales, a town that straddles the US-Mexico border, is run by the Kino Border Initiative (KBI), a religious charity that offers migrants not only food but also legal advice, clothing and a much-needed dose of TLC.

Spend time talking to the men and women crammed on the benches of the one-room shelter - their faces etched with the hardships they have been through - and their stories bring forth the stark realities of the immigration debate that has roiled the US presidential campaign.

‘Dignified way of life’

“The people we help are coming to the United States to seek a more dignified way of life,” said Sean Carroll, a Jesuit priest and executive director of KBI, which runs El Comedor (dining hall in Spanish).

“These men and women literally cannot earn enough money to put food on the table for their families.”

For several of the migrants at El Comedor, it was not the first time they had attempted the dangerous journey to cross the border, putting their fate in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers and drug cartels that can charge upwards of $7,000 for the trip through the unforgiving desert.

Women are frequently sexually assaulted during the journey and many migrants go missing in the desert, where temperatures climb to 120 degrees (49 Celsius) in the summer.

Lost and desperate, some like Rodriguo and his brother end up hoping to be found by the border patrol agents who scour the frontier in vehicles, on horseback, on bicycle and on foot.

Tougher border security aided by better technology has pushed migrants into remote areas controlled by drug cartels, Carroll and other officials who work closely with migrants said.

And the recurring question raised during the US presidential campaign - why don’t immigrants just come legally? - is simply not an option for the overwhelming majority, they add.

A 20-year wait

“Many of the people we serve have no legal way at all or are faced with the prospect of waiting 15, 18, 20 years in order to even be considered for the possibility of coming legally,” Carroll said. “And some are fleeing serious violence.”

Nearly 64,000 migrants, including almost 8,000 juveniles, were arrested near the Arizona border in 2015 and 63 are known to have died attempting to cross, according to the US Border Patrol. Overall, 337,117 were arrested in 2015 along the southwest border with Mexico, the majority of them in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

Alicia Guevara Perez, a nun who has worked with KBI in Nogales for three years, said that while immigration has provided great fodder for politicians during the presidential campaign, one key element missing from the debate was the human aspect.

“In this room, everyday, we hear stories of suffering, pain and poverty,” she sighed. “People are dying of hunger and sickness and they believe that the only way out is to go to the United States.”

While aid officials and even migrants acknowledge that those coming to the United States may include some bad apples, they insist the overwhelming majority are simply fleeing violence and looking to eke out a living.

“They say we are here to steal and live off the system but I am willing to pay everything I owe,” said Margarita Gregorio, 38, from the Mexican state of Puebla. “I will sign any paper to that effect. They can take the taxes directly from my pay.”

Gregorio was arrested in Arizona after slipping into the US following a two-day trek in the desert earlier this month. She had worked as a cleaning woman in Wyoming for four years before returning to Mexico to see her two young sons, she said.

“I would earn less than $5 a day harvesting coffee beans in Puebla and it would be a seasonal job,” she said. “I need to feed my kids.”

Rudolpho Ramos, 47, who worked as a janitor in Minnesota for 17 years before going back to Mexico to see his family, and was also arrested trying to slip back into Arizona, said the migrant issue came down to a question of life and death. “It’s not like we have a choice if we want to survive,” he said.