Life for the Border Patrol is increasingly hectic and dangerous. On a recent night, calls poured in from all over -- groups of 30, 25, 10 migrants, coming from all directions. Only a third of those who cross are caught, agents say.
"A few years ago it wasn't so bad," said Border Patrol agent Jack Jeffreys. "Now you come to work and think, 'Maybe I won't be going home tonight.' "
Jeffreys was plowing through prickly pear in his Chevrolet Blazer, trying to catch a group of migrants outside Columbus. He jumped out and joined two other officers walking with flashlights.
They quickly found eight men, one woman and a 5-year-old boy hugging the ground. Their bags held Mexican passports, a cellphone with global positioning coordinates and water bottles full of raw garlic.
"They think garlic keeps away snakes," said agent Harry Brown. "A lot of these guys come from tropical environments and know nothing about the desert."
They were taken to a cramped processing facility in Columbus, fingerprinted and checked for criminal records. If the reports came back clean, they'd be released the next morning into Palomas.
"I came this way because it's easy," said Carlos Bueno, 35, nabbed while trying to reach Los Angeles. "There are too many police in Arizona."
The surge in illegal immigration here hasn't produced the vigilantism seen in Arizona, where armed citizens sometimes round up migrants. One reason is the relative dearth of people living along the border. The other is fear.
James Johnson helps run his family's 160,000-acre ranch with 15 miles bordering Mexico. Over the last few years, they've had their fences cut and their trucks stolen and seen smugglers ferry drugs over their land.
Vigilante groups have called offering their services.
"If we did that, it wouldn't be three weeks until one of our throats were slit," said Johnson, 29. "A lot of these vigilantes don't live on the border; they live in cities or towns where the people crossing don't know them. But these people know us."
Two years ago, he confronted some men in a truck on his property. "I asked what they were doing there," he said. "They pulled a gun, aimed it at me and said they could do whatever they wanted."
His father was robbed of his truck at gunpoint by men who fled to Palomas.
"I think 90% of the public thinks of the border as Tijuana or El Paso or the Rio Grande," he said. "They don't realize most of the border has no fence -- no markings at all."
The biggest border community on the U.S. side is Columbus, a town of about 1,700 people three miles north of Palomas. It's a place of sandstorms and trailer homes, with a tiny downtown that quickly melts into the surrounding desert. The local police department -- the chief and a pair of patrol officers -- operates out of a rented two-room office.
Chief Clare May sees cars blow through town at 100 mph with border agents in pursuit. Stolen vehicles litter the roadsides, and drug and immigrant trafficking is rife among those in his community. Calls for assistance, often related to illegal immigrants, jumped from 450 in 2003 to 900 last year.
"We have drop houses here that will charge illegal immigrants $50 a night and house 15 of them," he said.
Locals can earn $1,500 to $3,000 transporting 100 pounds of marijuana to Phoenix, or $1,500 to smuggle an immigrant, he said.
May has taken his M-4 automatic rifle out on calls to back up border agents.
"The federal authorities know we are inundated, but their focus is on Arizona," he said recently. "This doesn't have to be another March 9, 1916," he said, referring to a raid here by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa that left 18 Americans dead. "But if they get by me and get by the Border Patrol and customs, then they're coming to you."
Across the border in Palomas, men and women huddled under trees in the plaza, waiting for nightfall. Many had arrived in buses from other parts of Mexico.
"All these people want to do is work and to fill the jobs the Americans don't want," said Rodolfo Vazquez, owner of a barber shop overlooking the square.
Five young men with backpacks sat on a broken park bench. One had been caught the night before by the Border Patrol and released in the morning. He grinned as he swigged tequila from an old motor oil jug.
"Tonight I will try again," he said confidently. "This time I'll make it."
Word was out, the men said: Arizona was too tough to cross, and New Mexico was easy by comparison.
"I hear the ranchers [in Arizona] get paid for every one of us they turn in and go to jail if they don't turn us in," said a man from Veracruz who refused to give his name.
They were waiting for a yellow school bus that came every evening, taking migrants out past the American security cameras.
Luis Sanchez, 23, was heading for Miami.
"I can work there and save my money so someday I can go back to Oaxaca and live," he said. "It's beautiful in Oaxaca. I have my house and my life there, but there is no work, so I come here. Maybe it's the last chance for me."
A man strode over and whispered angrily to the group, warning them not to talk to strangers.
They got up, bent their heads and walked into the twilight, waiting for their ride north.