During the mid-1990s, the Border Patrol attempted to deal with illegal immigration by sealing off the crossings opposite San Diego, El Paso and the other cities along the Mexican border. Officials of the Clinton administration figured that the problem was solved because no sane person would brave the Sonora-Arizona desert with its murderous heat and lack of water. They were tragically wrong. Hundreds of people die in the desert each year, but they continue to cross, in search of a better life and the means to feed their families.
Margaret Regan, a reporter based in Tucson, wrote The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands as a connected series of stories about deaths, near deaths and rescue attempts of migrants in the desert, but touching on all aspects of the border situation. She did not directly advocate a policy, but her accumulation of human stories has a powerful and mind-changing impact.
The stories that touched me the most were several different incidents when illegal migrants summoned the Border Patrol for help when one of their party was sick or injured, sacrificing their own chances of entering the United States even when the other person was a stranger.
The book’s title is based on the story of Josseline Hernandez, a 14-year-old girl from El Salvador, who crossed the border with her 9-year-old brother. Her mother worked illegally in California and her father in Maryland at low-wage jobs; she lived with relatives until her parents saved enough money to pay for her trip north with trusted friends.
Josseline knew nothing of what to expect or how to dress for the desert, which can be freezing cold (as it was then) or unbearably hot. When she became sick and couldn’t keep up, the “coyote” (guide) went on without her. He told her the Border Patrol would be sure to rescue her.
This didn’t happen. Weeks later her body was found by a member of No More Deaths, one of the volunteer organizations that sets out water and food along the likely migrant trails. No More Deaths reports that 1,755 bodies were found along the Arizona border over a 10-year period, and more than 5,000 along the U.S. southwest border as a whole over a 15-year period. This is a count of bodies, not deaths; nobody knows how many bodies were never found.
Josseline’s mother couldn’t accept the fact her daughter was dead, and an unscrupulous coyote claimed to know of her whereabouts, which he would disclose, for a fee. Only after a DNA test did she give up hope.
Why would loving parents subject their daughter to such risk? Regan did not describe the individual circumstances of Josseline’s parents, but it is hard to survive economically in El Salvador or any of the other countries that are sources of migrants. These countries suffer not only from internal conflicts, but from the influx of subsidized U.S. grain, which has wiped out small farmers in the region. Free trade agreements with the United States were supposed to make it possible for Mexico and Central America to create export industries that would employ their people, but this didn’t happen.
If the United States had a guest worker program, under which Josseline’s parents could have entered the United States legally on temporary visas, they could have gone back for their daughter. But with the closed border, illegal migrants don’t dare leave because they might not get back.
I was struck by how many of Regan’s stories were about migrants were from El Salvador, Guatemala and other central American countries rather than Mexico itself. There must be some sort of known system, maybe even an underground railroad, for getting past guards on Mexico’s southern border, traversing Mexico’s 2,000 miles from south to north, crossing the U.S. border and then traveling within the United States to their destination. As a friend of mine said, this is a whole shadow world that is all around us, and which affects our lives, but of which we are unaware.
Much of the book is about the impact of the reverse Berlin Wall the United States has built along its southern border. I was tempted to write that the East Germans were more successful at keeping people in than we Americans are at keeping people out. But the volume of illegal immigration has declined during the past decade, and the estimated number of illegal immigrants present in the United States also has fallen a little in the past couple of years. Perhaps there are economic factors, but stepped-up border enforcement must have an effect.
Regan interviewed many resident Arizonans with a roughly equal dislike for the illegal immigrants, who trespass on their property, leave litter and trash, and sometimes commit vandalism and theft, and the Border Patrol, which also has little regard for property rights. This includes residents of the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose Indian reservation touches on a big segment of the border.
She stuck strictly to facts, and did not overtly propose any policy. She did an outstanding job of being fair to all points of view, including the Minute Men border vigilantes, who are shown performing individual acts of kindness to people in distress.
I have a certain sympathy for the Minute Men. I think there is an upper limit to how many immigrants a nation can absorb and still preserve its social and economic fabric. The question that Margaret Regan forces me to confront is: How many 14-year-old girls am I willing to see die in a futile attempt to enforce that limit?
Click on U.S.-Mexico Border Crossing Deaths Are a Humanitarian Crisis for a summary of a 2009 American Civil Liberties Union report.
The church groups and human rights organizations who try to save the lives of the illegal migrants are not necessarily trying to promote increased immigration. Many of them go to the Mexican border areas to provide information about the hazards of the crossing and advice against making the attempt.
But this advice is disregarded. What are the limits to what someone will risk in order to feed their family?