Josseline Jamileth Hernandez Quinteros was a fourteen-year-old girl from El Salvador who illegally crossed the U.S. border into Arizona in January 2008. While traveling with her young brother and other compañeros, led by a shifty coyote, she became ill and was left behind to fend for herself in the harsh desert climate. She did not survive. Her tragic death, and the retrieval of her body, serve as the springboard for Margaret Regan’s analysis of the decade of chaos which reigned on the Arizona border, beginning in 2000, which claimed the lives of thousands of migrants who perished in the unforgiving expanse of dirt and brush, some whose remains have been recovered, many others whose bleached bones remain where they fell. In The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands, Regan draws upon her years of on-the-ground reporting from both sides of the international divide, and presents a journalist’s perspective on what went wrong in Arizona, focusing upon the lives of the migrants, citizens, and Border Patrol agents whose lives are directly shaped by the crisis.
As to the cause of this situation, Regan points to the increased border security of urban crossings in Texas and California under the Clinton administration. The unforgiving landscape of the Southwest, the administration believed, would have served as a natural deterrent. Once migrants realized what the environment was like, Immigration and Naturalization commissioner Doris Meissner had predicted, “the number of people crossing the border in Arizona would go down to a trickle.” Unfortunately, this proved a deadly miscalculation, for “the abrupt sealing of urban crossings did not stop impoverished migrants from trying to get into the United States. It only pushed them into the wild.” Even when the number of border crossings decreased at the end of that first decade, the number of deaths in the desert continued to rise, for new increased enforcement along the Arizona border merely pushed desperate migrants into ever wilder areas.
Yet Regan’s motivation for writing the book stems from more humanitarian concerns. Her argument rests on the premise that strict border enforcement has caused more harm than good, and that the means, aggression, and penalties which the government wields against migrants is disproportionate to their crime. As a resident of Tucson, Regan states that she couldn’t sit passively as injustices occurred just a few hours drive from her home: “Human beings were dying in fields and in a desert… while ordinary American life continued all around them. Agents of my own government were chasing down farmworkers and busboys and cleaning ladies with helicopters and infrared cameras, and hauling the poorest of the poor off to jail in handcuffs.” In addition to the personal plights of migrants, Regan argues that her book is “about the impact of immigration on communities on both sides of the border, about the devastation border enforcement wreaks on the environment, and about the ways a military occupation on American soil erodes the civil liberties and human rights of Americans and immigrants alike.”
To make her argument, Regan relies most heavily on interviews. She speaks not only to migrants, but also to Border Patrol agents, No More Deaths activists, border residents, scientists, and others involved in the bureaucracy and quagmire of the border situation. She also frequently turns to government reports for figures and statistics. Unfortunately, Regan does not always present the sources of her numbers, particularly when they involve money, and the book contains no citations, making it difficult for the reader to verify her assertions. For her recounting of Josseline’s death, Regan states that, in addition to interviews, she consulted the county medical examiner’s autopsy report as well as relied on her own experiences hiking the location.
Despite the reader’s frequent dependence upon taking the author’s word at face value, Regan succeeds in compiling an array of accounts which convincingly illustrate her aforementioned grievances. The abuses of coyotes, particularly against women, has been well documented, and Regan addresses it with due regard. However, less mentioned in the news is the effect of militarization on American soil. Regan speaks with Arizona citizens who have had to endure the continuous presence of armed agents upon their property (no warrant needed) and intrusively loud helicopters hovering over their homes, shining blinding lights through their windows, as well as dealing with the presence of newly-erected towers, which cost millions yet prove ineffective. As one resident is quoted, “Around here it’s 1984.” Regan also speaks to people about the environmental costs of permanent walls, which include destroying fragile animal habitats, creating devastating erosion and debris collection, and bulldozing sacred Native American sites. All the while, migrants are dying by the hundreds each year.
Regan also explores alternatives to fighting illegal immigration which are more humane and less destructive, yet which have proven effective. She profiles a Mexican co-op of coffee growers just over the border which has empowered its members and granted them financial stability, making crossing the border no longer necessary or desirable. Begun with a small loan from a church, the lesson presents itself: if the government spent some of its money on people instead of on enforcement, to help stabilize and build economies in Mexico and Central America, the flow of migrants would steadily lessen. In other words, treat the cause, not simply the symptom.
The Death of Josseline places the stale statistics of migrants’ deaths into the context of the impoverished, desperate individuals who would chance death to achieve a better life. Glaringly obvious is the futility and madness of building a wall along the border, a xenophobic symbol of our failure of imagination and compassion, a dividing line between two countries who are at peace and who have strong economic and cultural ties. The ease of bypassing such a structure, the negative effects it has on the population and environment, the erosion of civil liberties it creates even for citizens, and its insurmountable costs far outweigh its meager benefits. Porous borders are certainly not in the interest of national security – it’s only reasonable that a nation would want to know who is entering their territory – yet using paramilitary force against the poor and helpless, people whose realistic goal is to get a job scrubbing toilets, is a byproduct of American prejudice and a nation’s misplaced fear and anger. The United States is not a victim of these migrant “criminals,” but all are victims of a broken immigration system that values “zero tolerance” and rule of law over reason, understanding, and basic humanitarianism.