Putting a Human Face on the Border
Josseline Jamileth Hernandez Quinteros was 14-years old when she died alone in the Arizona desert. She and her younger brother were crossing the border into the United States with a group of adults. They were on their way to be reunited with their mother in Los Angeles. When she became sick in the desert, the group abandoned her. Her badly decomposed body was discovered three weeks later wearing her sweatpants with the word HOLLYWOOD on the back.
The humanitarian group No More Death estimates that over 5,000 migrant bodies have been found in the southwest borderlands of the United States and Mexico between 1994 and 2009. The exact number of deaths is unknowable. Josseline easily could have been just another statistic: nameless and faceless. Instead, in The Death of Josseline: Immigration stories for the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands, author Margaret Regan re-constructs Josseline’s last days and transforms her into a symbol for all of the migrants who have died crossing into the United States.
Regan details the rocky path Josseline hiked, sleeping out in the open, the limited or possibly contaminated water she drank, and her death from probable exposure. By giving her a name and a story and a grieving family, Regan hopes that readers are less likely to see Josseline as one of “those people” stealing American jobs and draining social services and instead see her for who she truly was—a child trying to reach her mother. Although Regan must speak for Josseline, she allows the others who are most intimately involved with border issues tell their stories. She does this again and again and in this way flips what we know or think we know about the border.
The United States has a long and complicated history with the people who slip across the border, most often forced out of economic necessity in Mexico to perform the America’s low wage jobs. Isabel Garcia, an activist and attorney, argues that the United States economy relies on these workers, especially during early 2000, when there were more jobs than workers. Regan agrees, but places the United States’ reliance on cheap labor in starker terms. “If they (the migrants) can get to the border, hop the fence, slip through a superpower’s military arsenal, elude armed ranchers, drink enough water to outlast a desert trek, cough up enough money for a coyote, maybe they’ll be rewarded with a job cleaning toilets in a motel. If they’re really lucky, the might even get minimum wage.”
Regan, a Tucson resident and journalist, writes with the ease of one who is well versed with its people and issues, but The Death of Josseline is not a ‘just the facts’ book that breaks down immigration policy. Reagan also gets down and dirty with some good old fashion journalism. Her chapters focus on one group or incident and weave them so that reader can better understand its layers and complexities. She talks with migrants about their own harrowing experiences crossing the border and with members of humanitarian groups who try to help them. She rides along with Border Patrol agents and interviews Arizona ranchers. She visits Café Justo, a Mexican coffee co-op that tries to sustain itself and its workers so they will stay in the country.
Often the interconnectedness and irony are apparent. The Mexican-born border patrol agent (“I’m just doing a job,” he tells Reagan) and his experiences bleeds against the story of Ismael Vasquez, who left his small Guatemalan village to come to the United States to make money for his family. His traveling companion, a younger cousin, died in his arms in the the desert, and Vasquez ended up getting deported. Rancher John Waters echoed the frustration of other Arizona ranchers over Border Patrol’s intrusion on their land and the seemingly endless flow of migrants. “Is the Border Patrol helping?” Waters asked. “It depends on which week.”
Regan’s writing exhibits a natural give and take. The statistics she includes are alarming, but almost secondary to the stories themselves. Regan could be accused of preaching to the choir and we can summarize the book this way: Current border policies put poor and desperate people at risk. Millions of dollars are spent on a system that criminalizes those poor and desperate people and is ineffective at preventing them from crossing in the first place. The people who are probably drawn to The Death of Josseline are probably already familiar (and critical) of current border policies and sympathetic towards migrants.
In the end, Regan constructs a nice arc as the book begins with the death of one child in the desert and ends with the birth of another. Lilian Escalante Abrego was crossing with a group of people when she went into labor in the middle of a 34-degree night. Lilian’s son was born small and she began to bleed heavily. Both were rescued but their story has a bittersweet, uncertain ending, as Lilian awaits her fate from a hospital bed with the now familiar refrain of sadness and longing for a better life.