October 21, 2016
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Life And Death On The Arizona Border


 Margaret Regan has been covering immigration for over a decade for the Tucson Weekly and other publications. Her book is “The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands.” She talked to NAM editor, Sandip Roy.

Why has Arizona become this laboratory for the anti-illegal immigration movement?

A big part of the reason is that Arizona has been Ground Zero for immigration for about 10 years now. We have more migrants passing through here and going to other points in the country, and more migrants dying, than in any other border state. And we have a large population of undocumented people living within Arizona – estimated to be anything between 400,000 and 600,000.

How did Arizona become Ground Zero?

This goes back to the early ‘90s when so many immigrants were pouring in through San Diego and El Paso. It had become a political problem. People were seen pouring through and running across the highway. During the Clinton administration, the decision was made to seal up those borders. The idea was: If they sealed up those urban crossings, they would have taken care of the problem because the territory in between was so forbidding it would be too dangerous for people to try to cross. That territory is Arizona where we have perilous deserts and mountains that rise to 9000 feet. And the idea was that geography would take care of the problem. That didn’t happen. It didn’t take into account the desperation of people. Immigration through Arizona started skyrocketing instead.

What are the most dramatic ways in which the border has changed?

One of the most dramatic changes is the hardening of the border. We have seen many, many miles of walls built in between Arizona and Sonora in Mexico. There used to be a little barbed-wire fence. Now you will find big metal walls, 14-16 feet high, extending for miles and miles. In many places, there is stadium lighting. You will see roads next to the walls in places that used to be remote wilderness areas, private ranches and public lands. You have a lot of activity now – Border Patrol going up and down the roads in their SUVs, helicopters, towers.

You have written that the road the Border Patrol has built along the borders also helped the drug smugglers.

On the Mexican side they can throw over whatever, and they have a truck waiting and it can speed away. Before, they too were inhibited by the wilderness. Now, they have a nice road. 

As immigration enforcement has tightened, have you seen changes in who is coming?

There are more women coming. And there are more deaths of women. It used to be a more fluid situation where a husband or father would go up to the U.S. and work seasonally or for a couple of years, but come home for holidays. Now, it’s much harder. So we have more migrants trying to reach their husbands and fathers or mothers. So we have a more vulnerable population crossing the border.

Who is Josseline, who you use for the title of the book?

She was a girl who had been left behind in El Salvador with her brother. Her mother was working in L.A. The dad was working in Maryland. When they were 14 and 10, the mother had saved up enough money to bring them across. They were traveling all the way from El Salvador. The mother had thought she had entrusted the children to people she could rely on. 

[The siblings] traveled all the way up through Mexico and crossed over into Arizona. Then they had to cross a very difficult mountainous desert. Up there Josseline got sick. A lot of people get sick drinking infected water because there are cow tanks. She became too sick to continue. The whole group, including the people Josseline’s mother thought she could trust, left her there and dragged the brother away. It’s been reported that the 10-year-old brother begged to stay with his sister and she said, “No, you have to continue on to mom.” The group didn’t get to L.A. till three days later. At that point the brother told the mother and the alarm was raised. Three weeks later a young activist volunteer came across Josseline’s body on the trail.

You said there is a web site that gives the weather forecast and the probability of death alongside the terrain.

That was a University of Arizona project – a collaboration with the Pima County medical examiner. They noticed the number of deaths rose on the days when it was really hot. The association is pretty inescapable. So they calculated this algorithm – you can plug in a temperature and you can see what your odds are for dying. Not that the migrants will have access to this information. But they are doing it for their own purposes and to help activists and Border Patrol realize when the days are the most dangerous. But Josseline died in the winter. People are sometimes surprised how cold Arizona can be. If you are out and it’s wet and the temperature is below freezing, you will be in trouble.

But strangely if you are in a life-threatening situation and the Border Patrol picks you up you can get into the United States.

I have a story in my book about a sort of escape clause. If you are dangerously injured, and you are rescued by Border Patrol --and they do quite a few rescues, they have a whole SWAT team called Borstar-- they switch hats. They are rescue people, not law enforcement officials. I participated in a rescue of a Honduran woman who had a life-threatening injury and they never even asked her name. One agent said to me as far as he was concerned she was a bird watcher who broke her leg. The positive view is that they are concentrating on saving people. The critique is that they don’t want to take financial responsibility for critically injured people that they bring to the hospital. 
But if you are rescued by Borstar and you are not in a life-threatening situation, it’s different. A woman gave birth in the desert and the child was in danger. The Border Patrol evacuated the child by helicopter. She was brought by ambulance. But after two days, she was discharged from the hospital and booked and arrested.

The new bill SB 1070 got pushed through partly because a rancher got killed along the border. Is there a huge fear of Mexico and the drug war happening there?

Very much so. There is a terrible drug war in Mexico. Our local Mexican town of Nogales has always been a place where people from Tucson would go down for the day. They have all kinds of shops, handicrafts, restaurants. It’s charming. People are afraid of going. The fear is you could be randomly down there and be shot. I fear those shopkeepers down there will lose their livelihood and ironically, we will have more candidates for migrating across the border.

The murder of the rancher was very significant. It seems to have changed the conversation. The ranchers and the people on the border have borne the brunt of this policy for years. They used to be living in a place that was remote, quiet, peaceful. Now they are in the middle of an international crisis – they have Border Patrol all over the place and some of the world’s poorest people crossing their land. They have their houses broken into. People steal food primarily. Ranchers complain migrants cut their fences. Cows will eat anything and they eat discarded plastic water bottles. So they have been at their wit’s end. And the murder of this man, who actually was well-respected and used to give water to migrants, really inflamed the issue.

Border stories blur into each other. Has any story really surprised you?

Marta Garcia was an impoverished woman from Honduras. She had two children. Her husband had disappeared in his efforts to cross into the U.S. She believes that he is dead. She made the decision she would have to make this dangerous journey. She left the kids with the in-laws, rode up by bus, contracted with a coyote. Very often these people are lied to, told this is a very short walk. This is a person who has a little bit of extra weight, was not used to vigorous hiking. The coyote had said it would be a few hours. 

After eight hours they are still hiking very rocky trails that are so easy to trip on. You trip on the rocks because you are looking overhead so you won’t crash into the cactus. She fell and broke her femur. She said the coyote was going to shoot her. His idea was to put her out of her misery since she was sure to die out there. And he got out his gun. She pleaded for her life. He finally said, “your choice.” 

There she was alone. She was freezing at night. She lay there all night in excruciating pain thinking about her children. With the morning light a Mexican family crossed up the hill to where she was and found her and said, ‘we are going to help you.’ They gave up their own chance to get into the United States in order to save Marta’s life. 

One of them, a genial fellow named Raul, stayed with her. The rest of the family went out to the road, flagged down the Border Patrol and took them back to Marta Gomez. She was airlifted to Tucson. I was with the group rescuing her and this migrant man, Raul. And I asked him “Why did you do it? Why did you give up your chance to save this woman you don’t even know?” And he said, “I had to. I had to save a human life.” 

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