A memorial to migrants who have died trying to cross the border stands in Reynosa, Mexico.
According to the US Customs and Border Protection, more than 47,000 unaccompanied minors have crossed the border in the last six months, up 92% from the previous year. The humanitarian crisis has sparked new urgency in the immigration debate, one that President Obama recently proposed to solve by increasing the speed of their deportations. Though Obama has since backed off from that plan, seeking instead $3.7 billion in funding to help alleviate the situation, how exactly those dollars will be allocated, or whether even his request will pass the crucible of Congress, remains unclear.
Meanwhile, unaccompanied immigrant children are still arriving at the border in droves. The numbers, in aggregate, are staggering but they belie the human struggle each of these children have undergone simply to reach the US. It is exactly that struggle that Margaret Regan writes about in The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands. In the following excerpt, Regan, in telling Josseline’s story, shows us the sometimes tragic and all-too-real dangers that many of these unaccompanied minors must increasingly endure.
Josseline pulled her two jackets closer in the cold. She was wearing everything she had brought with her from home. Underneath the jackets, she had on a tank top, better suited to Arizona’s searing summers than its chilly winters, and she’d pulled a pair of sweatpants over her jeans. Her clothes betrayed her girly tastes. One jacket was lined in pink. Her sneakers were a wild bright green, a totally cool pair of shoes that were turning out to be not even close to adequate for the difficult path she was walking. A little white beaded bracelet circled her wrist. Best of all were her sweats, a pair of “butt pants” with the word HOLLYWOOD emblazoned on the rear. Josseline planned to have them on when she arrived in the land of movie stars.
She tried to pay attention to the twists and turns in the footpath, to obey the guide, to keep up with the group. But by the time they got to Cedar Canyon, she was lagging. She was beginning to feel sick. She’d been on the road for weeks and out in the open for days, sleeping on the damp ground. Maybe she’d skimped on drinking water, giving what she had to her little brother. Maybe she’d swallowed some of the slimy green water that pools in the cow ponds dotting this ranch country. Whatever the reason, Josseline started vomiting. She crouched down and emptied her belly, retching again and again, then lay back on the ground. Resting didn’t help. She was too weak to stand up, let alone hike this rollercoaster trail out to the road.
It was a problem. The group was on a strict schedule. They had that ride to catch, and the longer they lingered here the more likely they’d be caught. The coyote had a decision to make, and this is the one he made: he would leave the young girl behind, alone in the desert. He told her not to worry. They were in a remote canyon that was little traveled, but the Border Patrol would soon find her. Nearby, he claimed, were some pistas, platforms that la migra used as landing pads for their helicopters. Surely they’d be by soon, and they would take care of her. Her little brother cried and begged to stay with her. But Josseline was his big sister, and Josseline insisted that he go. As he recounted later, she told him, “Tú tienes que seguir a donde está Mamá.” You have to keep going and get to Mom.
The other travelers grabbed the wailing boy and walked on, leaving his sister alone in the cold and dark. She had only her clothes to keep her warm. On her first night alone, the temperature dropped below freezing, to 29 degrees. By the weekend, when her brother arrived safely in Los Angeles and sounded the alarm, Arivaca had warmed up—to 37 degrees.
* * *
Three weeks later, Dan Millis was getting ready to go out on desert patrol. He was filling up a big plastic box with nonperishables for migrants—granola bars, applesauce, Gatorade— and new socks, something the weary walkers always seemed to need. He tossed the box into his car and then loaded up dozens of gallons of water. A former high school teacher, Dan, twenty-eight, was an outdoors enthusiast who was spending a year volunteering with No More Deaths, a Tucson group determined to stop the deaths of migrants in the Arizona deserts. As the United States clamped down on the urban crossings, desperate travelers were pushing into ever more remote wilderness and dying out there in record numbers. So the No More Deaths folks began hiking the backcountry in the Arivaca borderlands, an hour and a half southwest of Tucson, setting out water and food in the rugged hills. Sometimes they’d meet up with migrants who were lost or sick, and they would provide first aid. But sometimes they found a body.
Before he left town, Dan studied the trail map. He could see that several heavily traveled Arivaca trails converged on a single ridge, and he wanted to drop his load there, where it would do the most good. Three buddies were coming along to help, but the goods they were packing would be heavy— each gallon jug of water weighed almost eight and a half pounds—so he wanted to get his car as close to the ridge as he could. The map showed that a dirt ranch road edged near the drop spot, but the volunteers would have to hike up Cedar Canyon, where they’d never been before. Dan didn’t know whether the canyon would even be passable, but he decided to give it a shot.
He had heard about Josseline Hernández. When the girl’s little brother arrived in LA without her, her distraught family had called the Salvadoran consul in Nogales, a border town, and the consul connected them with Coalición de Derechos Humanos, a human rights organization in Tucson. Derechos compiles annual lists of the desert’s dead, and tries to help the families of the missing. The coalition’s Kat Rodriguez gets two or three reports of lost migrants a month. Josseline’s mother couldn’t even talk to her—“She was coming undone”—but the uncle gave Kat a description of the teenager and her clothes, including the distinctive green shoes Josseline was so proud of. Kat always asked for pictures of the loved one smiling; teeth, after all, can be used to identify a corpse.
The family sent Kat photos that pictured Josseline in uniform and cap, banging the cymbals in a parade with her high school marching band; Josseline posing in fashionable capris and a tank top; Josseline standing forlornly in her church, with flowers, lit candles, and a statue of the Virgin Mary behind her. The pictures showed her black hair and eyes and her warm brown skin—morena, the consul called it—but in every one she was serious and unsmiling, a young girl with heavy responsibilities. Kat organized the images and identifying info into a color flyer headlined “Menor detenida o desaparecida” (Female minor detained or disappeared). Kat sent her report to the Pima County medical examiner, in case he had a matching body in his morgue, and activists from the Samaritans immigrant-aid group checked the hospitals and detention centers. Other volunteers went out looking for her. They didn’t have much to go on. The coyote had told the family Josseline was near pistas, or platforms; no one was quite sure of what he meant since there were no structures in the desert. And the flyer stated, erroneously as it turned out, that the girl had last been seen near Nogales, miles from where she’d been walking.
Dan Millis hadn’t gotten involved in the searches. Hunts for missing migrants are needle-in-a-haystack affairs, typically conducted by well-meaning amateurs who don’t know search-and-rescue techniques. Sometimes the volunteers get injured themselves. Even BORSTAR, the Border Patrol’s search, trauma, and rescue unit, can’t help when there’s too little information. Far better, Dan thought, to stick to the work he knew would do some good, putting out food and water for the living. So he and his companions drove down to Arivaca and started into Cedar Canyon, lugging the water jugs and the box of goodies, traipsing a narrow path between looming rocky walls. There was an old dam back in there, along a wash, and he and his buds had to scramble up over the concrete. They’d been walking maybe twenty minutes when up ahead Dan spotted a pair of bright green shoes.
He didn’t think of Josseline at first. Or of death. The owner of the shoes had to be around, he reasoned, maybe hiding. He began calling out the standard No More Deaths chant, designed to reassure fearful migrants. “¡Hola, hermanos! Somos amigos de la iglesia. Tenemos comida y agua.” Hello, brothers! We’re friends from the church. We have food and water.
Then, suddenly, he saw her. She was lying on a rock, under a bush, her hands raised up near her head, her feet plunged into water that had pooled in a cavity in the stone.
“I saw her teeth,” he said months later. “I knew she was dead. It was a horrible feeling. I told my friends to stop.
“The body was intact,” he went on, reciting details of the scene in a monotone. “She had taken off two jackets and hung them on a rock. She had a tank top on and sweatpants. Her feet were in the water.” The little pearl bracelet was on her wrist. But Josseline’s little brother had said his sister was wearing jeans, and this girl had on sweatpants.
Dan used his cell phone to call Sarah Roberts, a nurse active in No More Deaths who had helped coordinate Josseline’s case. He told her about finding the body and the telltale green shoes and the sweatpants that didn’t match up. Sarah got the message to Kat Rodriguez, who called the uncle, who questioned the brother one more time. This time, the little boy said, No, now he remembered, Josseline had put on her Hollywood butt pants. The news flew back over the cell phones to Dan. But the body was face up, and he couldn’t see any writing. He knew enough about police procedures not to disturb the scene.
Dan telephoned the sheriff. Then he and another volunteer, Clint, drove the hour into Arivaca, marking down their route through the tangle of ranch roads so that they could give the police detailed directions back to the canyon. It was getting cold, so they picked up some hot soup in town for the two volunteers who had stayed behind with the body. In the meantime, that pair, a Frenchwoman named Marie and a refugee-rights worker named Max, had twisted some branches into a cross and planted it in a pile of rocks. When Dan and Clint got back, all four volunteers held a vigil, sitting by the body and the makeshift shrine, waiting for the authorities to come.
In the late afternoon, two sheriff ’s deputies finally arrived. They gently turned the body over. On the back of the pants was a single word: HOLLYWOOD.
Margaret Regan is the author of The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands and Detaining Yolanda, Deporting Gustavo, forthcoming from Beacon Press in 2015. Regan writes for the Tucson Weekly and has won a dozen journalism awards for border reporting, including two national prizes. She lives in Tucson.