Margaret Regan, “The Death of Josseline”

Almost 2,000 migrant bodies have been found in southern Arizona in the last 10 years.


Margaret Regan, in an interview with the Austin (Texas) Examiner, said she felt a “moral obligation” to bring the story to light.

Regan: “When I first went down to Douglas, Arizona, in 2000 to report on the crisis, I had just researched and written a lengthy piece on the tragic lives of my Irish immigrant great-grandparents, who died young and poor in Philadelphia in the 1880s, after watching two of the children die. When I saw what was happening to the Latino migrants in Arizona in 2000, I thought: the details might be different, but this story is the same as my great-grandparents’ story in all the ways that matter.”

The result is “The Death of Josseline” (Beacon Press).

The book wears its heart proudly. Maybe not on its sleeve, but close. Her point of view is clear. There is empathy. (You are hereby warned. You will meet real people.) But “The Death of Josseline” is also a fine piece of reporting about a humanitarian crisis in the nation’s backyard.

This would make a fine bookend to Ted Conover’s brilliant “Coyotes,” first published in 1987 and still going strong. Like Conover, Regan puts faces and names to the ongoing dramas inside the border-crossing zone, primarily the Arizona border around Tucson. It’s clear where Regan’s sympathies lie, with the “wretched of the earth” being “criminalized for their poverty.”

But it’s also a mosaic of the faces on both sides, literally (the border) and figuratively (the issue). Regan takes an unflinching look at the “mafia” that exploits migrants on the Mexican side of the border. She camps out with the “No More Deaths” group determined to prevent unnecessary deaths. She rides along and shows us border agents, who also work in the rugged, extreme conditions and who are shown, quite simply, just doing their job. There are a wide variety of people who are key players in this ongoing drama and Regan writes thoughtful portraits of them all.  If you want to see how complicated it can get, her chapter on Panda Express says it all.

This is a human drama, Regan is saying, not something political or theoretical in the halls of Congress. Regan has a beautiful writing style and a keen eye for details. “On our hike, the farther into the wilderness we went, the more evidence we found of recent human travelers. A Santa Nino de Atocha water bottle—a popular migrant item, bearing the image of the boy Jesus as a pilgrim, dressed for travel in hat and cloak—was fresh and pliable. On a hilltop we discovered an active windmill, watched over by a herd of placid white cows, where migrants could easily pump out fresh water if they could get to the top.”

The book spends lots of its time on the ground, at sand level. “The Death of Josseline” is part desert field guide, too.  Regan injects herself gently into the story for a bit of first-person journalism. For the most part, she trains her writing on but she up here and there:

“If a dedicated search-and-rescue team can get so turned around, it’s easy to see how migrants unfamiliar with the territory—and not in the agents’ prime physical condition—run into trouble. I had trouble myself. Circling up and down hills under the blazing sun, I got winded and flushed and had to stop and rest periodically in the sparse shade.”

Due to changing economic conditions in the United States and Mexico—changes that are reducing the relative flood of immigrants to a trickle—the crisis along the border may be abating. (I’m writing in the summer of 2011.) One can only assume many immigrants are still making the run and one can only assume that many are running into life-threatening, and no doubt tragic, situations

Read “The Death of Josseline” for a desert-level view of this major policy issue. It’s hard to believe we can’t do better on behalf of the human lives on our soil. If that was Regan’s main goal, she succeeded.

Regan again (Austin Examiner): “As a friend said, if every year Tucson had a plane crash that killed 200 people, the rest of America would sit up and pay attention and take measures to stop the slaughter. I would hope they would do the same when they learn of the state’s annual harvest of migrant deaths.”


One response to “Margaret Regan, “The Death of Josseline”

  1. tedconovernyu

    Thanks for putting out the word about this book, Mark. Sounds really good.

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