Terry Greene Sterling – “Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona’s Immigration War Zone”

The brilliant cover says it all—a man leaning on a concrete wall, one foot propped up and his hands in his pockets. He blends into the concrete background as if maybe he’s stepped through the wall. His gaze is straightforward. He’s making eye contact.  It’s your choice to look and engage—or not.

Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona’s Immigration War Zone is for those who want to stop and look. The book considers the lives of Mexican immigrants as individual human beings, not numbers or fodder for a policy debate. Like Margaret Regan’s recent The Death of Josseline and Ted Conover’s Coyotes (written in the late 1980’s), Illegal humanizes the issue—and does so in fine fashion.

Ilegal is a series of portraits and situations that show the inter-locking relationships of peoples and cultures on both sides of the border. The subtitle doesn’t references more than just Arizona—it’s the whole “war zone.”

Terry Greene Sterling, whose family has its roots in Mexico, reports effortlessly from both sides of the border. Her eye is keen. Her ability to befriend people from all walks of life is a pleasure to watch. Her writing is powerful—and calm. Sterling has an understated style.

Visiting Lucy, an undocumented immigrant recently released from the Maricopa County Jail, Greene lets us see the entire scene, from the Support Our Troops magnet on the refrigerator to the dolls, stuffed animals and toy tea set around daughter Angie’s loft bed.

Describing the scene of a raid in 2008 in the town of Guadalupe, Arizona, Greene notes the “missionlike Catholic church, a plaza, a marketplace, and pastel-tinted adobe houses with scarlet hollyhocks poking out of the front yards.”

In one of the most compelling chapters, “A Day Late, A Dollar Short,” Greene details the integration of the U.S. and Mexico economies by following the owners of a dollar store—Araceli and Inocencio—as they work to establish a foothold in their adopted land.

“The first year, Inocencio reported a personal income of $72,000 and paid taxes on it,” she writes. “Araceli and Inocencio bought a house (in the same neighborhood where Inocencio’s siblings lived) for $156,000. Araceli indulged herself with frequent trips to Mervyns and Ross.”

Greene accompanies Inocencio on a buying trip to warehouses owned by American companies to buy candles, balloons and other gift items he can resell.

“Inocencio spent almost an hour in the showroom, sniffing aftershave, puzzling over boxes of cake mixes—he almost bought a case of spice cake mix, mistaking it for vanilla—pricing candies and soap. He purchased cases of Mentos, cases of cleaning products, several bags of Mexican candies, laundry soap, and a few boxes of cake mix.”

The cumulative detail is powerful—real lives with real issues facing real consequences and trying to work where they are welcomed and stay out of the authorities’ spotlight.  For most of the book, Greene takes a just-the-facts approach but it’s pretty easy to see where she’s coming from in taking apart Sheriff Joe Arpaio and in her empathetic profiles of the individuals flowing back and forth across the border.

I have nothing profound to add to the national debate over immigration but, like a lot of major issues, I think the discussion works best when it starts with the truth about the state of affairs today. If there’s a common recognition of the facts, there’s a better chance of developing solutions that might make a difference.  Just a thought.

(I still can’t get my head around a $1.2 billion fence, for instance, that doesn’t completely cover all 2,000 miles of border between the U.S. and Mexico; are the immigrants not supposed to figure out that the fence doesn’t cover the entire stretch?)

The overriding message from Illegals is the two countries are inextricably interwoven. Greene makes a compelling case that undocumented immigrants contribute mightily to the economic and cultural landscape. It’s one thing to sit back with your policy hat and pontificate from afar. It’s another to look up close and personal and see the human beings at the center of it all.

In the Afterword of Coyotes, first published in 1987, Ted Conover wrote: “I found the illegal immigration monster to be the sort that’s less scary up close than it is from a distance.”

If there is any “truism about immigration to America,” he added, “it is that ‘they’ soon become ‘us;’ and that for two hundred years our strength and vigor have been due precisely to the energy and aspiration of immigrants.”

Sterling’s Illegal will leave you in the same place (but set against the landscape of 2010 Arizona) thinking as much about the aspirations of individuals and much less about how best to demonize those who just happen to want to come here from another country.

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