Common Read, Common Reflection, Common Action on Immigration
Presenters: Margaret Regan, Tom Hallock, Gail Forsyth-Vail
Author Margaret Regan discusses how she came to write The Death of Josseline. Participants and Regan consider together how sharing stories can lead individuals and communities to grow in understanding and to take action, particularly in response to immigration issues. Participants exchange ideas and resources for individual and congregational action.
GAIL FORSYTHE-VAIL: —that we're on the same light switch as the people in the next room, because every time I dim them, they turn them back up. So I am shortly going to see what I can do about that.
Hi, I'm Gail Forsythe-Vail. I am the adult programs director, and I work in the ministries and faith development group at Unitarian Universalist Association. This is Workshop No. 2026, and the title is Common Read, Common Reflection, Common Action on Immigration.
And having said that, I am going to invite Tom Hallock to introduce—are you all in the right place, by the way? I need to get my brain switched off the lights and on to you all. So welcome. And I will tell you a little bit, just very briefly, that today we have the honor of having Margaret Regan, the author of The Death of Josseline, with us. And I'll let Tom introduce her in a minute. And also with Laura Lesch and Sandra Crowell, who were two of the readers of the common read who are going to be in conversation with her. And I'm really thrilled. And also thrilled to introduce Tom Hallock from Beacon Press to introduce Margaret.
TOM HALLOCK: Hi. I'm Tom Hallock. I'm Beacon's associate publisher. And I'm really excited about what has brought us here today, the ability of a book to really be a catalyst for social change. The idea is at the heart of Beacon's work. And I'm grateful to Gail Forsythe-Vail for creating the first ever UU common read program. Gail, I've wanted this to happen for 15 years. Thank you.
And I'm also grateful that Margaret Regan, author of the first common read selection, The Death of Josseline, is here with us, and that all of you are here today, too.
My wife works for a foundation. And there's a lot of buzz in that world about this idea, a theory of change. How does an organization understand its work to bring about change in the world? It's as easy as flipping a switch.
TOM HALLOCK: So I was talking about a theory of change. How does an organization think it creates change in the world? And in Beacon's case, our unique position as a mission-driven, independent, nonprofit publisher really enables us to publish books that other commercial houses might not publish, and certainly to give them a level of attention that they might not otherwise receive.
TOM HALLOCK: OK. So we're here today to talk about how books can change the world, and Gail has really kind of designed a process, the first-ever UU common read program, to make that a possibility for this movement. And we're grateful and excited about it.
So I was talking a little bit about this idea, the theory of change. How does your organization think that your work changes the world? And in the case of Beacon, we're really in a unique position in American publishing. As a nonprofit, mission-driven press, it enables us to publish books that other houses might not publish, and it certainly enables us to give them a level of attention that they might not otherwise receive.
So we believe that reading these books can open hearts and minds, can influence public debate and lead to a more just world. These experiences can happen in solitude. They can happen in a classroom. They can happen in a reading group. But I think best of all, most fulfilling to us as publishers is when a book is really embraced by community, whether that's a freshman read, a common read at a university, summer reading list at a high school, or, in this case, a common read for a whole religious movement.
I think for people to really make the time to read, to listen to the stories of other people, to reflect on them, and to let compassion and awareness be awakened in them, and then to decide to take action on that, is really the kind of thing that Beacon is trying to have happen all the time.
And in this case, with Death of Josseline, it's really been wonderful. The UUA is not the only religious denomination that's using this book. The United Methodists are, too. They were a step behind as we were leading the way, as we often do, but pretty cool that two large religious movements are using this book.
So we're really fortunate to have the author with us today of Death of Josseline. Margaret Regan has been a journalist in Tucson for more than 20 years and started covering the border in 2000. The Death of Josseline is her first—but hopefully not her last—book. And Margaret has won a number of journalism prizes over the years, including one just a few weeks ago, first place in arts and criticism by the Arizona Press Club. Death of Josseline was also named the Southwest Book of the Year.
So, Margaret, welcome. Thank you for writing this book. We're so glad to have you here with us today.
MARGARET REGAN: Thanks so much for having me. I'm just so appreciative that the Unitarians have chosen my book as a common read. It's just wonderful exposure for these stories, so I'm immensely grateful. Can you all hear me?
MARGARET REGAN: OK, excellent. No, I'll just hold it. Let's check and see if this slideshow is working. OK. Some of you may have read my book already. Some of you haven't. So if you have read it, I'm going to tell some of the stories from the book, but I think you'll be interested in seeing the pictures of the real-life people who are characters in my book.
Just over three years ago, this young girl, Josseline—I found out belatedly it is pronounced Jo-say-leen, like Josephine—this young girl, 14 years old from El Salvador, died about two hours from my home in Tucson. She was crossing the border from Mexico.
She came from El Salvador. She had lived with her grandmother for some years while her parents worked in the United States. Her parents are undocumented immigrants. Her mother, Sonia, worked in LA. Her father, Santos, in Maryland. And the mother had worked long and hard in LA to save the money to bring her two children up to the United States.
And she thought that she could trust the people that she paid to bring the kids up. We don't know how much she paid, but sometimes it's as much as $8,000 to pay a coyote, or a smuggler, to bring people all the way from Central America. So Josseline, age 14, and her 10-year-old brother traveled with this group all the way up from El Salvador, all the way through Mexico, 2000 miles, crossed the border—oh, here she is in El Salvador. Can you see that? It looks a little blurry. Yeah. Well, OK.
In between those two highways going down south, they crossed the border at Sasabe, coming into Arizona. And with increasing border enforcement, people are forced to walk ever-longer distances across the desert to get to the rides that the coyotes arranged for them. So this little group crossed and had ahead of them a three- to five-day walk. This was in January of 2008. Some of you might not know that Arizona gets cold in the winter, it gets wet in the winter. On the days that they were crossing, it was down into the 30s at night.
And after about three days, this young girl became sick on the trail. Probably she had drunk some bad water. That's often what happens. There are cow ponds down there, and a lot of times the migrants will drink the water. She became very sick with vomiting and couldn't continue. And the coyote had a decision to make. Was he going to leave this kid here, or was he going to stay with her? What was he going to do? Well, they had their ride to catch. And so he made the decision to leave her in the desert, a 14-year-old year girl who was sick.
Three weeks later, this is where Josseline's body was found, by a young No More Deaths volunteer activist in Tucson. No one knew that she was out there for a few days. It took three days for the little boy to continue with the group, get to LA to see his mother. So by the time he got there and sounded the alarm, she'd been out there. She was probably already dead out there.
This is the flyer that the family put out. The family called the consulate in Nogales, Arizona, and people were looking for her. You can see her. She wasn't in a very small village. She was in a high-school marching band. It gives you some inkling of the little girl and the life that she led.
But nobody found her. Nobody had the correct information of where she actually was. So after three weeks, her body was found, and she was brought up to the morgue in Tucson. This is a shrine that has been erected on the site of her death. They had a Mass out there. A Catholic priest hiked back into the wilderness with a bunch of activists to say a mass on the site where she died. Her own parents were unable to come to the Mass, because they're undocumented and they were fearful.
I wasn't there. I didn't know about it until later. But this priest, who's a very good man, Father Bob Carney, told me that her aunt and uncle came. And they were at the head of the group hiking up into the canyon. And when they arrived at the site where Josseline died, they started wailing in grief. And he could hear their wails echoing down the canyon. He said it was a mixture of grief and guilt, all the feelings that a family member might have over the loss of this young, young girl.
Now, Josseline's story is probably one of the more tragic stories that I told in my book, because it does involve a child. It involves this issue of family reunification. The purpose of her journey was to see her mom, to grow up with her mother. But her story is one of many, many. The year that she died, there were 183 bodies found in southern Arizona of migrants. And the deaths occur every single year. And this past year, in the fiscal year 2010, we had 253 bodies found. So that's a big jump up from the year that Josseline died with 183 bodies.
This was last summer. I took this picture in the morgue in Pima County right in Tucson. In July of last year, it was their second-worst month ever. And if you read my book, you know that Dr. Bruce Parks, the medical examiner down there, has had in the past to bring out this refrigerated truck. When he's had so many migrant bodies, he doesn't have room in the morgue. And so he brings in this truck.
So I took this picture inside a great big refrigerated truck parked in the parking lot outside the county morgue. And these are unidentified migrants who were found last summer in the Arizona desert. And I have to tell you, that was one of the most visceral encounters I have had in doing my reporting on these deaths, to actually walk into this space where these dead bodies lay decaying. And the stench was overpowering. It was a very disturbing and moving experience to see that, to smell that.
This is Dr. Bruce Parks, who's one of the heroes in my book. He is a man of conscience whose job is, as the medical examiner, to investigate any untimely death. And he's been very conscientious about identifying as many of the migrants as he can. The interesting thing about this whole issue is that this large number of deaths is a relatively new issue in Arizona. And Dr. Parks has made a whole study, gone back over the records over the last 20 years, trying to figure out how many migrants have come to his morgue. And he gets the bodies from three different counties in southern Arizona.
So going back in the 1990s, when we did not have a lot of migrants crossing into Arizona, the numbers were very low. He could count on one hand. I've got some figures here. Back in 1990, when he was already on the job, he had six dead bodies coming into his morgue. The next couple years, he had two. He had eight. One year, he had one. Typically, they were in car accidents, because people weren't taking these long treks through the desert the way they are now.
But when he got up to 1998, he started noticing an uptick. One year, he had 12. That was a little bit higher. Next year, 17. The next year, between 1999 and 2000, it jumped from 17 bodies of migrants coming to his morgue to 65, more than a threefold increase. The next year, 75. 2002, 146 deaths. So as a public health official, this is of concern to him. And, of course, to other people of conscience, it's obviously a concern.
But the big question is, what happened? How is it and why is it that Arizona became a killing field for migrants? I just looked up the number the other night before I came here on my trip. In the last 10 years, the bodies found are up to—in southern Arizona alone—2,192 dead migrants in 10 years crossing Arizona, when we didn't have them before.
So the question that I try to answer in my book partly is, well, how did all this get started? It got started because way back in the Clinton administration, in the early '90s, we had very free immigration coming in through the urban crossings in San Diego and El Paso.
This is a picture that shows you how flimsy the border fence was in those years and how the crowds of people could come through pretty easily. So it became this big political problem. People in Southern California were up in arms. They even had signs posted on the highways, beware of pedestrians. Because they'd get large groups of migrants running across the road.
So it became this huge political problem. So the Clinton administration came up with the solution, all we have to do is seal the urban crossings and we will solve the problem of immigration. Because if you sealed up the big cities along the border, which were basically El Paso and San Diego, the countryside in between that wilderness was so deadly that they figured nobody would even try to cross.
And I have a quote here my book from Doris Meissner, who was then the director of the immigration service. She said, "We believe that geography would be an ally to us. It was our sense that the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle." And as we all know, that's not what happened.
They put these walls up. You can see how much more intense the walls are now. And right away, within a few years, we noticed in Arizona a huge uptick in the number of migrants coming through this difficult and treacherous Arizona-Sonora Desert. Arizona became the immigrant highway. And it's a very dangerous place to go. And as soon as the large numbers of people started crossing, we started having, as Dr. Parks noticed, the large numbers of deaths along the border.
This is in the year 2000. When I first started reporting on my book—or back then, not a book, newspaper articles for the Tucson Weekly—I went down to Douglas, which is in the southeast corner of Arizona. At that time, it was the biggest place for migrant crossings. And you can kind of see why. Arizona has what we call sky islands. We have these big mountains, and then we have flat desert in between.
Douglas was perfect because there was a highway coming up from Mexico. People could get there pretty easily, and then they just had to walk across this desert. And back in those days, it was only a five-mile walk, where Josseline was going to have a five-day walk to get to her ride in the other part of Arizona. People at that time, they only had a five-hour walk.
However, people were already starting to die. This is the first migrant I interviewed in all the many years of reporting that I've done. And so he remains special to my heart. Ishmael Vasquez. This man, when I interviewed him six hours before that, his 23-year-old cousin Silverio Huinil Vail had died in his arms. And you can see he's a little shell-shocked. This is in the border patrol office.
And it was the first time I heard the tragic story, this long, difficult journey that these migrants take. I was able to sit down with him in this office. And with the help of Hector Acuna, the photographer with me, we got this conversation from him that he had come from some little village in the highlands of Guatemala. He was not a Spanish speaker, as many of these people are not. Many of them are indigenous people. Had no plan ever of coming to the United States, but he felt forced to come. He had four little children at the time. Silverio, his young cousin, had no children as of yet. But the two of them agreed together.
And for the first time, I heard this long, tragic journey of what it's like to take these buses and get all the way up. And they were crossing in July of 2000. And like many of these migrants, they came from a highland climate. They had never experienced the kind of heat that we get in Arizona in the summertime. I was in touch with a friend of mine in Tucson yesterday. She said it was 108 degrees yesterday. And this is when the migrant deaths will spike now. Starting in June, they're always bad.
So these men were crossing in July. And this young man, Silverio, was a healthy young man, according to the autopsy. But he died within just a few hours of crossing the desert. So that experience was kind of life-changing for me, going down to Douglas at that time and seeing what the border looked like, which looked like a war zone in terms of helicopters cluttering overhead, border patrol agents everywhere.
It was very shocking for me to go down there and see that in my own country, at peacetime, to go down and feel like—two hours, again, just from my house—to see that we're basically at war on the border. Going into this border patrol headquarters, seeing hundreds of people funneled through the cells, men, women and children, it was just very shocking to me. And, as I said, life-changing. And ever since, I've been reporting it. I've been working on these stories now for 10 or 11 years.
I want to make sure I'm OK for time. All right.
So this is just one of the stories in my book. This is one of the most dramatic stories. In that cart there is a woman named Marta Garcia Gomez, who traveled up from Honduras. Like Josseline, she had come a very long way. She was a widow. She herself believes that her husband died in the Arizona desert. Because he left and was never heard from again after he tried to cross the Arizona desert.
She lived in a village in Honduras. She had two small boys, and she had a sister in North Carolina, actually. And her goal was to get to North Carolina and work. And she got as far as the border, and very close to where Josseline died, she fell. It's very rough country, a lot of this. It's a desert, but it's also mountainous and rocky. So it's like every possible difficulty.
And Marta fell and broke her femur bone, which those of you who are medical people know that can be an immediately fatal thing if the bone pierces the femoral artery. That didn't happen to her, but she was in excruciating pain.
And as she told me later, the coyote was going to shoot her. Because he said to her, I can shoot you now and you'll die, or I can leave you here and you will die a slow and painful death. That's your choice. So she told me she screamed and cried and said, I have two little boys at home. He said, fine, I'll leave you here. So that's what he did.
And that was in September of 2005, but also extremely hot, way up in the 100s. And she spent the whole night there. And she told me she thought she was going to die. She was in terrible pain. And the next morning, with the morning light, this little Mexican family came over the hill. And they found her there. And they were, again, people of conscience. And they said, oh well, so much for our attempt to get into the United States. We're going to save this woman's life. And that's what they did.
A couple of them stayed with her. The rest of them hiked out to the road, flagged down the border patrol. And that's where I came into the story. Because I was riding around with BORSTAR, which is their elite rescue unit. So they immediately went down there. And the interesting thing about that rescue was that I was hiking with the border patrol, which is already a big challenge for me because they are extremely fit, mostly young people. And it was over 100 degrees.
And I got into trouble pretty quickly, especially when the border patrol got lost trying to find Marta. They got completely lost. And what was supposed to be a 20-minute walk back took us at least an hour and a half. Luckily, some of their young EMTs had gone down there quickly with one of these Mexican migrant people.
But as an indication to me, people say to me, were you ever in danger reporting on these stories? I said, the most danger I was in was when I was traveling with the border patrol. So think about that. These are people who are highly equipped with all kinds of technology, GPS, and they got lost in this difficult country. So think about if you're a migrant and you're trying to make your way through there, and the danger that you're in.
But the happy ending to Marta's story was that it was an amazing thing to see. On the one hand, you see all the energy and funds deployed by the United States to seal the border. And on this day, those people were so determined to save this one woman's life. There were at least eight border patrol people involved in this rescue. It was a many-hours affair.
When we got her back to the road, a helicopter came in from Tucson, flew her to Saint Mary's Hospital, a Catholic hospital in Tucson that is happy to treat migrants. And she got excellent medical care. And at the end of her stay in the hospital, they allowed her to wait for her sister to drive all the way from North Carolina to pick her up. And then she went off on her way. So that was a very strange and happy ending to this tragic story.
Just to wrap it up, bringing us back today, this is a view of the famous border wall you hear about all the time. You can see it's not just a wall. It's also a big road. It does a lot of environmental damage just to build the thing, and it's disrupted wildlife trails, among many other things. But you can see how rough that country is.
Right now, the most deaths we have are out on the Tohono O'odham Nation. And I mentioned last summer was our second-deadliest summer ever. And Dr. Parks did an analysis of his data and found that something like 80% of the bodies he was seeing were dying out on the Tohono O'odham Nation. This is west of Tucson. It's very, very dry. It's very little populated. If people get in trouble out there, it's much harder for them to find help.
And the reason they're going out there is that the strategy of border enforcement that I mentioned earlier is the more walls you build, the farther away the people will go. The Tohono O'odham Nation is a sovereign nation, although they're under the United States. There's a lot of conflict there. The chairman of the nation has said over his dead body will the United States build a wall along his border. Because the Tohono O'odham Nation overlaps. It goes into Mexico. It has a portion in Mexico, a portion in the United States. Years ago, nobody cared, and the Indians on that reservation were able to travel back and forth with ease.
But so he says, this is our nation, we're not going to divide it. They do have vehicle barriers, so the cars can't get through. But as a result, for all these reasons—there's no wall there and it's so remote—that's where the bulk of the migrants are crossing through now. And when they cross the area, they have like a five- or a seven-day walk to the desert to get to any place where they can get a ride. So because they're pushed farther into these wilderness areas, the death rate has gone up.
This is a picture of the sacred mountain Baboquivari of the Tohono O'odham Nation. And I don't know how easily you can tell how rough that country is. It's filled with cactus. It's filled with rocks. It's filled with snakes and other poisonous insects.
This is a picture on the left—I don't know how well you can see it—of Mike Wilson, who is another man of conscience in my book, who has defied the tribe. The tribe has forbidden people to put out water tanks on the nation to help the migrants for fear that it will attract the migrants and for fear that the water will go to drug dealers. Because there's a lot of drug-dealing and smuggling coming across that reservation, for the same reasons that people are bringing people. It's remote and it's farther from the scrutiny of the federal authorities.
So Mike Wilson is a member of the nation. And every single Saturday, he goes out there and defies the tribe and puts water out. This is a picture of my son Will. He came out with me when I was writing the story and helped. This is what Mike does. He fills up all these water bottles in his truck, and then he drives out there to the nation. And he has these tanks. And he fills the tanks up, and he keeps these careful records of how much water is gone. It gives him some indication of how many people are coming through.
Two weeks after this happened, he got busted by the police on the Tohono O'odham Nation. He had a large group of Presbyterian seminarians with him. He had about 25 people out there. And the Tohono O'odham police came out, and they said, that's it, you can't put this water out anymore.
And the seminarians have all been banned for life from the reservation. But they can't ban Mike because he's a member of the tribe. So they took away his tanks. Those tanks are no longer there. But now he just puts out water bottles. And he still keeps doing it every single Saturday.
The tragic thing is, for all of Mike's efforts, we still are having many, many deaths out on the reservation, especially last summer, as I mentioned. This young man was one of our casualties last summer. And I was looking over my notes this morning, and I realized that today is the one-year anniversary of Manuel's death, which was moving to me.
His story is that he came up, also from Honduras, as a young man when he was 18 years old. And he illustrates the whole change in border policy because when he first came, he traveled up to San Diego, as so many people did, crossed easily. His sister in Sacramento, who's my informant for this story, said she didn't even know he was coming. He called her from San Diego. He says, hey, I'm here in the United States, come and get me. And so she did. And he moved up to Sacramento. He's the baby brother in a family of nine. I'm from a family of nine, too, and I have a baby brother, so he kind of touches my heart, also.
But a lot of his brothers and sisters were living up there in Sacramento. And he married and he had four children and he was living there for about 18 years with a happy life. But his mother died back in Honduras, and he had a longing to see his old father, who was about 80 years old. He really wanted to see his father before his father died. So he planned this big trip, he got himself a station wagon, he packed it with goods, he drove all the way down to Honduras. He spent five months visiting his dad, had a really good time, by all accounts. And then he sold the van to pay for his journey back to the United States.
And not knowing that our border policy had changed, he went back to San Diego. And he got there, and he couldn't get through. Like so many people, he just had no idea. You have to understand—and it's discouraging for journalists like myself who have been writing about this stuff that people don't know it—but he didn't know it.
He called his family. He said, I have to go to Altar. Everybody tells me I have to go to Altar. I don't know if you can see on the map. It's a Mexican town about 60 miles south of Arizona. He told his sister it was like a Walmart for migrants when he got over there. And I've been there. It's full of backpacks for sale and water bottles and tins of little wieners and tuna fish. It's everything you will need to cross the desert.
So that's what he did. He went over there. And then last year on June 11th, he called her in Sacramento and said, I have a coyote lined up, we're leaving tomorrow—that was Saturday, June 12th—and I'll see you in Sacramento on Tuesday. That was the last the family ever heard of him. He lay in Dr. Parks' morgue last summer for eight weeks before he was identified. His sister was frantic. She was calling around every agency she could think of—Phoenix, Northern Sonora in Mexico. She couldn't find him. She couldn't find him.
But then, with the numbers of deaths shooting up last summer, it made the national news. You may have seen it in the New York Times, the LA Times, all the deaths last summer. She happened to see a Spanish-language television report, somebody standing outside the morgue in Tucson and saying, our morgue is overflowing. And she said, oh, my god, I never even thought of calling Tuscon.
So she called the morgue in Tucson. And within an hour and a half, a young woman, a wonderful young woman, an anthropology graduate student whose job is to try to identify these bodies and to work with the families—her name is Robin Reineke—within an hour and a half, Robin was able to call his sister back and say that they had Manuel there in the morgue. So he was one of many who was a John Doe lying there.
And I end with him. He's not in my book because I finished my book two years ago, and this just happened last summer. But it drives home the point that this is continuing to happen. So far this year, as of March 31st, we've had 88 deaths, and that's before we hit the summer. So we're running a little behind, a little lower than we were last year at this time. But the hot weather has just hit, and so certainly we'll be expecting more deaths to come.
So thank you. That's—
GAIL FORSYTHE-VAIL: Thank you. I wanted to say that part of the process of common read was to invite people to engage with issues of immigration in a way that—there are a couple of things you can do. One is marshal your arguments so that you can go into a debate with someone. And that's something we're all getting pretty good at in our current political climate.
The other way is to engage with this issue as a matter of faith development. And from my point of view, Margaret's book fit beautifully with engaging with immigration as an opportunity for faith development. And by that I mean an opportunity to explore our own migration stories, to begin to connect on a human level with what is happening in Arizona and in other places in our country regarding immigration.
So the invitation to common read was the invitation for Unitarian Universalists to explore through story, through Margaret's book, some of what is going on in Arizona and to find the places where that calls us to act in our own places, in our own communities on this issue.
So having said that, we've invited a couple of the readers to represent you all. And there'll be a chance later on for some of you, also, to speak. Sandy Crowell is from Long Beach, and Laura Lesch is from Stony Brook, Long Island. So opposite coasts. And both have experienced the common read and are going to reflect a little bit upon that, have a chance to talk with Margaret about the effect that her book has had on them and their congregations and so on.
SANDRA CROWELL: Yeah. Just to start with, quick question with maybe a rather long answer. I'm not sure. We wondered how this all came about. What, first of all, piqued your interest? And I know you were gathering research and doing some writing over the past 10 years. What was it that was right at the beginning, got you hooked, so to speak? And then, can you tell us a little bit about how this developed into a full book?
MARGARET REGAN: Well, I'm the arts editor at the Tucson Weekly, so I'm known for my arts writing. But at the time that this story first erupted, shall we say, I was also a general assignment reporter, which was a nice thing. I could write about whatever I wanted to write about.
And I had written some things about the Hispanic community in Tucson. I'd done a big piece on urban renewal, on the 30th anniversary of urban renewal in Tucson. And I'm sure many of you know, in cities around the country, urban renewal had a huge impact on minority populations. And it certainly did in Tucson. So I was very interested in that community.
But really what happened was—I can remember it vividly—in the summer of 2000, as I mentioned, we were seeing a sea-change. And I read my rival, the Arizona Daily Star, the daily paper. And they're the paper of record, so they were having small stories every day. And that summer, all of a sudden, every day, a story about dead people in the desert. This person died, that person died, this person died.
So also that summer, our daughter was taking a dance program in Long Beach, Long Beach State. Our daughter was a dancer. And the family drove out to take her to California. And we took the route through Southern California, Highway 8. Border patrol agents everywhere, because that road gets pretty close to the border. And I'm a reporter. I'm like, wow, look at this, this is so interesting.
So I came back to Tucson. And I said in an editorial meeting, my goodness. We're the long-form weekly paper. We have the freedom to write pretty long cover stories. I said, it's our duty, we should be covering what's going on on the border, all these deaths.
So, of course, being a small staff, they said, oh, well, why don't you do it? Because I wasn't really thinking about me, because it wasn't my strong point, really. So I said, sure, I'll go down. And so I was able to go down with Hector, as I mentioned, who was a native Spanish speaker who crossed the border when he was 8 years old at Mexicali in California.
And, as I said, going down to Douglas and seeing with my own eyes—I often say this—in all these years of thinking and writing about the border, it is still hard to express how that felt. It was the first time I was ever in Douglas, but it took us two hours to get there from Tucson. And we have this nice life in Tucson. And I get down there, and I'm walking into a war. It was just shocking to me, just completely shocking. I just hadn't really absorbed it. And you had to be there to see it.
And as I tell in my book, in the introduction to my book, it happened at a time in my life that my father had died the year before. And I loved my father dearly. And after his death, I had done this big story about his Irish roots for Saint Patrick's Day at the Tucson Weekly. I talked them into letting me write about him, even though he didn't live in Tucson. He was from Philadelphia. But they liked me well enough, they liked my writing. They said, fine.
So I had done this big research project on my family's Irish immigration history. And it's a very tragic story. And I had heard these stories my whole life. And I have this in my book that my great-grandparents had died in Philadelphia several years after they immigrated to the United States. And their two little children were left orphans. And they had a very rough time.
And I had just written this whole thing, and then here I went down to Douglas. And I saw this whole situation, this massive immigration occurring on a level unparalleled since the late 19th century, early 20th century, which were huge. There was a huge impact of immigration in the United States.
And so I can still remember that drive on the way home from Douglas. Hector fell asleep. I was driving. And I had a lot of time to think about everything I had just seen. And I had this whole consciousness of this Irish immigration and the difficulty that immigrants have always had to this country. It's been a part of our history. We're the nation of immigrants, and everybody likes to be sentimental about it. But every single time we've had a wave of immigrants, we've handled it badly.
So that was part of the motivation, the personal thing, too, that it felt like my own family's story. Was that the whole question?
LAURA LESCH: Yeah. And, Margaret, we were particularly interested in knowing, what was your purpose in writing the book? What was the mission of the book? What were you hoping would occur—other than the personal fame and fortune and Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature, which your incredible writing certainly warrants—but what were you hoping for when you wrote the book, and what are you currently hoping will result from this book?
MARGARET REGAN: Well, I'm often asked the question, what is the solution to the problems of immigration and everything? And I always have to say, basically, I'm a reporter. I feel like I'm the witness. I live there. And I am bringing this information to the rest of the people in the United States, as much as can be hoped for in a book. I feel like it's my duty to tell these stories, to bear the emotional burden, in a way. And in some ways, this was a very difficult book to write, especially towards the end when it was concentrated and I was working on it all the time and trying to get it done.
And I remember going through Josseline's autopsy report. I still can't get through that without crying. Because in an autopsy report, they list her little bracelet, they list her size of her underwear, every little fact about this kid. And as a parent myself, it's just it's very hard. So I felt like this book was about me taking on that burden, in a way, and trying to bring this information to other people.
And it's discouraging. As I mentioned, as a journalist, I think this story's been very well covered, certainly in Arizona, and in certainly in some of the national news outlets. The New York Times does a good job, the Washington Post, the LA Times. And yet, I find that people don't know about it.
One of the radio interviews I did—and this is kind of funny—right after the book came out, I got a lot of radio interviews. One of them was with some lefty station in Berkeley. The People's Republic of Berkeley, right? And the woman does this whole interview with me, very nice. And at the end, she said, I had no idea this was going on, I had no idea all these people were dying in the desert.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] that person?
MARGARET REGAN: Well, she was in the media. I don't know. And then, a cousin of mine, Sheila Sweeney, is another one, a very nice, Catholic, good-living person. And she wrote me a letter after I wrote this book. She lives in Pennsylvania. And she said the same thing. She said, I had no idea this was going on and I'm going to spread your book around.
So a friend of ours in Tucson who came to one of my talks, he stood up. He said, if we had a plane crash in Tucson every single year—say every June we had a plane crash and 200 people died—people will be saying, we've got to do something about the Tucson problem. We can't have 200 people dying there every single year.
And yet, these deaths are different. And, of course, our terrible shooting in January merited quite a bit of attention, as it should have. But these deaths are anonymous deaths. These are people in the desert, a lot of them unidentified. We don't know their stories. So it's just a little item in the paper, maybe. Two more bodies found this week.
And the tragedy is a lot of the bodies are skeletal remains, because they've been there so long. And they're very likely never to be identified. So as human beings, when we don't know the story behind a death, we're not going to pay attention. So my goal, as you can see in the way I wrote this book, was to personalize the story.
And Josseline almost becomes a metaphor for the other deaths, because her story embodies almost all the worst things about it. A lot of it is about family separation. It's about the ruthlessness of the smuggling trade, that a person would leave a sick 14 year old in the desert alone in the winter.
And another point that's mentioned in the book—I didn't mention it today—that after she was already dead and her body was in the morgue undergoing the DNA testing—and that took a couple weeks—the coyote was on the phone with her mom in LA saying, oh, no, she's not dead. Just send me another $1,000 and I'll bring her to you. And this woman in Tucson, Kat Rodriguez, one of the activists, she was put in the position of having to say to Sonia, no, no, no I'm pretty sure that's Josseline in the morgue. I'm pretty sure she's dead. Don't give the guy the money. It's horrifying.
So I'm just the messenger. That's my goal. And I'm hoping that people who have the information will figure out solution to the problem.
SANDRA CROWELL: I've been asked to tell a little bit about the experience at my congregation in Long Beach, California, with the common read. Some of you know Phyllis Daniel, as she used to be a UUA trustee. And she decided that this would be really an excellent thing to bring to our congregation. At the same time, there was a group that was beginning to go through the new curriculum, immigration as a moral issue.
And so what happened was the curriculum was meeting on—I believe it was Tuesday nights, but not every Tuesday. And the common read was Monday nights, but not every Monday. That's because it's difficult to get meeting space at our church. We're pretty busy and impacted.
What the common read did was distinct from what the curriculum did. And it's just because of what you've spoken of, Margaret. I have to say that, although I've been aware of developments on the border as far as the wall and that kind of thing and the controversy that's grown up in our communities—we're just on the edge of Orange County, if some of you know the politics there—but I had no idea of the number of deaths and the role that the wall played in that.
So in doing the common read, I want to mention another experience. It fed into an experience that many of us undertook in March, which was the Human Rights on the Border trip. And that's going to be held again next year in March. I highly recommend that if you can possibly do it.
In fact, Kat Rodriguez was one of the people that we met. And we met other people from organizations that Margaret wrote about. And we met not the specific migrants that she wrote about, but we did have the opportunity to talk to—I guess you would call them would-be migrants. Many of them already were migrants because they were coming from El Salvador, in particular.
But we had an opportunity to talk to these people. I remember one woman we spoke with had not gotten very far. Actually, she fell in going over that wall. And I'll talk about the wall in a minute. She fell and was really rescued by the border patrol. When she spoke with us, she mentioned over and over again that she was treated with respect. And apparently, this was not what she expected from the stories that she heard. I think the implications of that were very, very big.
One of the things that happened in the common read—because of the questions, because of the curriculum that went with it—is many of us began to look into our own immigration stories from our ancestors. I was having a cousin come to visit from Wisconsin shortly after that time. I couldn't wait for to get him there because I knew that he knew more of those stories than I did. And I definitely plan to go to the cousins reunion in September because of that.
The other thing was the wall itself. We've read about the wall. But when I began to read the descriptions in Margaret's book, I've never seen the wall. I haven't been down to the border in San Diego or south of San Diego since it was built. I haven't driven Highway 8 since that wall was built. It is amazing.
We were in Nogales, Sonora. The wall consists in part—and I believe you write about this in your book—part of it is the old helicopter landing fields from the Vietnam War. And I think you may have made this point already, Margaret, that's a symbol of the war that's going on there.
So the three experiences together were very important. But the one that the common read gave us was this really personalizing, making it vivid. We had already met some of the people before we went down there. We had also already been on the desert before we went down there.
But when we did go down, one of the things that we did—we went through BorderLinks, they organized the whole trip—we were able to take a walk on the desert with a group of Samaritans, they call themselves. These are mostly retired people living in a nice desert community just north of the border.
And as we walked along the route that they drive every day, we saw some of the crosses that Margaret showed you. We saw backpacks that had come down, washed down from above. We don't know if they were abandoned because they were empty, or if the person who was carrying them no longer was in Arizona or in Mexico, or just no longer was.
It was a very, very sad walk through the desert. And I want to thank Margaret for setting that up for us so beautifully. Thank you.
LAURA LESCH: So we, too, in our congregation participated in the common read of Margaret's book. And I would have to say that the experience for us was one of—using a term that goes back to my '60s roots—one of consciousness-raising. Because on Long Island, we have serious immigration issues from the opposite end. Margaret's book is talking about the experience of people crossing the border illegally or without documentation. On Long Island, we are living with the people who make it, and the problems that they're experiencing as a result of living in a very expensive and competitive area without the proper documentation and papers.
And so we have a lot of public issues that relate to these problems. For example, we have a great problem with gangs now on Long Island. Now, anybody who's ever seen West Side Story knows the story of New York and gangs and how immigration can feed into that. It's really gotten way worse, and it's spread east out of Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, and now throughout Long Island, where we have gangs of children, teenagers, young, mostly men, from different Central and South American countries who are fighting against each other.
And, of course, there's the illegal drug trade issue that they are involved. And so violent crime has gotten to be an issue in an area where most of us live to get away from that in the big city. There's also the issue of employment. Until World War II, Long Island was farms, and that's all it was. And migrant workers were a fact of life. The migrants would show up at planting season and then disappear and then come back for the harvest and then disappear.
But by the late '90s, around the time when Margaret describes the influx of undocumented migrants started to really go up very quickly, on Long Island, a lot of those farms had become golf courses and condominiums. And yet, the people that were doing that work are still there.
And I'll tell you, Long Island lives on the backs of migrant workers. I don't think Long Island would function without the work that migrant workers do, the landscaping, the wineries, working the wineries, doing a lot of the work, the jobs that nobody else wants to do. Staffing the hotels and the restaurants. The minimum wage, or less than that, work that nobody else wants to take is all done by migrants, many of whom are undocumented.
Now, I have to tell you that I am proud to be a New Yorker and be able to say that New York does provide some benefits for these individuals. For example, we have a program that, without regard to documentation, pregnant women and infants get health care. And the taxpayers pay for that. And I, as one overburdened taxpayer, am proud to pay for that, because I believe that that's a right that everybody should have. But at any rate, these are the kinds of issues that we deal with.
So things were getting more and more violent. And before the common read, we had a terrible, tragic killing of our own on Long Island, where a second-generation kid of Hispanic descent—but as American as anybody sitting in this room, handsome, bright, high-achieving kid in school and so forth—was mistaken by a group of teenagers for being an undocumented migrant. They just assumed that he was an illegal Spanish migrant. And they attacked him for absolutely no reason and beat him to death. And that incident really upset, regardless of political and religious affiliations, most Long Islanders. Because now things are getting really, really out of hand.
Also, a tensity had arisen in Huntington, which is one of the north-shore communities on Long Island, about halfway out on the island, that was a big social and social justice issue of conflict in that community. And more on the south shore, there is an area that developed where especially undocumented men who were looking for work would gather in large numbers.
And the landscapers and everybody and the house painters and stuff will come by every day and pick up workers for the day. They paid them cash and then let them go. And every day, if you're looking for work, you know where to go. But it's like huge numbers of fairly young men hanging around, hoping for work, many homeless. You get the picture.
So we've got all this going on Long Island, and then the common read comes. And a lot of us read this book. And what it did for us, I would have to say, is it made the people that were just numbers in the newspaper articles human. And it made all of us really realize that all people have the same needs and the same wants and the same dreams and aspirations, whether you're a long-time resident, white, middle- or upper-middle-class professional, or whether you're an undocumented guy who's found himself living in this area and needs to send money home for his children and his aging parents in Central America.
So I think that's the main thing that the common read did for us. Now, a lot of us were already involved in public service projects like the Interfaith Nutrition Network that provides a healthy meal every single day in our area, to a tutoring program our congregation participates in, where we tutor Spanish-speaking children of immigrants and help them to become more successful in school.
But certainly what we've seen since the common read is an increase in participation in those kinds of problems, and an increase in participation in the public discourse of what to do. Have any of us solved these problems? I would have to say, we're working on it, but we've got a long way to go.
But I think you've given us fuel for our fire that we needed badly on Long Island. And we're all spreading the book around to our friends and neighbors beyond our congregations. And hopefully it's going to continue to have a ripple effect, because it's a powerful book and anybody who's read it has to walk away changed.
GAIL FORSYTHE-VAIL: Thank you both, Sandra and Laura. I think one of the things that you told me, Laura, when we first talked was about your work in high—I've lost the word—
LAURA LESCH: High-risk obstetrics.
GAIL FORSYTHE-VAIL: High-risk obstetrics. And that women who are undocumented are really reluctant to seek care when they desperately need it. And it just touched me so much to hear what you said about that. What I'd like to do is invite—how many have participated in the common read this past year, have read The Death of Josseline and participated—
AUDIENCE: Can you explain that? Is that a small group or a whole congregation?
GAIL FORSYTHE-VAIL: I need to explain that. Thank you for being a ringer. Wonderful. The common read was an invitation for Unitarian Universalists to read the book The Death of Josseline and to use a study guide that I wrote for that purpose in congregations, district groups, professional groups, and a variety of other contexts to begin to explore the issues around immigration, using this very powerful book that looks at story as a way of understanding better what we're dealing with.
So common read was an invitation. The invitation was issued to congregations through a whole variety of venues. The book that we chose was published by Beacon Press. Thank you Beacon Press. And so some here have participated. Others have maybe read the book. Others are thinking about doing it next year. So does that explain what it is?
AUDIENCE: Well, we did a book study. But does it mean everybody in the congregation read it?
GAIL FORSYTHE-VAIL: No. Common read means a whole lot of people chose to read the same book. It doesn't mean that everybody read it. And one of the district executives got to me and he said, by "common read," you don't mean "everybody read," do you, because it'll never happen. And I said, yes, I don't mean everybody read, because that will never happen. Common read means lots of people read the same book.
So how many here did read Margaret's book? Wonderful. How many are planning on reading it? We'll give you information about that shortly. How many participated a discussion group of some sort at their congregation, in their district, around the family dinner table, even? All of those things. How many felt changed by the experience? See, you need to see that. That's important.
AUDIENCE: More frustrated than changed.
GAIL FORSYTHE-VAIL: OK. We have a few minutes. I'd like to invite people who did read the book to maybe—if you could limit yourself to a sentence or two, here's your opportunity to tell the author what the book meant to you. And if you wanted to use the microphone, I'd love to invite folks to just let her know.
MARGARET REGAN: Or if they have questions, or—
GAIL FORSYTHE-VAIL: Questions, also.
DAVID BARBER: Hello. Yeah, my name is David Barber, and I'm from the congregation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. So it's becoming more of an issue for us, as well. We're finding people escaping from Arizona to New Mexico. And recently we screened a documentary called The Fence at our Conscientious Projector film series. And that was a very interesting film, and I highly recommend it. One of the points that they made was that the number of people trying to cross has not changed since the fence, but the places where they can cross is now much more dangerous.
And if we're looking for solutions, I think we need to look at very overall solutions. Because it's really because of policy decisions in the US that there's such a problem. And the main policy decision has been NAFTA and the impoverishment that that has created in Mexico and Central America, which has just made it a lot more important for people to try to somehow protect their families by getting to the US.
MARGARET REGAN: Yeah. I don't think Americans generally make that connection with NAFTA, that immigration really spiked. And that was a policy that we participated in.
AUDIENCE: When you first were introducing this, you had action as the third prong on this thing. And the first thing that comes to my mind is I wonder if every member of Congress and the president has been sent a copy of this book. Because I wonder how aware our leaders who make these policy decisions are, how aware they are of the impact the decisions have made, which would give us much more ammunition, so to speak, for talking with the people who have the clout to make the decision about making the decisions.
MARGARET REGAN: Right. As far as I know, they haven't. I was on a talk-in radio show, and one of our Arizona state legislators called in to talk to me about it. And he's pretty much on the other side of the issue, but at least he listened to me on the radio.
GAIL FORSYTHE-VAIL: If we could maybe get two or three more, that'd be great.
AUDIENCE: Margaret, I think that you probably know, many of us are hoping to be in your home state of Arizona in Phoenix next summer. And I'm hoping that you can give us some perspective. One of the things that I admired very much is your ability to honor the individual people of conscience that you described doing many things in Arizona. So I'm hoping that as a way of orienting us to what we can face in Phoenix next summer, you can talk a little bit about the hearts and minds of Arizona politicians, who are so usefully and successfully exploiting the fears and cruel indifference of so many Arizonans about this humanitarian crisis.
Why are Arizona politicians so successful—and those of us who cry when we read your book, so unsuccessful—in making this advocacy point? Can you please explain that to me?
MARGARET REGAN: Explain that to you by next year, or right now?
AUDIENCE: Could you do a profile of your governor, for example, or your sheriff?
MARGARET REGAN: Well, our governor, Jan Brewer, this was not a big issue in her political career until two years ago. And I've tried to talk about this. In times of economic crisis, Arizona is one of the hardest-hit states. I think I put that in my afterword, which I wrote just last summer after the hardback had already come out.
Arizona is really hurting. We have very high unemployment. My husband is at the university. The university system is being—the money, the public schools. We are very hard-hit. We have, I think, the second-highest foreclosure rate. And Arizona was built on this artificial economy of building houses. And as long as they were building houses and people were buying them at inflated prices, people were employed. And now they're not.
So any time you have these periods of real economic difficulty for ordinary people, it's very easy, as we all know, for politicians to scapegoat. This legislator that called into that radio show I was on, he said, oh, illegal immigration is responsible for all the financial problems of Arizona. Not derivatives, not the housing bubble, not the overbuilding. Illegal immigrants who were building the houses and taking care of the yards.
So it seems for whatever reason—and I don't think it's confined to Arizona—but we are the big crossing state. That really bothers people along the border. We have all these fires. Arizona's burning right now. We're having the worst fire season ever. And maybe you saw the other day, McCain was quoted. Our Senator McCain said, oh, by the way, illegal immigrants cause the fires. Very helpful, John, in this time of crisis.
And it's entirely possible that some of them were. But they could have been set by anybody. One of the biggest fires is in northeastern Arizona in an area where there are no migrants passing through. So literally throwing—what's the expression—fuel on the fire. But we can talk more about that.
AUDIENCE: Just to give you some feedback, we got the library to get the book. We had a book study at our congregation. We've taken on the mission of educating the community. We've connected with the League of Women Voters, who do a presentation. We used the excerpts from Josseline. And I went through the book and took excerpts and did a presentation to our women's group. And that stirred up interest in the book. And we've made that available to other churches to stir up interest, and they're doing a book study.
But I think bottom line is comprehensive immigration reform. And the Gutierrez bill is really—and that's what we need to be pushing.
GAIL FORSYTHE-VAIL: I want to make sure to honor time. Margaret will be here for a little while. She can definitely stick around. But I want to make sure to honor the workshop time, so do you want to, just for—
TOM HALLOCK: Hello, again. I just want to say that the UUA bookstore is outside and that there are copies of Margaret's book, The Death of Josseline. And she'd be willing to sign and take some questions at the table right outside.
And there also are other books from Beacon that are on this issue, including David Bacon's Illegal People. David is doing a workshop tomorrow on immigration as a moral issue at 1 o'clock. You might want to look for that.
We also have Avi Chomsky's They Take Our Jobs and 20 Other Myths about Immigration, as Margaret was just talking about. And Danielle Ofri's Medicine in Translation, about providing medical services to immigrant communities in New York. So all books from your Beacon Press that are available out there.
Are we closing out this session, then?
GAIL FORSYTHE-VAIL: Yeah. We need to honor time and close out. And I need to invite those of you still at the microphone or who want to share with Margaret to please do it. She will be here for a while longer. And I wanted to also thank your representatives, Sandy and Laura, for representing some of the congregations who did the common read. So thank you also so very much.
AUDIENCE: Well, yes, what I had intended to say—
Common Read, Common Reflection, Common Action on Immigration is General Assembly 2011 event number 2026.
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Last updated on Tuesday, October 11, 2011.
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