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Aaron Bobrow-Strain | The Death and Life if Aida Hernandez | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | April 2019 | 28 minutes (5,637 words)

Since the move to Douglas, Arizona, Jennifer had spent less and less time at home. She was distant and irritable. Her anger encompassed her mother, her mother’s abusive boyfriend Saul, American schools, and the whole United States. At the nadir, she started lashing out at her sisters Aida and Cynthia. And then, in 1998 or 1999, she left for good.

The morning Jennifer ran away, Aida was the only other person home. She watched her sister dump schoolbooks from her backpack and replace them with clothes. She knew what was happening without having to ask and figured it was for the best. On the way out, Jennifer said that a friend would drive her across the border. After that, she’d see what happened.

Aida kept quiet over the next day, even as Luz began to worry about Jennifer’s disappearance. She knew that her father would call soon to let them know that Jennifer was safe and would live with him in Mexico. The call came eventually, and then the sisters were two.

This was Aida’s fifth-grade year. Things got so bad during that period that Saul bought Luz a house to keep her from leaving. It was a dirty white bungalow with a sharp stone wall around a dirt yard. It had the usual sewer roaches and broken feel, but Aida and Cynthia found a secret paradise in the yard. There, under a thick, strong sycamore, was a cinder-block casita with one room, a bathroom, and a metal door that locked. The sisters immediately saw its potential and staked their claim.

A previous occupant had piled the outbuilding with junk and boxes and broken exercise equipment. Aida and Cynthia stacked the junk in a corner, shoved the exercise equipment aside, and scrubbed the place clean. They decorated with dolls and pictures cut from magazines. One of the rumpled storage boxes coughed up a radio that worked.

The two sisters retreated to their hideout whenever they could. They cleaned and decorated and tuned in music. Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys still fluttered their hearts, but Aida had begun craving Tupac and Snoop Dogg, too. When a good song came on, Aida and Cynthia would lock the metal door, turn up the radio, and dance.

Before they knew it, night would seep into their sanctuary. In the cooler months, it came with mesquite smoke from woodstoves. In warmer months, moths and beetles flicked around lightbulbs. The evening chorus of dogs barking and helicopters buzzing over the border alerted them that it was almost time to leave. Finally, they’d smell grilled meat and roasting chilies drifting across the yard. At this signal, Aida’s stomach twisted. She returned to the main house wondering if the food she smelled was meant for her.

That year, Aida felt that Luz spent all of her grocery money on elaborate meals to keep Saul happy. The sisters, on the other hand, often got cups of ramen. Aida was growing, and one Styrofoam Maruchan didn’t touch her hunger. “Tragona,” “comelona,” her mother would tease, but it wasn’t funny.

One night, Aida and Cynthia found a sack of Mexican birote rolls abandoned in a cupboard. They were golden and flour dusted and still smelled vaguely of bread. Aida didn’t wait to sit down at the table or even get a plate for the crumbs. She stuffed half a roll into her mouth — and yelped. Her teeth ricocheted. She paused for a moment to glare at the basalt-hard roll. Then she adjusted her grip and began to gnaw. Cautious Cynthia followed her lead, sawing and chiseling bread dust with glee.

At the dining room table, Luz had just set steak and rice in front of Saul, but he forked his plate in annoyance.

“Can’t they chew quieter?” He directed this at Luz.

The girls went rigid, expecting their mother to lash out at them for upsetting the man. Aida held her roll tight and started to shake.

Instead, Luz reeled on her partner.

“I’ve already lost one daughter because of you. I’m not going to lose another.”

Aida and Cynthia scattered to their casita before they could see what happened next. With the door locked and the music on, they didn’t notice when Saul left. Nor did they see Luz take her purse and get in the car shortly after that. Only much later, when they smelled burgers frying across the yard, did they venture out of hiding. Luz had gone to the store and returned with the ingredients to make hamburgers and all the fixings for her kids. Later, she showed them an inflatable swimming pool she’d purchased for the yard.

Luz had absorbed the blows of Saul’s violence for years. When he lashed out at her children, though, she revolted. Something shifted in her. He had gone too far. That year, Luz made a promise to Aida. “As soon as you finish fifth grade, we will leave him.”

* * *

Sarah Marley Elementary remained Aida’s haven away from home. Any excuse to stay after the final bell was welcome. She played basketball, sang in the choir, and joined the D.A.R.E. program. Luz, exhausted from violence and endless hours of work, did not show up for Aida’s games or parent-teacher conferences. But in May 1999, she did show up for graduation.

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On the morning of the ceremony, Luz presented her daughter with a new dress. It was long and baby blue with small embroidered butterflies — the exact dress Aida had pleaded with her mother to buy for graduation. Luz brushed out her daughter’s bangs and styled her curls to look like Selena. Aida added hair glitter to the look and felt like a sunburst again.

Fifth-grade graduation marked the end of elementary and the beginning of middle school. It was a big deal, and Aida was called up several times to receive recognition. She was so happy she almost forgot her mother’s promise.

As fast as two toddlers, two preteens, and a woman loaded with all their possessions could move, they moved.

By the time the event finished, glitter had drifted onto Aida’s cheeks and nose, and she clutched a tall stack of awards. She held them up to Luz, one by one, reading the English and explaining what each one meant: “Student of the Month,” “Student of the Week,” “First Place in the Sarah Marley Mile Run,” “Girls’ Basketball Team Participation Award,” “Honor Roll,” and “Certifi ate of Promotion to Sixth Grade.” She wanted her mother to appreciate each one.

“Let’s go,” Luz replied.

Luz, Aida, Cynthia, Jazmin, and Emiliano walked twelve blocks home instead of waiting for a ride from Saul. Aida, still admiring her certificates, had to run to keep up.

At the white bungalow, Luz ordered the girls to gather whatever they wanted to take with them into bags. As fast as two toddlers, two preteens, and a woman loaded with all their possessions could move, they moved. It was a two-mile walk to the port of entry, but it took even longer through back alleys and side streets. Any of Saul’s drivers would have called the boss if they’d seen the family carrying its possessions down the streets.

For the second time in three years, Luz and her children crossed the international line.

* * *

Part of Aida expected her old life to rematerialize — Mom, Dad, Dad’s house, the tienda, and the playground. Instead, she got an unfinished cinder-block room near the railroad tracks in one of Agua Prieta’s most cutthroat neighborhoods. Mexico was not her place anymore, or her choice.

They spent the last days of May 1999 camped at an aunt’s house while Luz acquired a junk car and a place to live. The new house was half built and half in progress, a condition not uncommon in the city’s poorer neighborhoods. It lacked door locks, and until Luz installed dead bolts, the five of them squeezed into the car to sleep safely at night. A year earlier, they had locked themselves in their apartment in Douglas and worried about migrants sleeping in their car. Now they were the ones bedding down in a vehicle.

As if to keep the needle of their lives pointing to red in the absence of Saul, Luz began to direct her anger at Aida. Almost twelve, Aida had a new maturity shooting through her blood, and she argued back. One day, Luz and Aida clashed so hard that Luz buckled. She pulled back and begged on her knees for forgiveness. It was too late. While Luz sobbed, Aida stared a thousand miles past her.

Then, partway through Aida’s sixth grade, Saul found them. The border was no obstacle for him. He plied Luz with all his feather-haired, ripple-muscled charm, and soon he was visiting regularly again.

Aida endured. She’d lived with violence for so long that she almost couldn’t remember another way of life. But she could remember one thing: her father lived nearby. One afternoon toward the end of sixth grade, Aida set off on foot across Agua Prieta to her father’s house. And just as Raúl had welcomed Jennifer back a year or two earlier with quiet joy, he also welcomed Aida.

* * *

“Now that you’re here, there are things you need to know,” Jennifer said the first night she and Aida spent together at Raúl’s house. Aida understood then that, at last, she would get the truth about her parents’ separation. Jennifer didn’t sugarcoat it.

“Mom left Dad because Dad hit her all the time, and at the end Dad hit her because she had been with Saul for years. Emiliano and Jazmin are Saul’s kids, not our dad’s.”

All the signs had been there for Aida to put together. Her dad’s furious outbursts. The long visits to their “family friend” that Luz had dragged Aida to, Saul’s special treatment of Emiliano and Jazmin. But she’d been so little when it happened. Eight-year-olds didn’t put clues like that together. She remembered how ecstatic her father had been when Emiliano was born. Finally, a boy after four girls . . . and it wasn’t his. That is messed up, Aida thought.

None of it excused Raúl’s violence. But it explained a lot about her life. As Aida grappled with betrayals wrapped around betrayals, an empty space ripped inside her. Luz had raised her with contradictory advice. “Your biggest goal should be to find a man who can support you,” she’d say, followed immediately by “Never let what happened to me happen to you.” True or not, to Aida’s early teen mind her mother’s philosophy had wrecked all of their lives. Who is she to tell me what to do? From now on, I live how I want, she resolved.

In this, Jennifer proved an able mentor. For Aida’s thirteenth birthday, she organized a party. Before leaving the house, Jennifer took her aside. Long baby-blue dresses with embroidered butterflies were out. Jennifer dressed Aida in a white tube top and baggy pants that slung below her hips. The older sister pulled Aida’s hair back tight and wrapped it in a bandanna. No glitter was applied. She brushed on white cake foundation and wings of electric-blue eye shadow. Brown lipstick outlined in even darker brown finished the makeover.

“You should shave your eyebrows, and just pencil them in,” Jennifer suggested, but Aida declined. Still, she wore hoop earrings that night and swaggered from the hips. The new look was good.

At the party, Jennifer pressed a warm forty into her hands. Aida drank half of it in one go and liked it.

Aida was only thirteen, but she had seen all that she needed of the world. Enough to know that no one would ever tell her what to do. She remembered herself weak from hunger and punished for not speaking into the dispatch radio. She remembered getting passed over at school and lost in a new country. Not knowing where she’d live next and hustling through the streets with her possessions in plastic bags. And “hide from la migra,” and “cero uno a base.” Aida had seen all those scenes through perfectly clear eyes. So if the world blurred and spun a bit when she drank, she was fine with it.

* * *

Raúl worked as a security guard from seven at night to five in the morning. Jennifer showed Aida how to act like a good girl until he left. Then they stripped off their school uniforms and slipped into party clothes. Sometimes they skated back into Raúl’s house only minutes before he came home to tumble into bed at six or seven. Jennifer taught Aida how to attend school still high on weed and whiskey. And she helped set Aida up with a guy to teach her the most important lesson of all.

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Aida loathed him and the way he pawed her. In all other regards, she was an adept student of Jennifer’s life lessons. Soon she surpassed her older sister in the art of smashing into the world. She wanted to be messy and bladelike, and she was.

The playground outside Raúl’s house had changed in the few years since they’d played there as girls. All of Agua Prieta had changed since the city found itself thrust into the business of clandestine border crossing. Aida started hanging out with a pack of older kids who convened at the playground every night. They weren’t a real gang, but they thought it would be cool to be one. When one of the girls learned to hot-wire cars, Aida and her friends spent their nights fishtailing onto Agua Prieta’s paved boulevards and smashing the suspensions of the stolen cars on its rutted dirt roads.

The extended family observed Aida’s exploits from a distance. Agua Prieta was still a small enough town that gossip traveled fast, and gossip about Aida provoked knowing head shakes. This one hit la mera edad de la punzada hard, they clucked. Aida’s family called girls’ puberty “the age of the stabbing pain,” an apt metaphor. Aida had impaled herself on it fully.

Only when reading books did Aida feel accompanied in life. At some point, she had discovered Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street. She kept the thin book close and read it over and over again. Esperanza, the main character, was a Mexican American girl Aida’s age. Esperanza traversed her Chicago neighborhood in the company of two girls, as close to her as sisters. They found adventures and usually skirted violence, but abusive fathers, sexual assault, and poverty riddled their world. Esperanza survived it all, writing down her story in order to get by. La mera edad de la punzada left gashes in Esperanza, and the struggle to make a place in the United States never ceased. Like Aida, though, she vowed to carry on, no matter what. “I have begun my own quiet war,” Esperanza wrote, and Aida concurred.

* * *

Aida burned through most of seventh grade this way. She read some, skipped school, and ran wild. Her father didn’t know what to do, and relatives, not wanting to bother Luz with bad news, kept her in the dark. Then, one cyanotic dawn, Aida slipped into Raúl’s house as usual and found both her parents waiting. Half stoned, the night still vibrating in her head, Aida realized that she hadn’t seen her parents together in years. Even though she knew that she was about to get hell, the sight of them sitting at the kitchen table made her smile.

It didn’t last long. Luz’s stare — which had also become Aida’s stare — bored holes in her daughter. Raúl laid out the facts.

“I cannot take care of you while I’m at work, and your behavior of late has been less than correct.” He always spoke formally that way. “As much as it brings me sadness, you will need to go live with your mother.”

* * *

Posters went up in the spring of 2001 advertising a day of Cinco de Mayo horse races. It promised to be a historic event. Reeling from years of record migrant flows and divisive border buildup, the mayors of both Douglas and Agua Prieta wanted to restore a bit of borderlands spirit. They won permission to take down a stretch of border fence west of town. Race organizers would replace the barrier with a plastic railing running straight down the international line. For five hundred meters, a U.S. horse and a Mexican horse would rocket along the geopolitical divide, each one on its own side. Organizers expected ten thousand spectators, half in the United States and half in Mexico. The day’s festivities would remind residents what it meant to live in DouglaPrieta, a single community enriched, not endangered, by the border.

Organizers billed the event as Douglas and Agua Prieta’s “second annual” International Border Horse Race. The “first annual” race had run forty-three years earlier in 1958, pitting a champion Arizona thoroughbred named Chiltepin against Relampago, one of the most famous horses in Mexico at the time. Relampago, owned by a nightclub impresario from Agua Prieta, won.

In 1958, race organizers staged the match on both sides of the borderline to get around animal quarantine regulations. In 2001, the race would defy another kind of border regime — this one focused on undocumented migrants.

Reeling from years of record migrant flows and divisive border buildup, the mayors of both Douglas and Agua Prieta wanted to restore a bit of borderlands spirit.

When the day came, Mayor Ray Borane presided over the event with noble words. “They say enemies build walls and friends build fences,” he declared. “Well, today we take down the fence to show that we are more than neighbors — we are friends and family.”

The races attracted fifteen thousand spectators, far more than expected. Horses with names like El Sapo, El Bobito, and El Rayito thundered down the track in twenty-second flat-out sprints. Between races, Mexican bookies waved rolls of bills and dipped across the line to take bets in Arizona.

U.S. spectators hustled across the track to buy Tecate when American vendors ran out of beer. A woman arrayed in a charro suit performed an impromptu horse ballet. And the Border Patrol hung back, unwilling to interfere. For some, the binational event seemed as if it might mark the beginning of a new DouglaPrieta. For others, it seemed like a last hurrah.

* * *

The second annual International Border Horse Race was not the only effort to resist the stiffening border at the turn of the millennium. Around that same time, Rosie Mendoza joined Frontera de Cristo. This was a group of people from Douglas’s faith communities horrified by the human cost of prevention through deterrence. Frontera de Cristo worked to mend connections between people and places. It organized development projects in Agua Prieta and education programs for Americans interested in understanding immigration at a deeper level. The group also helped found and staff the Migrant Resource Center in Agua Prieta. Volunteers in the small building on the Mexican side next to the port of entry welcomed recent deportees. They distributed shoes, blankets, hot coffee, and food — some migrants’ first meal in days. Volunteers helped the castaways telephone relatives in places like Chicago, Iowa City, and Greenville, South Carolina. They bandaged feet that were bloody and blistered after treks through the desert. Sometimes, they just held people shell-shocked by their violent traverse through Mexico, the desert, and then detention.

When they weren’t helping the living, Frontera de Cristo members vowed to remember the dead. Every Tuesday evening, as rush-hour traffic idled through the port of entry, community members carrying white crosses gathered near the wall. Each cross bore the name of a migrant who had died in Cochise County. For as long as it took, the assembled fellowship read each name aloud, followed by a simple cry, “presente” — you are still here with us. Rosie Mendoza participated in the vigil often. She called out each name, exactly as written on the cross, as loud as her soft voice permitted. But in her heart, every name she uttered stood for the dead man she’d seen at the bottom of the ditch in August 1997.

* * *

On the other side of the spectrum, the Old West bluster of angry ranchers drew displays of solidarity from across the country’s right wing. Inspired by images of armed residents like Roger Barnett taking a stand against “invasion,” anti-immigration activists poured into southeastern Arizona. One of them, Glenn Spencer, had been protesting Mexican immigration to California since the early 1990s. When he heard what was happening in Douglas, he declared California “a lawless, lost state” and decided to make a stand in Cochise County. Southeastern Arizona would be his battleground against what he said was a Mexican assault on white America. Spencer founded the American Border Patrol, an organization with militia trappings, in 2002. After reading about Roger Barnett, the Texan Jack Foote created a similar organization, Ranch Rescue, and began to patrol private land in Texas and Arizona.

Undocumented residents like Aida stayed off the streets when a new contingent of ersatz border defenders rolled into town. Less vulnerable residents openly criticized the vigilante invasion. For some, civilian patrollers were well-meaning imbeciles who got in the way of real law enforcement; for others, they were the shock troops of white supremacy.

If most Douglas residents distanced themselves from militia-style border defenders, the question of what to make of federal forces was more contentious. Was the appearance of heavily armed agents, National Guard troops, stadium lights, fencing, and military-grade hardware a salvation? Or a hostile occupation?

Competing views on border security upended the town. Angry white ranchers drew national attention, but residents’ opinions about intensified border enforcement didn’t always cleave along racial lines. More than a few Mexican American residents supported immigration restrictions and tougher border security. Years of large-scale migration through the town had exhausted everyone.

Residents also acknowledged that vocal support for border security provided a way for Mexican Americans to position themselves as “real” Americans in the hierarchy of racial nativism. And no other law enforcement agency in the country hired more Latinos than the Border Patrol. “It’s kind of like the Irish,” one retiree from Pirtleville observed. “When they first got here, they were discriminated against. They didn’t get influence or make their way [in America] until they moved into law enforcement.”

Prejudice against the new generation of darker-skinned, more indigenous-looking border crossers also inflamed hostility. With their ancestry squarely located in the supposedly whiter reaches of northern Mexico, Douglas’s norteños sometimes looked down on migrants from southern Mexico and Central America.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Old West bluster of angry ranchers drew displays of solidarity from across the country’s right wing.

Rosie Mendoza was not from southern Mexico, but she came from a northern Mexican family of indigenous descent; this was more common than stereotypes of “white” norteños acknowledged. Her grandfather Cipriano had been an indigenous dancer and healer. She herself had first come to the United States without papers. But Rosie’s three children, growing up as citizens in post-1997 Douglas, believed that undocumented immigration was something that involved distant strangers — foreign-looking Mayans from Chiapas or Guatemala. They struggled to imagine their mother as “an illegal.”

“Is it true that you were a wetback, Mom?” Rosie’s youngest son sometimes asked in a teasing tone.

“Mom, guess what?” her teenage daughter might needle. “I’m going to take the Border Patrol exam next week.”

“Ay, mijo, mija, don’t you know that Jesus was an illegal too?” Rosie would spar back, and then hug her kids.

Rosie’s daughter wasn’t going to take the test, but Rosie could have accepted her choice if she did. Rosie even dated a Border Patrol agent for a while. When he brought romantic sushi lunches to the clinic, she made him wait outside so he didn’t scare her clients. They kept work talk to a minimum and agreed to differ about the border.

“But, you know, guapo,” Rosie would tell him to soften their disagreements, “I’m really glad that you have a job.”

This was a major factor complicating Douglasites’ response to the new paradigm of border enforcement: the town had become partly dependent on border security spending. In fact, increasingly, it seemed to Rosie that border security wasn’t much more than a government job creation program. In some respects, she was right: by 2007, one in thirteen employed adults living in Douglas worked for law enforcement. That rate would continue to increase over the next decade. By comparison, only about one in ninety-five New Yorkers worked for law enforcement. In Tucson, the figure was one in a hundred. In Phoenix, only one in two hundred.

For men in Douglas, the rate was even higher: one in seven employed men in Douglas wore a law enforcement badge of some kind. Law enforcement jobs carried wages and benefits that had not been seen in Douglas since the smelter closed. Border Patrol, Customs, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), police officers, prison guards, and sheriff ’s deputies constituted a kind of economic elite. Their spending helped keep the town afloat. Children aspired to join their ranks, and even immigrant rights activists made bleak jokes about taking the Border Patrol exam when money was tight. At the community college, a federal grant program helped local students prepare for that test. “Pathways out of Poverty” was its revealing name. Even Aida’s family was part of this new economy: Aida, her mother, and her sisters were undocumented, but one of their U.S. citizen relatives worked for the Douglas Police Department. Another one worked security at the port of entry.

‘Ay, mijo, mija, don’t you know that Jesus was an illegal too?’

Douglas had, in many respects, become a new kind of company town — a Homeland Security company town. But the town’s burgeoning new industry did not emulate Phelps Dodge’s benevolent paternalism. Nor did it invest in community life as PD once had. As much as Douglas depended on security money to survive, border security never produced the kind of positive ripple effects the smelter had provided. Most of the billions of dollars lavished on border enforcement by Congress flowed to outside contractors. Wall construction, high-tech infrastructure, and even vehicle maintenance enriched firms based elsewhere. When the Department of Homeland Security built a new border wall, it “didn’t get the materials from B&D Hardware” on H Avenue, the director of a regional economic development institute joked.

On the personnel front, Border Patrol increasingly hired new recruits from non-border communities, and most new agents refused to live in Douglas. They feared the entanglements that would come with living in a community they patrolled. Most preferred to commute from places like the military town of Sierra Vista an hour away. A top city official described this pattern in stark terms: “It’s like the military that goes into a war zone, does its thing, and then goes back. They don’t leave any benefit. It’s not the same as if they were part of the community.”

Two sectors of the economy that even nonresident agents helped keep afloat were Douglas’s restaurants and convenience stores. Even that economic benefit came with risks. Owned by a family of Pentecostals, El Chef was one of the town’s most popular Mexican restaurants during the boom years of border security. Both Homeland Security employees and the town’s immigrant rights activists could agree on its out-of-sight food. The family’s vibrant church crossed political divides in much the same way. Services there united undocumented residents and Border Patrol agents in prayer and fellowship. But despite that ability to cross divides, El Chef almost closed when a new-to-town Border Patrol agent believed that he’d been served a drink with spit in it.

After the incident, the agent sent an email to more than six hundred law enforcement officers calling for a boycott. It wasn’t the first time Border Patrol agents had targeted a restaurant over an imagined offense. But El Chef was particularly dependent on customers in uniform. The restaurant immediately felt the impact. Ninety percent of its Border Patrol customers refused to return. ICE and Customs joined the boycott. In the end, it took intervention from religious leaders, the mayor, and veteran law enforcement officers to undo the damage.

If PD had been a benevolent paternal figure, the border business was like an abusive stepfather, one young Douglasite who’d moved away to attend law school observed: The purveyors of border security moved in without permission. You were stuck with them. In equal measures, you hated them and you depended on them.

* * *

Rose thought this analogy made literal sense. Her work exposed her to tragedies of the sort that didn’t make headlines on CNN or Fox. She saw the ways expanding security made life less secure for many. The glorification of militarized enforcement — and the violent organized crime that followed in its wake—abraded the lives of women in particular. Not all domestic violence and sexual assault could be attributed to militarized masculinity on the border, of course. Many factors complicated the cases that came through Rosie’s clinic. But she insisted that common explanations for violence against women — especially ones purveying stereotypes of poor people or macho “Latin culture” — missed crucial factors. The increased vulnerability Rosie saw in her work, she realized, was, in part, the unexamined collateral damage of a border war.

Rosie witnessed the new border regime make women more vulnerable every day. Start with the border crossing itself. Rape was a ubiquitous part of the price women and girls paid to traverse the militarized border. This wasn’t an intentional result of U.S. policy, but it wasn’t accidental. Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. government’s overarching border security strategy was designed to make unauthorized border crossing more dangerous.

Once women were in the United States, fear of immigration enforcement also bred vulnerability. Abusers threatened to call the Border Patrol on their undocumented victims. Being pushed deeper into hiding made undocumented immigrants more dependent on perpetrators and less likely to report violence. This was particularly true when U.S. legal residents and citizens committed that violence.

Douglas had, in many respects, become a new kind of company town — a Homeland Security company town. But the town’s burgeoning new industry did not emulate Phelps Dodge’s benevolent paternalism.

Rosie’s Border Patrol boyfriend once defended his job, bragging about the rapists and wife abusers he helped deport.

“That’s good,” Rosie agreed. “But a lot of the time, when it comes to protecting women, you don’t even understand that law you’re supposed to enforce. You detain a woman, and you have no idea all the different kinds of visa programs and legal remedies she might qualify for. You just deport her so you don’t have to deal with the hassle of getting her a hearing.”

Crime rates in Douglas, like those in most California, Texas, and Arizona border communities, were not notably higher than in the rest of the country. But policing had begun to exert an outsize cultural influence on the place. What happened when law enforcement permeated the fabric of a place? Even as she started to fall in love with a Border Patrol agent — a good man — Rosie knew that few professions had higher rates of perpetrating domestic violence than law enforcement. Combined with economic displacement, life in a law enforcement company town bred conditions in which gender violence thrived.

* * *

Charlie Austin Worried about the other side of this equation. Law enforcement buildup had a counterintuitive impact on illegal activity. Instead of saying that Douglas had become a security company town, it made sense to say that it had become a security and insecurity company town. As with Prohibition in the 1920s, massive increase in border security made the business of lawbreaking more dangerous but also more lucrative.

During the peak years of the border crisis, it seemed as if nearly everyone made money: grocery stores, hotels, car lots, taxi companies, gas stations all benefited from smuggling. Entrepreneurial locals rented their houses and garages for use as stash houses. And the more vans packed with migrants banged over rutted back roads, the more tire merchants sold.

As prevention through deterrence quintupled the price of unauthorized border crossing in Douglas, ever-more-organized criminal actors sought to enter the market. Drug cartels discovered that they could make more smuggling people than they could trafficking marijuana or meth. They were far more sophisticated and skilled at the work. Watching cartels take over the business of human trafficking was like watching a violent, ruthless Walmart elbow its way into town while the mom-and-pop places went under. Highly profitable human smuggling hardly disappeared in the face of increased enforcement, as policy makers had hoped. It just got more consolidated, concentrated, and sophisticated. And more dangerous for everyone.

For Rosie, this symbiotic relationship sometimes made it hard to distinguish between the harmful effects of law enforcement and lawbreaking. They appeared not as opposing forces but as two different movements of the same machine — a machine that made women more vulnerable to violence. Smugglers preying on migrants and Border Patrol agents enforcing (or abusing) laws both played a role. Each helped strip migrants of money, options, and humanity. When understood as two movements of the same machinery, the fact that organized crime and assault had grown in stride with an expanding border security apparatus was less surprising. Despite abundant lip service paid to protecting migrants from criminal exploitation, in practice U.S. border security policy had outsourced the ugliest work of “deterrence” to violent gangs.

When Charlie retired in 2007, he had accomplished plenty to be proud of in his long career. He had found it thrilling to be at the center of the national drama while free-flowing resources rolled in. And yet he wondered whether it was all worth it. Or worse, if the country’s approach to border security had inflamed the very problems he was trying to prevent. So much spending on border enforcement was like a doctor giving medicine to treat a disease unaware that “the disease was feeding off the medicine.”

Douglas residents argued about these changes over coffee and sweet bread at La Unica Bakery. They argued over smoky barbacoa at family celebrations. When one cousin worked for the Border Patrol and another worked for the cartels, weddings and quinceañeras could be tricky. In churches like the one run by the owners of El Chef restaurant, Sunday services could yield strange commensality: a Border Patrol agent deacon might give immigration advice to an undocumented deacon over doughnuts and coffee, each one wondering how an encounter between them outside church would go. By 2001, these kinds of strange relations constituted Douglas’s new normal — life in one of the most heavily policed small towns in the country.


Aaron Bobrow-Strain is a professor of politics at Whitman College, where he teaches courses dealing with food, immigration, and the U.S.-Mexico border. His writing has appeared in The Believer, The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, Salon, and Gastronomica. He is the author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf and Intimate Enemies: Landowners, Power, and Violence in Chiapas. In the 1990s, he worked on the U.S.-Mexico border as an activist and educator. He is a founding member of the Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition in Washington State.

Excerpted from The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez: A Border Story, by Aaron Bobrow-Strain. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux April 16th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Aaron Bobrow-Strain. All rights reserved.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath