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The Death of Josseline Hernández

The story of one girl’s attempt to cross the border, and her final destination


By Margaret Regan


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From Marcelo Lucero to Steve Levy, there may be no more talked-about issue on Long Island than immigration. It is a divisive issue, a galvanizing issue, an issue that voices on both sides of the aisle debate emphatically, loudly. But immigration is not a political hot button or a point on which to take a stance. It’s not even an issue, really: It is millions of individual lives, lives so rarely recognized amid the chorus and the chaos. The story of Josseline Jamileth Hernández Quinteros represents only one of these lives—one among millions—but it is each of these individual stories that makes up not just our understanding of the issue (if it can be called an issue), but that makes up America herself. To understand the dangers and rewards faced by immigrants is to understand this country, where we came from, where we are. Josseline’s story was written by Margaret Regan, and first published in her book, The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands (Beacon Press, 2010). All these stories are essential to our identity, our culture and our context. They are but a few.

Josseline shivered as she stepped over the stones and ducked under the mesquites. She was in Arizona, land of heat and sun, but on this late-January day in 2008, it was cold and damp. The temperature was in the 50s, and the night before it had dropped to near freezing. A winter rain had fallen, and now the desert path was slippery and wet, even more treacherous than it had been before.


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Josseline was 7 miles north of the Mexican border, near the old ranching town of Arivaca, in prime Sonoran Desert. It was a wonderland of cactus and mesquite, beautiful but dangerous, with trails threading through isolated canyons and up and down hills studded with rocks. She had to get through this perilous place to get to her mother.

A little girl with a big name—Josseline Jamileth Hernández Quinteros—she was 5-feet tall and 100 pounds. At 14, young as she was, she had an important responsibility: It was her job to bring her little brother, age 10, safely to their mother in Los Angeles. The Hernández kids had never been away from home before, and already, they’d been traveling for weeks. Now they were almost there, just days away from their mother’s embrace.

The family hadn’t been together in a long time. Their father, Santos, was living somewhere in Maryland; their mother, Sonia, in California. Both parents were undocumented, working in the shadows. Back home in El Salvador, the kids lived with relatives, and in the years their mom was gone, Josseline had become a little mother to her brother. Finally, Sonia had worked long enough and hard enough to save up the money to send for the children. She’d arranged for Josseline and her brother to come north with adults they knew from home, people she trusted.

The group had crossed from El Salvador into Guatemala, then traveled 2,000 miles from the southern tip of Mexico to the north. The trip had been arduous. They’d skimped on food, slept in buses or, when they were lucky, in casas de huéspedes, the cheap flophouses that cater to poor travelers. In Mexico, the migrants feared the federales, the national police, and now, in the United States, they were trying to evade the Border Patrol, the dreaded migra.

But here in the borderlands, they were in the hands of a professional. Like the thousands of other undocumented migrants pouring into Arizona—jumping over walls, trekking across mountains, hiking through deserts—their group had contracted with a coyote, a smuggler paid to spirit them over the international line. The coyote’s fee, many thousands of dollars, was to pay for Josseline and her brother to be taken from El Salvador all the way to their mother in Los Angeles. So far, everything had gone according to plan. They had slipped over the border from Mexico, near Sasabe, 20 miles from here, and had spent a couple of days picking their way through this strange desert, where spiky cacti clawed at the skin and the rocky trail blistered the feet. The coyote insisted on a fast pace. They still had a hike of 20 miles ahead of them, out to the northbound highway, Interstate 19, where their ride would meet them and take them deep into the United States.

Josseline (pronounced YO-suh-leen) pulled her two jackets closer in the cold. She was wearing everything she had brought with her from home. Underneath the jackets, she had on a tank top, better suited to Arizona’s searing summers than its chilly winters, and she’d pulled a pair of sweatpants over her jeans. Her clothes betrayed her girly tastes. One jacket was lined in pink. Her sneakers were a wild bright green, a totally cool pair of shoes that were turning out to be not even close to adequate for the difficult path she was walking. A little white beaded bracelet circled her wrist. Best of all were her sweats, a pair of “butt pants” with the word “Hollywood” emblazoned on the rear. Josseline planned to have them on when she arrived in the land of movie stars.

She tried to pay attention to the twists and turns in the footpath, to obey the guide, to keep up with the group. But by the time they got to Cedar Canyon, she was lagging. She was beginning to feel sick. She’d been on the road for weeks and out in the open for days, sleeping on the damp ground. Maybe she’d skimped on drinking water, giving what she had to her little brother. Maybe she’d swallowed some of the slimy green water that pools in the cow ponds dotting this ranch country. Whatever the reason, Josseline started vomiting. She crouched down and emptied her belly, retching again and again, then lay back on the ground. Resting didn’t help. She was too weak to stand up, let alone hike this rollercoaster trail out to the road.

It was a problem. The group was on a strict schedule. They had that ride to catch, and the longer they lingered here, the more likely they’d be caught. The coyote had a decision to make, and this is the one he made: He would leave the young girl behind, alone in the desert. He told her not to worry. They were in a remote canyon that was little-traveled, but the Border Patrol would soon find her. Nearby, he claimed, were some pistas, platforms that la migra used as landing pads for their helicopters. Surely they’d be by soon, and they would take care of her. Her little brother cried and begged to stay with her. But Josseline was his big sister, and Josseline insisted that he go. As he recounted later, she told him, “Tú tienes que seguir a donde está Mamá.” You have to keep going and get to Mom.

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