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The Death of Josseline Hernández

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


The other travelers grabbed the wailing boy and walked on, leaving his sister alone in the cold and dark. She had only her clothes to keep her warm. On her first night alone, the temperature dropped below freezing, to 29 degrees. By the weekend, when her brother arrived safely in Los Angeles and sounded the alarm, Arivaca had warmed up—to 37 degrees.

Three weeks later, Dan Millis was getting ready to go out on desert patrol. He was filling up a big plastic box with nonperishables for migrants—granola bars, applesauce, Gatorade—and new socks, something the weary walkers always seemed to need. He tossed the box into his car and then loaded up dozens of gallons of water. A former high school teacher, Dan, 28, was an outdoors enthusiast who was spending a year volunteering with No More Deaths, a Tucson group determined to stop the deaths of migrants in the Arizona deserts.

This flyer was circulated when Josseline went missing. (Courtesy of No More Deaths)


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As the United States clamped down on the urban crossings, desperate travelers were pushing into ever more remote wilderness and dying out there in record numbers. So the No More Deaths folks began hiking the backcountry in the Arivaca borderlands, an hour and a half southwest of Tucson, setting out water and food in the rugged hills. Sometimes they’d meet up with migrants who were lost or sick, and they would provide first aid. But sometimes they found a body.

Before he left town, Dan studied the trail map. He could see that several heavily traveled Arivaca trails converged on a single ridge, and he wanted to drop his load there, where it would do the most good. Three buddies were coming along to help, but the goods they were packing would be heavy—each gallon jug of water weighed almost 8 1/2 pounds—so he wanted to get his car as close to the ridge as he could. The map showed that a dirt ranch road edged near the drop spot, but the volunteers would have to hike up Cedar Canyon, where they’d never been before. Dan didn’t know whether the canyon would even be passable, but he decided to give it a shot.

He had heard about Josseline Hernández. When the girl’s little brother arrived in Los Angeles without her, her distraught family had called the Salvadoran consul in Nogales, a border town, and the consul connected them with Coalición de Derechos Humanos, a human-rights organization in Tucson. Derechos compiles annual lists of the desert’s dead, and tries to help the families of the missing. The coalition’s Kat Rodriguez gets two or three reports of lost migrants a month. Josseline’s mother couldn’t even talk to her—“She was coming undone”—but the uncle gave Kat a description of the teenager and her clothes, including the distinctive green shoes Josseline was so proud of. Kat always asked for pictures of the loved one smiling; teeth, after all, can be used to identify a corpse.

The family sent Kat photos that pictured Josseline in a uniform and cap, banging the cymbals in a parade with her high school marching band; Josseline posing in fashionable capris and a tank top; Josseline standing forlornly in her church, with flowers, lit candles and a statue of the Virgin Mary behind her. The pictures showed her black hair and eyes and her warm brown skin—morena, the consul called it—but in every one, she was serious and unsmiling, a young girl with heavy responsibilities.

Kat organized the images and identifying info into a color flier headlined “Menor detenida o desaparecida” (Female minor detained or disappeared). Kat sent her report to the Pima County medical examiner, in case he had a matching body in his morgue, and activists from the Samaritans immigrant-aid group checked the hospitals and detention centers. Other volunteers went out looking for her. They didn’t have much to go on. The coyote had told the family Josseline was near pistas, or platforms; no one was quite sure what he meant since there were no structures in the desert. And the flier stated, erroneously as it turned out, that the girl had last been seen near Nogales, miles from where she’d been walking.

Dan Millis hadn’t gotten involved in the searches. Hunts for missing migrants are needle-in-a-haystack affairs, typically conducted by well-meaning amateurs who don’t know search-and-rescue techniques. Sometimes the volunteers get injured themselves. Even BORSTAR, the Border Patrol’s search, trauma and rescue unit, can’t help when there’s too little information. Far better, Dan thought, to stick to the work he knew would do some good, putting out food and water for the living. So he and his companions drove down to Arivaca and started into Cedar Canyon, lugging the water jugs and the box of goodies, traipsing a narrow path between looming rocky walls. There was an old dam back in there, along a wash, and he and his buds had to scramble up over the concrete. They’d been walking maybe 20 minutes when up ahead, Dan spotted a pair of bright green shoes.

He didn’t think of Josseline at first. Or of death. The owner of the shoes had to be around, he reasoned, maybe hiding. He began calling out the standard No More Deaths chant, designed to reassure fearful migrants. “¡Hola, hermanos! Somos amigos de la iglesia. Tenemos comida y agua.” Hello, brothers! We’re friends from the church. We have food and water.

Then, suddenly, he saw her. She was lying on a rock, under a bush, her hands raised up near her head, her feet plunged into water that had pooled in a cavity in the stone.

“I saw her teeth,” he said months later. “I knew she was dead. It was a horrible feeling. I told my friends to stop.

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