ROCHESTER — Peggy Rosenthal and her husband, Deacon George Dardess, had barely crossed the Mississippi River on their trip from Arizona to Rochester when they knew they had to bring author Margaret Regan to Rochester.
"We knew people would love to hear what’s happening at other end" of the immigration debate, Rosenthal said as she introduced Regan to more than 150 people who came to hear her discuss her experiences of reporting from the Arizona-Mexico border. During her May 13 presentation at the First Unitarian Church, Regan also read from her non-fiction book, The Death of Josseline.
A reporter at the alternative Tucson Weekly newspaper since 1990, Regan said immigration had not been a major issue during the 1990s. Then, in 2000, the number of migrant bodies found dead in the desert and brought to Arizona’s Pima County medical examiner jumped to 65 from a total of 17 the year before. In 2007, the number of undocumented immigrants arriving at the morgue rose to 218 and then to 1,415 in 2009, according to Regan’s book.
Regan explained that the U.S. government had begun during the early part of this decade to clamp down on urban migration paths through San Diego and El Paso, encouraging more migrants to trek across the desert to cross the border. In addition, the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement had depressed corn prices in Mexico, driving more people to risk crossing the border to support their families, she added.
"In the past, migration was not so dangerous," said Regan, "The thinking was that (the desert) was too dangerous, too forbidding. (Border officials) didn’t take into account the desperation of the people who come up here."
Regan began her own journey on the Arizona border after she pitched her editor in 2000 on the idea of reporting about what was happening in the border town of Douglas, which is about two hours from Tucson. When she arrived there, she was shocked by the sight of helicopters, infrared cameras and the sheer volume of border-patrol agents arresting people on the side of roads, she said.
"Two hours from my home in Tucson … there’s a war going on all around me," she said. "These people were being treated like international criminals."
Through hundreds of interviews with workers, agents, ranchers, vigilantes and humanitarians, Regan decided to write the book, Death of Josseline, from which she read during her talk in Rochester. The book recounts the tragic end to to an attempted border crossing by two Guatamalan cousins.
"Silverio began to have dolor de corazón, Ismael said, clutching his own chest to demonstrate his cousin’s heart pain," Regan read from her book. "And dolor de brazos, he added, gripping his arms. He laid the young man on the ground and held him, until finally, simply, painfully, Silverio died. It was one month to the day since his twenty-third birthday."
"I see these people and I see the Americans who have been coming since the start of this country," Regan told the audience. "Illegal is not the point. They are driven by economic desperation to survive."’
In a May 14 phone interview, Regan said she knew from having lived in New York City that the area was home to many immigrants. But she said she was surprised to learn how vital the immigrants are to New York’s farming industry and yet how many raids have been conducted by immigration and border patrol officers.
She told her local audience that meetings with local activists and migrant workers in the Sodus area had taught her a lot about what happens to immigrants after they successfully make it to places like Rochester.
"Depriving farmers of workers to bring in crops and workers of their livelihood, it seems so counterproductive to me," added Regan, whose visit to Rochester was sponsored by several local organizations, including Catholic Charities, Centro Independiente de Trabajadores Agrícolas, the sisters of St. Joseph, Sisters of Mercy and Migrant Support Services of Wayne County.
Sister Luci Romero, a diocesan migrant minister who attended Regan’s talk, said people like Regan help propel the cause for immigration reform forward because information is power.
"The stories are many," she said. "We know them. … Here, we continue these stories of survival."
Sister Romeo said it is important for Americans to understand the painful struggles that undocumented workers go through, as detailed in Regan’s book. And with the passage of Arizona’s new law targeting immigrants, local residents need to know that workers here have long been living under the threat of raids and deportations even without similar legislation in New York.
"We are living it every day," Sister Romero added.