Aaron Bobrow-Strain and Alex Star

In Conversation

Barnes and Noble

When Aida Hernandez was born in 1987 in Agua Prieta, Mexico, the nearby U.S. border was little more than a worn-down fence. Eight years later, Aida’s mother took her and her siblings to live in Douglas, Arizona. By then, the border had become one of the most heavily policed sites in America. Undocumented, Aida fought to make her way. She learned English, watched Friends, and, after having a baby at sixteen, dreamed of teaching dance and moving with her son to New York City. But following a misstep that led to her deportation, Aida found herself in a Mexican city marked by violence, in a country that was not hers. To get back to the United States and reunite with her son, she embarked on a harrowing journey. Taking us into detention centers, immigration courts, and the inner lives of Aida and other daring characters, The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez reveals the human consequences of militarizing what was once a more forgiving border.

Here, Bobrow-Strain’s editor Alex Star talks to him about how he met Aida Hernandez, the unique challenges posed by telling this story, and the importance of sharing border stories in our present political moment.

Alex Star: You’ve spent a lot of time on the US-Mexico border, well before the current “crisis.” What drew you to that place, and why have you kept coming back?

Aaron Bobrow-Strain: I went to work with an organization called BorderLinks as an activist and educator on the Arizona-Sonora border in 1993. I lived there for four years. It was just a short time, but it shaped me, probably more than any period of my life. It was formative for me politically, intellectually, and personally. I met my wife working on the border. We were surrounded there by an incredible binational community. Later, our first child was born during a visit to the border. Somehow it seemed right. The borderlands have seen their share of violence and hate, but there’s a beauty and richness to life there that gets completely lost in national coverage of the “crisis.” I fell for the daily co-mingling of culture and language. I admired the resilience and creativity that comes from living one’s life across geopolitical divides. There is a kind of radical hospitality and openness that can flourish in a place so accustomed to the movement of people. It’s such a generative place.

Later, as the fluid border stiffened under the weight of militarized enforcement, I started taking my students there. We’d talk with a wide range of people from across the political spectrum. Those conversations over years laid a foundation for this book. I realized that the border offers an intense microcosm of dynamics that face all of our communities. Economic inequality, globalization, racism and nativism, and the rise of militarized policing of poor communities can be seen in particularly stark relief there. And, because people in the borderlands have wrestled with these phenomena for years, you can also find illuminating examples of more courageous, open ways of relating to people across social divides.

Star: Douglas, Arizona is itself a major character in your book. What makes it a distinctive place, and why did you set out to set a book there?

Bobrow-Strain: Contrary to the way politicians and the media often talk about border towns, Douglas—and Agua Prieta across the line—are quiet, welcoming places. The high desert setting is spectacular and both towns have rich histories that are only partly defined by their location on an international divide. So, in 2014, when I decided to try to write about the human toll of border enforcement and immigration policy, I headed for Douglas.

To people watching TV footage of Border Patrol agents chasing migrants, asylum seekers fleeing violence, and armed anti-immigrant groups rolling into town, what happens on the border might seem exotic and strange. But what really interested me were all the ways that Douglas wasn’t that different from small towns across the country. From the 1940s to the 1980s, Douglas had been home to an upwardly mobile Mexican-American working class. Good union jobs in the copper industry gave the town a strong economic foundation and a proud sense of its place in the world. But after the main employer shut its doors in 1987—part of Reagan-era anti-union restructuring—the town was never the same. Walk a few blocks from the border wall and Douglas doesn’t look that different from towns elsewhere that have lost the mill or factory around which life revolved. As much as this is a unique border story, it’s also a very American story about how a vibrant community deals with deindustrialization and loss.

As much as this is a unique border story, it’s also a very American story about how a vibrant community deals with deindustrialization and loss.

In the end, the book is about the ways border militarization and economic abandonment aggravate each other. What’s happening on the border can’t be separated from the larger pattern of targeting poor communities of color for intensified policing, prosecution, and incarceration all over the United States.

Star: How did you first meet the woman you call Aida Hernandez? What persuaded you that her story was worth telling in such detail?

Bobrow-Strain: A social worker named Rosie Mendoza was one of my first guides to Douglas. Early in the research she said, “There is a woman—a client who became a friend. I can’t tell you anything about her, but I will tell her about you. If she wants to call you she will. If she does call, you should talk with her.” At first, Rosie’s friend didn’t call. I went about my research and months passed. Then one night I went to a bar in Douglas where the town’s different social worlds gather to cheer for the University of Arizona Wildcats. I didn’t know it, but Rosie’s friend was a bartender there. In a town as small as Douglas she guessed who I was and she watched me. The next day she called.

Aida and I met at a park, and she told me about her life. Not all of it that first time, but a lot of it. I walked away from it stunned. I hadn’t been prepared at all for the intensity of her story on any level. I remember being struck by the way Aida’s account didn’t ask for my pity. It demanded a reckoning with my—and all of our—complicity in creating laws and policies that had made her life almost unlivable. It also asserted the act of sheer survival in a world like hers as a form of dignity and worth, as hard-earned and valuable as any affluent person’s achievements. It was a brutal story to hear that first time. It still is. But she exuded such a sense of pride in her ability to survive. Also a kind of brio, humor, and wit that plays a central role in many immigrant experiences, but often gets lost in journalists’ “tragic immigration tales.”

Star: How did Aida come to trust you to tell her story? And how did you come to trust her accounts of her life?

Bobrow-Strain: A lot of this is simply due to the fact that Aida is an incredibly courageous woman who believes that telling her story in a full, complex way can make a difference in the world. On my end, I did make sure that we spent a lot of time talking openly about the potential risks and benefits of the project. We debated different approaches together—for example, whether to use pseudonyms or not. I also encouraged her to talk with her therapists about how the work could affect her, and she did.

If I had to point to a pivotal moment in the relationship, it was the first time I visited her after she’d moved to New York City. She was in the middle of a major crisis and we spent the whole day and much of the night talking—at a restaurant in Queens, walking along Roosevelt Avenue, sitting in a playground while Angel played, and then, later, with her partner at the time around their kitchen table. Very little of that had anything directly to do with the book. It was just about being there for another person. That night, I ended up opening up about my own long struggles with debilitating anxiety. It’s not like our troubles were equivalent. Hers were much tougher and I had so much more privilege and support in dealing with mine. But after that opening up there was a kind of solidarity between us.

A second turning point came when I gave her the very first draft of the book to read. We read big chunks of it together over Skype and spent hours talking about the book. She kept saying that she couldn’t believe how well it captured her life. The possibilities of the book crystallized for her, I suppose. After that, our conversations went much deeper. She opened up about things she had never mentioned to me, even two years into the project. Many of the most important details emerged after she read that first draft.

Even as that trust grew, I knew that I would have to cross-check Aida’s account with other people and sources. She introduced me to people in her life and convinced them to help with the project. She gave me a wealth of medical, court, school, and immigration records from her life. Luckily, she’s a person who files everything away. She’d tell me a story, say, about an award she won in fifth grade and then a while later she’d text me a photo of the actual certificate.

I also talked with many professionals—immigration attorneys, physicians, border activists, psychologists, and journalists—who weren’t part of Aida’s life, but could verify the plausibility of things she said. Sometimes Aida’s stories didn’t match what other family members and friends remembered, or what those professionals thought was likely, and we’d talk about that. She was quite open to the fact that her memories of long-ago events, like any of our memories, were partial. Being able to have that continual back-and-forth between her stories and other sources was crucial.

In the end, Aida’s story, and the stories of the other key characters in the book, should be read as oral history—it’s their own accounts of their lives that I’ve tried to capture, supported by a lot of research.

Star: Were you concerned about the imbalance of power and experiential distance between yourself and Aida? What responsibilities come with telling Aida’s story, and how have you sought to meet them?

Bobrow-Strain: At the very beginning of the project, I taped a quotation next to my desk as a warning. It’s Philippe Bourgeois paraphrasing the anthropologist Laura Nader: “Don’t study the poor or powerless because everything you say will be used against them.” There’s a long history of exploitative writing that you might call poverty “porn.” Even well-meaning writing about topics addressed in my book can end up giving ammunition to people who want to blame struggling people for their own suffering.

On the other hand, Aida expressed an unwavering desire to tell her story with me. She believed that working on this book was a way of turning the suffering she’d endured into something positive. She talked about it as part of her healing process, and also as bearing witness to human tolls of border and immigration policy that have been almost completely left out of national debates.

Ethically navigating the risks and opportunities of this kind of project took a number of forms for me. First, it meant making the work as collaborative as possible. It meant continually returning to Aida and other people in the book, having them read drafts and shape the project. I also spent a lot of time reading and talking with scholars and activists who had critical perspectives on the dangers of writing across difference. I sent out a lot of drafts to scholars, activists, and others with really different social positions from my own, particularly women, immigrants, and people of color. The feedback and encouragement I received from those people helped me grapple with the kinds of questions raised by that quotation next to my desk. For example, how do I write about the real effects of violence Aida and other people in the book experience without reinforcing depictions of immigrant men as dangerous “bad hombres”? How do I write about the horrific suffering Aida goes through without reducing her to a passive victim?

Lastly—and maybe most importantly—I tried to make sure that, contrary to surface appearances, the book is not just about Aida. It is a book told with Aida about economic, immigration, and border policies that the rest of us have created. This doesn’t eliminate the danger of objectification, but it does try to turn the lens around to shine on the rest of us.

The book is not just about Aida. It is a book told with Aida about economic, immigration, and border policies that the rest of us have created.

Star: Were there particular events in Aida’s life that seemed especially resonant to you? In what ways can her story be considered representative, and in what ways is it not?

Bobrow-Strain: Aida’s life is not representative of a type of immigrant experience. I don’t think that any one person’s life can bear the weight of standing for millions of other people with their own unique struggles and dreams. There’s actually a moment in the book that reflects Aida’s own realization of the diversity of immigrant experiences. It’s one of my favorite parts. She’s in immigration detention and has been resisting engaging with other people there. As the one person in her pod who speaks fluent English and considers herself to be fully American in every way except citizenship, she holds herself a bit apart from the other detainees. Gradually, though, she recognizes that all those women have battled challenges and survived obstacles as great as the ones she has faced. They all have powerful lessons to teach her. And, as different as they are, they are all bound together by their shared struggle for their place in the United States.

That said, even though Aida’s life isn’t meant to represent a type, she has a lot to teach readers. As I mentioned earlier, this is a book told in collaboration with Aida about the world the rest of us have created. She has a real, immediate expertise about economic, immigration, and border policies that most folks in the United States don’t understand at all—even though those policies have been created in our name.

Star: Your book has a great deal to say about detention facilities, border crossing stations, legal aid, and other institutions. You give a vivid sense of how they operate from day to day. Did working on this book give you new and surprising insights into any of their workings?

Bobrow-Strain: The courage and strength of people in immigration detention never ceases to amaze me. The horrors of immigration detention are real: kids in cages, the wanton cruelty of family separation, private prison companies making millions detaining people who really shouldn’t be locked up, and abuses at all levels of the system. Today there is more awareness of that reality, which is great. But the narrative around detention often paints detainees as helpless, passive victims. What struck me in my research, though, was the way that detainees still carve out space for dignity and resistance.

For Aida, detention was harrowing, but it was also a place where she found her voice and became a leader. She drew power from being surrounded by strong, resilient women, each one struggling for their rights. One of my favorite scenes in the book deals with a small act of resistance that she and other women in her pod organize when the company running the detention center tries to cut shampoo and toilet paper rations. Across the country right now, immigration detainees are mounting even more significant movements against the conditions of their incarceration, including hunger strikes. It’s great that more people are outraged about what is being done in our name to immigrants in detention, but we also need to change the paternalistic narrative about passive victims. They need justice, not pity.

Star: What was it like for you to research the book where many of the characters are undocumented immigrants? What was involved in earning their support for your project?

Bobrow-Strain: I always spent a lot of time up front talking with folks about what I hoped to accomplish with the book and what I saw as its limits and dangers. Exposure of immigration status was definitely one of those. But, often, people’s immigration status didn’t come up in our conversations. It wasn’t relevant to whatever we were discussing, so I didn’t ask. Three different immigration attorneys also read drafts for me. One of the questions I asked them was whether they thought anything in the book could compromise Aida or people close to her in a future immigration hearing.

Star: Your book aims to create a strong empathic bond between the reader and Aida. What are the purposes, and also the limits, of this sort of empathy?

Bobrow-Strain: Depictions of immigrants mostly divide between the dangerous “bad immigrant” who deserves whatever punishment comes to them and the perfect, virtuous “good immigrant” victim who deserves help. Those good/bad immigrant stories are often more about reassuring Americans about the solidity of hallowed national mythologies than they are about real immigrant lives. I wanted to tell a story that expanded the boundaries of empathy to include immigrants whose lives are messier and more complex than the good/bad binary allows. The book aims to celebrate the profound dignity and worth of those messier lives.

At the same time, I am very skeptical about what empathy alone can accomplish. When empathy is the end, not the beginning, of a response to a social issue, the issue tends to get reduced to individuals. A focus on empathy can shut down necessary discussions about root causes and structural injustices. My hope is that, as much as the book is an empathetic portrait of Aida, it will also be a look in the mirror for the rest of us—folks who observe what’s happening in border and immigration policy from a comfortable remove. After all, the policies that made her life almost unlivable have been carried out in our name, supposedly to make us more secure.

Star: In the years you’ve spent in the Southwest, how has the policing of the border changed, and what impact has this had on surrounding communities?

Bobrow-Strain: I arrived at the border in 1993, just as the Border Patrol rolled out a major new enforcement strategy that eventually got called “Prevention Through Deterrence.” No one knew it at the time, but it would come to dominate our whole approach to the border right into the present moment. I remember my first glimpse of this future. I was visiting El Paso in October 1993. The local Border Patrol chief, Silvestre Reyes, had done something unheard of: he’d taken his agents off mobile patrols and lined them up along just one stretch of the border. Reyes realized that completely shutting down the relatively easy-to-cross downtown areas would force migrants out into more dangerous and difficult terrain outside of town. This would make crossing without papers deadlier and more expensive and people would stop trying.

We know now that Prevention Through Deterrence didn’t actually deter. Instead, as the strategy spread to other border cities, it produced a “funnel effect.” By the late 1990s, this channeled a whole continent’s worth of migration straight into Arizona. Meanwhile, a series of economic displacements in Mexico caused by NAFTA and US financial speculation pushed more people to attempt the dangerous journey.

The fact that Prevention Through Deterrence didn’t actually deter hardly mattered, nor did the fact that, by the mid-2000s, the migration bubble had clearly ended. Congress just threw more and more money behind the strategy. By 2012 immigration enforcement received more than the FBI, DEA, ATF, Secret Service, and US Marshals Service budgets combined. Customs and Border Protection became the country’s largest and most militarized police force. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Prevention Through Deterrence didn’t deter, but it did give rise to a vast and lucrative Border Enforcement Industrial Complex.

Star: How have you seen this touching down in a place like Douglas?

Bobrow-Strain: Douglas and Agua Prieta chafed against the wedges border militarization drove between them. In Douglas, some city officials described the New Normal as being like a military occupation. Residents resisted the constant surveillance, and many Mexican Americans resented the constant suspicion and questioning. Even Anglo ranchers sympathetic to the new paradigm complained to me about the way Border Patrol tore up their land and refused accountability.

At the same time, both Douglas and Agua Prieta came to depend on the business of border security (and insecurity). By 2016, one in seven employed adult men in Douglas worked for law enforcement. Countless more earned their living off smuggling in some way. This made for unusual dynamics within families and between neighbors. In one piece of the book a member of Aida’s family who worked for federal law enforcement has to decide whether or not to turn her in. We’ve heard many stories about the ways intensified enforcement has affected migrants crossing the border. We haven’t heard as much about the complex ways it has affected border communities themselves.

Star: You’ve said that contrary to conventional opinion, the border is not “broken”—in many respects, the system actually “works.” What do you mean by that?

Bobrow-Strain: I doubt that any adjective modifies “border” more than “broken” these days. That lock-step common sense alone should raise some suspicion. The border isn’t broken. It’s working more or less the way it was intended—and that is the problem.

The border isn’t broken. It’s working more or less the way it was intended—and that is the problem.

The very horrors people point to as the current border’s tragic failures are logical, and in some cases intended, components of Prevention Through Deterrence. To be clear, I’m talking about thousands of migrants dying, children ripped from their parents and thrown into cages, systemic cruelty and abuse by border agents, the metastasizing of highly lucrative organized smuggling operations, and the creation of vast zones of illegality in the desert where migrants are extorted, robbed, and raped. Policy makers—Democrats and Republicans alike—can’t spend twenty years creating a border enforcement paradigm designed to make border crossing crueler, costlier, and more dangerous, and then pretend that these outcomes are a surprise.

What we see on the border today isn’t “failed” deterrence as much as it is a successful vulnerability machine. The border puts migrants through a violent gauntlet that tries to strip them of money, dignity, and resources. It is a vulnerability machine that produces highly exploitable workers. Countless actors have found ways of profiting from this vulnerability machine. Polarizing politicians, nativist social movements, private prison companies, ordinary people in search of decent government jobs, local governments struggling to increase revenue, employers seeking exploitable undocumented workers, massive federal law enforcement bureaucracies, and countless private contractors. All these actors have a stake in maintaining perpetual crisis on the border.

Star: “Border security” is a mantra-like phrase uttered by all participants in the political debate over immigration. What effect has this had on our public discourse, and how can the term be more usefully understood?

Bobrow-Strain: It’s so easy for politicians to call for more border security. Who could be against border security, even if we have no shared definition of what it means or how to achieve it? As a result, we’ve spent the inflation-adjusted equivalent of two of the post-WWII Marshall Plans chasing after the illusion of security through deterrence.

When I asked people in the borderlands what achieving real border security would require, walls of the “smart” or dumb variety, razor wire, and boots on the ground didn’t come up much. Over and over, even fairly conservative residents told me that real security could only be achieved by addressing inequality between the United States and Mexico and within the United States itself. In the shorter run, a big part of the answer is simply honoring our own asylum laws and making more visas available to people who want to work or have strong connections to the United States.

Instead of “deterrence” that pushes migrants into shadowy margins controlled by cartels and patrolled by the country’s largest and most out-of-control federal police force, this would channel people through legal ports of entry. We would know who was crossing the border instead of creating vast zones of illegality.

Star: We are now at a moment when the entire US government recently shut down because of President Trump’s demand for a border wall, and the Democratic Party’s opposition to funding one. How do you understand immigration’s rise to greater prominence as a political subject, and the apparent intensification of views on all sides of the issue? Has the taking of sides on the wall obscured important aspects of the subject?

Bobrow-Strain: I’m glad that the Democrats have finally realized how harmful the obsession over so-called border security has been. This needs to go a lot further. The Democrats’ “smart security” proposal is just a rewarmed version of the old deterrence model. Ultimately, we need to move beyond “enforcement-only” to achieve comprehensive immigration reform. Where I see real hope is not in political parties or the legislature. It’s in the social movements launched into prominence by recent events. Groups led by immigrant youth, such as United We Dream, are actively forging a new vision of membership and belonging that the United States needs.

What these groups recognize is that undocumented people are fully part of this country, and not just when they fit a very narrow and unrealistic “good immigrant” niche. On a policy front, I think that living out this vision will mean recognizing that the spectacle of militarized border security has made all of our communities less secure. It will mean crafting a legal immigration system better attuned to the long history of interconnection and movement between the United States, Mexico, and Central America. People have begun to talk about “migration as reparation” for the United States’ long imperial history. Right away, we need to eliminate laws that criminalize undocumented immigrants’ everyday activities—driving a car, getting a job, etc. And, finally, we need to bring back the statute of limitations on civil deportability. People who have lived large parts of their lives enmeshed in US communities shouldn’t have to fear suddenly being ripped from home and family and exiled to a country they may barely know.

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 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.

Alex Star is an executive editor at FSG.