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. In the following excerpt, we see Aida’s desire to settle down and build a life in Douglas, and how those dreams are up against increasing border security. Following a misstep that leads to her deportation, Aida finds herself in a Mexican city marked by violence, in a country that is not hers. Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez reveals the human consequences of militarizing what was once a more forgiving border.
Netflix and Redbox hadn’t quite killed the video store business yet, particularly on the low end of the industry. Jack’s shop clung to a loyal band of customers because it rented movies for one dollar, the best deal in Douglas. It wasn’t clear the store could make a profit at that rate, but the enterprise was almost too small and informal to get driven under by competition. Jack’s emphysema had advanced to a point where he couldn’t manage the store, but Movies ’n’ More meant something to the family. Free labor gave the store a slight edge, and Aida’s nurturing lifted it up.
She loved the place so much. Crammed with racks, adorned with yellowed movie posters, and smelling of stale popcorn, Movies ’n’ More appeared dispirited and ratty to some. To Aida, it felt like an oasis. With help from her mother and sisters, Aida ran the store. She could manage accounts and stock movies while minding babies and entertaining her younger siblings. When Gabriel and his cousin tired of playing in the racks and under the counter, they could nap on a couch in the back room. Customers came for movies but stayed to banter with Aida and play a game at the ancient foosball table. Her sunshine self was back. And in true Aida fashion, she wanted to share it, to let it grow. Bright and entrepreneurial, she kept reaching to make things better.
One day, putting on a DVD to distract Gabriel and Jazmin, Aida came up with the idea of showing free movies for kids. Kids who would buy popcorn, candy, sodas, and mangonadas. The idea caught on, and on days when they showed free movies, the store made a profit. Later, Aida helped clean out the store’s back patio to rent it out for parties. Aida was rebuilding her life, as best she could.
• • •
Sitting less than a mile from the port of entry, Movies ’n’ More attracted police, drug traffickers, and off-duty Border Patrol alike as clientele, but no one bothered Aida there, except to ask for recommendations. Life, it appeared, seemed possible even as migration and border militarization strained Douglas’s social fabric.
At the start of 2006, the year of Aida’s return from Phoenix, Arizona’s governor, Janet Napolitano, pledged $100 million for further border security. Of that, $13 million was earmarked for the expansion of local law enforcement in border counties. An additional $10 million would help cover local law enforcement overtime costs on the border. Millions more would facilitate the prosecution of border-related crimes and encourage cooperation between local law enforcement and the Border Patrol.
If that was not enough, Arizona’s conservative, Phoenix-dominated legislature let loose a salvo of bills aimed to make life impossible for undocumented residents. In the mid-2000s, representatives proposed, passed, or moved forward on laws that would deny bail to people charged with felonies and suspected of being undocumented and make it illegal to rent housing to undocumented immigrants. Bills sought to limit state benefits’ availability to noncitizens and empower local law enforcement to stop and question suspected undocumented people. Others tried to bar undocumented Arizonans from suing for punitive damages in civil court and to deny birthright citizenship to the Arizona-born children of noncitizens. Few of these bills were expected to survive the full legislature or Napolitano’s veto, but they formed a steady, ominous stream. Old constitutional borders between state law and the federal government’s responsibility for immigration enforcement had begun to blur.
• • •
Meanwhile, an uneasy quiet fell over Douglas. Vigilantes and TV cameras faded away. Flows of migrants through the area dwindled. At first, the funnel effect of border enforcement pushed migrants elsewhere along the border. The area southwest of Tucson saw large increases during this period. But then, by 2007 and 2008, the looming U.S. recession and relatively strong job market in Mexico sliced into the number of unauthorized border crossings everywhere. In 1997, Border Patrol agents assigned to the southern border arrested an average of 216 migrants a year, per agent. By 2008, that number had fallen to 45. In the eyes of many Douglas residents—and some veteran agents—members of the nation’s largest and best-funded federal police force did little besides “sit on their Xs” checking their phones.
Border Patrol officials, of course, claimed that declines in border apprehensions proved the success of their efforts. Politicians who had built careers on perennial calls to “secure the border,” on the other hand, struggled with the change. Their popularity depended on a perpetual border crisis, and the search for new reasons to increase spending on border security sometimes reached preposterous levels.
In August 2006, for example, three U.S. congressmen from the House Intelligence Committee held an open hearing in Sierra Vista, fifty miles from Douglas. The representatives assembled a panel of Border Patrol officials, DEA agents, and the Cochise County sheriff and peppered them with questions about security.
A reporter at the hearing described how some of the representatives’ questions seemed to baffle the experts. Rick Renzi, an Arizona Republican, chased the panelists with leading questions about the supposed rise of Islamic extremism in Mexico and its implications for border security. Darrell Issa, from California, then chimed in, challenging panelists to acknowledge “widely published reports” of Hezbollah operations in Mexico. The one Democratic committee member at the hearing warned against confusing terrorism and immigration. Other panelists tried to educate Renzi and Issa about the complete lack of evidence of suspected terrorists crossing the border, but it hardly mattered. Unsubstantiated rumors of terrorists on the border would prove both resilient and useful as a political tactic, despite continual debunking.
By 2007, enforcement advocates had a new, more well-founded specter to defend against. The previous year, a horrific spike in violence across Mexico had left thousands dead and filled the media with visions of bloodthirsty narco-traffickers running rampant.
Like the Border Patrol’s dramatic funnel strategy before it, the crisis in Mexico was a distinctly political creation.
Like the Border Patrol’s dramatic funnel strategy before it, the crisis in Mexico was a distinctly political creation. In 2006, Felipe Calderón had assumed the Mexican presidency after a bitter and divisive election. Official vote tallies—questioned by many opponents—gave him a 0.58 percent margin of victory. Accusations of electoral fraud multiplied. So, like many presidents faced with controversy and narrow mandates, Calderón declared war.
For decades, Mexican leaders had pursued a strategy of tempering and containing drug cartels, instead of seeking to extinguish them. As long as U.S. demand for drugs remained strong, the argument went, cartels would always exist. The best that Mexico could do was to limit drug trafficking’s social impact and spillover violence. For many critics, this strategy reflected corrupt politicians’ stake in drug trafficking, but it also produced a stable system in which a few large cartels divided the country, trade routes, and markets with relatively little collateral violence. Calderón’s declaration of allout war against the cartels shattered that stability.
The new fight targeted capos—the heads of cartels. But as the government checked off captured and killed narcos on its most wanted list, cartels did not implode, as expected. Instead, they grew four heads for every one cut off, multiplying into more than a dozen competing mini-cartels. The unstable new organizations waged open warfare in public places and across increasingly large swaths of the nation. Most regions of Mexico remained far safer than sensational U.S. news reports suggested—far from a “failed state” or open civil war—but something had shifted. As bodies piled up and carnage spread into previously peaceful areas, government security forces gained influence and extended their reach. Military actions—combating cartels but also suppressing political dissent, dispossessing poor people, and protecting foreign investment—claimed growing numbers of lives across the country.
Before Calderón’s policy shift, the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico’s most powerful criminal organization, had cemented control over trafficking across the Arizona-Sonora border. By 2008, multiple groups vied for control of important crossing points, Agua Prieta included. Residents came to understand that if you have to live with organized crime, one dominant cartel exercising undisputed power is preferable to many clashing groups. Little pueblos south of Agua Prieta felt the impact most. Gun battles on public streets, beheadings, assassinations of government officials, and violent military occupation hadn’t reached Agua Prieta yet, but they crowded the horizon, looming ever closer.
Despite doom-laden warnings from U.S. public officials, violent crime from Mexico did not appear to filter into Douglas. The small town continued to enjoy relatively low crime rates, but the foreboding news from across the border was relentless. It began to inform public perception and policy on the American side.
In the two years since her return from Phoenix, Aida felt the change come on like radio waves, intangible yet real. Border Patrol hovered behind her when she refilled her coffee at the convenience store. Agents idled alongside her at stoplights and tailed her when she drove Gabriel to preschool. With the numbers of undocumented migrants crossing the border at record low levels and falling, agents at Douglas’s heavily staffed station had to find something to do. Now they had more time to listen to Douglas Police Department radio chatter and to show up during local law enforcement stops.
To Aida, nestled in her peaceful video sanctuary, crises on the border felt as if they existed in a parallel universe. Focused on motherhood and making ends meet, she ignored rumors of violence in Agua Prieta. Mexico was not her place. And yet she was not entirely immune.
Early in 2008, a routine police stop resulted in Jennifer’s deportation. Worse still, her removal came with a five-year legal bar against entering the United States. If Jennifer returned and was caught, she could face criminal charges and time in jail. With no child care and no way to support herself in Agua Prieta, Jennifer left her U.S. citizen son and daughter in Douglas under her mother and sisters’ care. For the second time, Aida felt the border slit her family in two.
• • •
In the spring of 2008, Aida was recommending the unsettling borderlands thriller No Country for Old Men to any Movies ’n’ More customer who’d listen. The store’s clientele preferred Big Momma’s House 2, but Aida charmed a few into trying the Coen brothers.
In one of the movie’s final scenes, Javier Bardem’s psychopathic hit man waits for a woman he’s decided to kill. He sits in her bedroom as she makes herself a cup of coffee in the kitchen, completely unaware of his presence. When she opens the bedroom door and discovers him with his flat face and disturbing haircut, she goes still and resigned.
For some reason, she tells him about her endless money woes.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” the killer soothes.
“You don’t have to do this,” she says, starting to plead for her life.
“This is the best I can do.”
Javier Bardem flips a 1958 quarter. By this point in the movie, viewers know that he is offering the woman a fifty-fifty chance to live. What do you do when you realize that living or dying comes down to an endless chain of coin flips?
“No, I ain’t gonna call it,” she says, staring back at the assassin. She is the first victim to refuse the chance. “The coin don’t have no say, it’s just you.”
Aida’s new boyfriend, Alex, seemed like a coin toss that had come up heads. Everything about him was good, except for one problem. He had an unhinged ex-girlfriend who wanted him back. At first, Aida assumed that her frequent encounters with Irma were coincidences. Douglas was a small town, after all. But the number of coincidences added up, and over time Aida realized Alex’s ex was following her. Their encounters became run-ins during which Irma made public scenes. She accused Aida of stealing Alex and threatened to report her to the Border Patrol. Aida tried to ignore her, playing and replaying Luz’s constant warning to keep quiet and stay out of trouble.
Except for that, Alex made Aida happy. When Jack decided to sell Movies ’n’ More, Alex bought the place for five thousand dollars. He treated Aida better than any man she’d known, and she never asked what he did in the store’s back room. One of her uncles—a retired Douglas police officer—warned her that Alex received drug shipments from Mexican cartels, but she defended him.
One June day in 2008, a Border Patrol agent ambled up while Alex, Aida, and Gabriel waited in line at a car wash. Alex was a U.S. citizen, and so was Gabriel, but the agent looked long and skeptically at Aida’s expired Douglas High School ID. Then he retreated to his car. Standing on the oilstained asphalt, Aida pictured what would come next—the handcuffs, the slow ride through Douglas, the deportation to Mexico. She thought about losing Gabriel and living with Jennifer in some run-down Mexican shack. When the agent came back, she was shaking with fear.
“I’m going to let you go this time because of your U.S. citizen son,” he informed her, handing back the old ID. “But you should know that we’ve been getting calls about you.”
Aida glared at Alex. She knew who had been making the calls.
Over time, Irma’s ambushes had grown more menacing. One morning, Gabriel and Aida had been crossing a street when Irma careened around the corner in her car. Aida grabbed Gabriel and jumped back to the curb just before the woman sped by. Now it seemed that Irma had followed through on her threat to call the Border Patrol.
A few weeks after that, Aida woke up to a beautiful midsummer morning. Small creatures stirred in the scrubby lot outside her window. The animal world was awake and taking advantage of the temperate hiatus before July brought down its hundred-degree hammer. Aida followed the animals’ example.
Still wearing thin gray pajamas and blue slippers, she drove to La Unica for pastries. She paid for pan dulce with a fistful of coins and crumpled bills. Butter stains seeped through the paper bag as she returned home. Her mind drifted toward thoughts of coffee and the company of her mother. She almost didn’t react in time when a car cut in front of her and squealed to a stop. With streets as broad and empty as Douglas’s on a summer morning, the near accident could only have been intentional. It was Irma, glaring at Aida in her rearview mirror, fouling a perfect morning with sulfurous rage.
Weeks of repressed fury exploded in Aida.
“Enough!” she yelled. In a single unthinking instant, Aida floored the gas, slamming into Irma’s car. The next second, both women were out on the street.
“You fucking hit me!” Irma screamed.
“Why are you following me?” Aida screamed back.
“Stay away from my son.”
“Fuck you,” Irma spat.
It was too much. Aida’s fist plowed into Irma’s nose. Then her conscious brain caught up.
“Shit,” Aida moaned.
Irma beamed. She had gotten exactly what she wanted.
• • •
Aida fled five blocks to Movies ’n’ More and called her mom. She searched the street for signs of Border Patrol. The sun-bleached face of Milla Jovovich as Alice in Resident Evil stared out the window with her. She knew agents who came in to rent videos. She could picture their records in the store computer and hoped that whoever responded to the call would be sympathetic.
Luz barreled in with Gabriel and Aida’s youngest siblings, Jazmin and Emiliano. “What were you thinking?” she demanded. A pair of Douglas police officers, led by Irma, arrived next. At first, it was almost funny. Aida’s slept-on hair bounced wildly as she detailed Irma’s behavior. The officers struggled to keep straight faces. They demanded calm, trying to assess the gravity of the two women’s feud. There was a condescending edge to their response.
“She’s not even legal,” Irma said. “Check her papers.”
On cue, two green-and-white Border Patrol trucks pulled up outside. Irma hadn’t called them. They had probably been listening to the police scanner, bored and looking for something to do. Humor bled from the room, and—at that same moment—Cynthia barged in through the back door.
Like a cartoon character pedaling air after running off a cliff, Cynthia knew instantly that she shouldn’t be in that spot.
Three agents checked everyone’s IDs and chattered on the radio. The Douglas police officers faded to the background, Aida and Irma’s fight forgotten. Gabriel watched from his grandmother’s arms as men handcuffed his mother and aunt and told them to stand still off to the side. Jack arrived next. He had sponsored Luz’s application for residency and shuffled in, coughing, wheezing, and carrying her paperwork.
An agent glanced at Luz’s forms and seemed relieved not to have to detain her. This way, there’d be someone left behind to take care of the crying children. The tense circle broke up, and the agents led Aida and Cynthia to a waiting truck. The last thing Aida saw before the steel door slammed on her was Gabriel cantilevering out of Luz’s arms, screaming and craning to reach his mother.
The last thing Aida saw before the steel door slammed on her was Gabriel cantilevering out of Luz’s arms, screaming and craning to reach his mother.
Stainless steel and scorching, the truck interior felt like a microwave and smelled faintly of sweat. It lurched forward, and Movies ’n’ More disappeared out the wire-mesh window.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” Aida said to Cynthia. “You shouldn’t be here. This is my fault.”
Cynthia said nothing, swaying with the rough ride. The two sisters went quiet until the truck pulled into the Border Patrol station outside town.
• • •
Luz ran across the street from Movies ’n’ More to the Mexican consulate. Her sobbing blending with Gabriel’s howling, Luz tried to explain the situation. The mother and child’s agony was a sight almost beyond bearing, but the consular official had seen it many times before. There was little he could do, he reported. But Luz’s eyes blazed with urgency. The official considered the case again.
“Look,” he concluded. “With a U.S. citizen son and so many years living in the U.S. and your residency application under way, it’s possible that your daughters have paths to legal status.”
Luz swept away her tears and kissed Gabriel’s forehead.
“The most important thing, though,” the official continued, “is that they should not sign anything until they talk with a lawyer.”
Luz was already dialing her phone, but the man said it again. “It’s critical that they don’t sign away their right to a hearing.”
• • •
Agents interviewed Aida and Cynthia in the glare outside the station. They didn’t even go inside. A vast parking lot encircled them. The compound was twenty-nine acres and almost entirely filled with rows of 4x4s, squad cars, vans, mobile camera towers, and trucks. Slag mountains, remains of the old smelter, sprawled in the east. One ruin atop another.
Aida pleaded with the agents to let Cynthia go. She was weeks away from finishing her last high school requirements. Aida explained that she would be the first person in their family to graduate from high school.
“It was all my fault,” she begged. “Please don’t make her pay for my mistake.”
Aida and Cynthia’s speech and bearing took the agents by surprise. “You guys are so American—why are we even deporting you?” one said, joking.
“Well, don’t,” Aida answered. She looked at the agent as if he were the only worthy person in the world.
“I’m sorry, we have to.”
“But look,” another agent added, “we can cut you a break.” He handed Aida and Cynthia a form. “Sign this, and you’ll be out of here in a few hours. If you don’t sign, you’re going to be here a long time.”
Cynthia’s phone vibrated in her pocket, and she moved to pull it out.
The agent moved faster. “Not allowed,” he said. He held out his hand for the phone and shut it off.
Luz called Cynthia’s voice mail over and over again. Her message was simple: “Whatever you do, mija, don’t sign anything until Jack gets there.”
Even with the declining number of border crossings, Douglas sector agents processed hundreds of migrants some days. There was only so much cell space, even in what was touted as the country’s largest Border Patrol station. Encouraging detainees to waive their right to an immigration hearing was the easiest way to keep the system moving. Sometimes agents gave out forms with the “Voluntary Return” box pre-checked.
“Go ahead and sign,” one of the agents said, encouraging the sisters. If they signed, he explained, they’d be dropped off in Agua Prieta right away.
“You can come right back,” he said, joking. If not, they could spend days in detention. “It won’t affect you at all,” he promised.
• • •
When Aida and Cynthia finally heard their mother’s message, it was too late.
Aida watched Douglas flicker by outside the steel-mesh window. The truck followed the same route as her first taxi ride in the United States twelve years earlier, only in reverse. They passed the Kmart and their old street on the outskirts of town; the turnoff for their apartment near Sarah Marley Elementary; and the big-box shopping plaza that greeted anyone entering the United States.
Aida realized that she had spent more than half her life in that town and felt a wave of sadness, even though she believed she would be back soon. After the adrenaline of arrest and detention, it was the first contemplative moment she’d had. It didn’t last long. She and Cynthia were still in pajamas, and inside the truck’s tight confines Aida felt eyes on her chest. Five or six young men had been packed in with the sisters. The men reeked of days in the desert and detention. Their clothes were dirty and torn. Cynthia was already calculating how she’d get back in time to finish school, but Aida tensed. She felt the young, hungry men undressing Cynthia with their eyes and braced to defend her sister.
At the port of entry, a gate opened, and the group stepped into a strip of no-man’s-land between two countries. Aida hustled her sister away from the men. Ahead, Mexican officials asked deportees for their nationalities, culling Central Americans and steering Mexicans toward a small building just beyond the customs shed. Volunteers from church groups would provide them with help there, the officials said. They could get burritos, coffee, wound care, and a short phone call.
That’s not for us, Aida thought. It’s for migrants.
Men from the truck shuffled toward the aid station. They were eager for their first meal in days. Cracker packets handed out in the Border Patrol station cells didn’t count. Volunteers would treat their bloody feet and locate pairs of used shoes big enough to fit over the bandages. Most of the men would make calls to relatives in the United States. They would weigh the costs of trying to cross the border once more against returning home to places in Mexico and Central America. Or they’d despair at ever seeing their homes and families in the United States again. The Migrant Resource Center would be a lifeline either way. But Aida and Cynthia didn’t stop. They were two young women from Douglas, Arizona. They didn’t yet recognize themselves in the word “migrant,” or understand how similar the stories of the men and women at the center were to their own. Aida and Jazmin were just temporarily in the wrong country.
• • •
Agua Prieta’s industrial growth appeared chaotic, but it was nothing compared with the upheaval caused by the Border Patrol’s new enforcement strategy. After the latest border wall went up and hundreds of new agents surged into Douglas, fewer migrants made the crossing successfully through Agua Prieta. Stuck without resources to return home or continue on, thwarted migrants accumulated there. When Presidents Bush and Obama began deporting unprecedented numbers of undocumented migrants to Mexican border towns, the situation had gotten worse. Agua Prieta’s streets filled with trapped, desperate people. Nobody knew how many people lived in Agua Prieta anymore. Was it 60,000 residents or 200,000?
The main street leading away from the border was familiar to Aida, but different. So many people looked as if they’d come from far away. The few men with the cowboy bearing of native Agua Prietans appeared up to no good. Coyotes and drug dealers loitered around the crossing, waiting for prey.
Taxi drivers, street vendors, and Mexican police leered at the pajama-clad sisters. Aida lowered her head and took Cynthia’s hand. If she kept her eyes focused on the broken sidewalk, no one would bother her, she decided.
Douglas was only a few yards away, but even the air felt different. Aida had once loved this place. Now it was alien.
Douglas was only a few yards away, but even the air felt different. Aida had once loved this place. Now it was alien. The smell of steak grilling over mesquite coals and the sight of friendly people didn’t register. Instead, she focused on the hot bus exhaust and the whiff of sewer. Aida tried to retreat further into the shell of her clothes, but the thin summer pajamas offered no protection.
The two marched quickly at first, hustling away from the border. They passed pharmacies and dentist offices that catered to U.S. patients and hurried farther south, sticking to busy streets. Cement buildings housed the spatchcock commerce of their childhood: butchers next to body shops, paint stores and hair salons, doctors’ offices pressed against beer distributors.
When Aida and Cynthia reached familiar streets near their father’s house, they paused. From there, they dragged their feet. Now each shop window attracted their full attention. The stopped to loiter in the coolness emanating from air-conditioned fabric stores. Neither woman had any idea how to explain their return to Raúl. They knew he wouldn’t be pleased. They dreaded the bare moment on his doorstep in pajamas and slippers. But part of them knew he’d take their arrival in stride. His unusual past had made him nearly impervious to surprise. Even when he and Aida fought in the weeks to come, she drew courage from knowing that his life history coursed through her veins.
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.