For the aid workers who found 14-year-old Josseline Jamileth Hernandez Quinteros in the Arizona desert, it is hardest to forget the little things, the beaded bracelet around a tiny wrist, the bright green sneakers, the pink-lined jacket, and the sweatpants with the word "Hollywood" across the backside. She was a wisp of a girl, barely 5 feet and 100 pounds, no match for the rough terrain or subfreezing temperatures.
No one can say for sure that Josseline died because of heightened security measures along the U.S. border with Mexico. Yet, to the volunteers who found her lying under a bush, her head resting on a rock in an unnamed creek bed, Josseline's death was a predictable consequence of American policy, in particular, the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which mandated construction of enough fencing to cover about one-third of the U.S.-Mexico border across California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The goal was to foil unlawful entries, especially by drug dealers and terrorists. Josseline was neither. A native of El Salvador, she was on the last leg of a 2,000-mile quest to reunite with her mother. She was, nonetheless, an illegal alien.
Josseline and her ten-year-old brother were among thousands of children who head north from Mexico unaccompanied by parents or relatives. The two were with a group of adults that had entered the U.S. near Sasabe, Arizona, probably through an unfenced area. The gaps in the fence are as strategically positioned as the fence itself, in this case routing Josseline's group through the Tumacacori wilderness, a spiny, mountainous badland that poses a challenge to the most experienced hikers. Spanish soldiers had a name for places like this, El Despoblado, the emptiness.
Josseline's group had been walking two days north of the border when the girl became violently ill. She insisted that her brother continue without her. What happened to her after that is a mystery. Dan Millis, a staff member of the Tucson office of the Sierra Club, came upon her body while he and other volunteers were putting out containers of water for thirsty migrants. By then Josseline had been separated from her group for several weeks. Her brother had been reunited with the family in California, and they had reported that she was missing, according to writer Margaret Regan who covered the story for the Tucson Citizen. It was winter and cold enough for snow to spot the Arizona mountainsides. Josseline's weakened condition probably made her susceptible to hypothermia. It is tempting to think that such a death is relatively painless, but dying of exposure isn't a matter of fading dreamily into a coma. Death by cold typically advances slowly from violent shivering to loss of motor skills. Victims become disoriented and often lose the ability to act rationally. With nighttime temperatures hovering around freezing, Josseline had taken off her shoes and both of the jackets she had been wearing. Once the body's temperature approaches 90 degrees, the shivering may become convulsive, seizure-like. As the body temperature continues to drop, the victim loses consciousness. Breathing becomes irregular, signaling the onset of pulmonary edema and ultimately respiratory and cardiac failure.
In another era, Josseline's death might have engraved itself on our imagination, like the missing kids whose faces were reproduced on milk cartons. As an illegal, though, Josseline stands little chance of achieving a martyr's place in a society inclined to accord her a status once reserved for bastards. But if she is not to be remembered as an innocent victim of a merciless law, how should Josseline and others like her be remembered? As collateral damage? As criminals? Many won't be remembered at all, their unidentifiable remains as desiccated as the bones of wild animals that have perished from the same harsh conditions. The naturalist Craig Childs, who has spent much of his life combing deserts of the Southwest for the half-buried tools, utensils, and other grave markers of the Paleo-Indians, describes the land as a vast cemetery: "It changes a place to know that it still has physical ancestry. …