Terry Greene Sterling Gets Personal About Her Book Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone

Terry Greene Sterling's Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone begins in the Mexican towns near the Arizona border: Nogales, Cananea, Altar, Arivaca, Agua Prieta. These are the places from which migrants press their luck to undertake dangerous crossings through the desert landscape. (Read: Chapter 6 of Illegal here.)

Describing one such border-crosser, Sterling writes, "He knew that even a well-prepared traveler, toting a backpack crammed with canned tuna, electrolytes, water, sunscreen, blister kits, extra socks, a GPS device, and a cell phone, might die. All it would take would be a moment of panic — like a dash for cover as a helicopter approached — for a man to unthinkingly dump his backpack in order to run faster. He might become separated from his group and be unable to find the tossed backpack and water. In such a condition, he could die of thirst or exposure."

For those who make it, many end up in the Valley despite language barriers and tough anti-immigration laws. "For migrants, Phoenix can be a living hell. And yet, they risk their lives to get to Phoenix," Sterling writes.


A Q&A with Terry Greene Sterling

Question: These are such personal stories in the book. How did you find your interview subjects and get them to open up to you?
Answer: I am politely but persistently nosy.

Q: The immigration debate was heating up so much while you were working on this book. What has that process been like?
A: I wanted to write true, intimate stories about a few of the thousands of unauthorized immigrants who quietly live, work, play, sin, and die right here in the Valley, America's red -hot immigration pressure cooker. As I got to know a few of these people, the immigration debate ramped up and affected these people in dramatic and unpredictable ways. The immigration brawl made their stories more urgently compelling.

Q: How did being bilingual and having grown up on both sides of the border shape your views?
A: I speak Spanish well enough to know the Mexicans with chainsaws in the backs of their pickups are palm-tree trimmers, not beheaders.

Q: Any ideas how we can move the immigration debate in a more reasoned direction?
A: Idea number one: Unauthorized immigrants and tea party devotees should routinely pound down a few cool ones together. Idea number two: Ban politicians from such gatherings.

There could scarcely be a timelier book.

What veteran journalist Sterling — whose years of experience include well over a decade as a staff writer at New Times — does so well is put a face to the immigration story through a series of thoughtfully crafted profiles of everyday people who are navigating their lives through an impossible system. Sterling spent 17 months interviewing and documenting the individual experiences of people living in the shadows of our city.

Her profiles include Lucy and Marco, a couple who migrated from Mexico City as newlyweds in 1997 — "There were plenty of jobs for undocumented immigrants in Phoenix in the 1990s," Sterling writes — but were arrested by Sheriff Joe Arpaio's deputies during a raid of a Phoenix car wash in 2009.

She also tells the stories of Joaquin, a painter suffering from end-stage renal disease, and his American-born wife Tanya; Inocencio and Araceli, who are trying to keep their dollar store afloat in a tough economy; and Viri, a math whiz, who was granted a merit-based scholarship to ASU until Proposition 300 (which took effect in 2007) took it away.

At times, Sterling's book reads like Shakespearean tragedy: people making difficult choices in impossible circumstances. And like classic tragedies, the cast of characters here includes opportunists, those who prey on the vulnerable, attention-seekers, and the well-meaning. No wonder all of this leads to the extremes of human emotion, such as anger and rage. Throughout the book, Sterling's telling of these stories is honest and thoughtful.

As Sterling writes, "The Mexicans you'll meet risked their lives to get to Phoenix for a number of reasons. Adventure. Ambition. Love. Survival." It is a human drama, and we are right in the midst of it.

Sterling is suited to tell these stories. She is a bilingual native Arizonan whose family spent time living on both sides of the border. She is also an award-winning journalist who has been reporting on Phoenix for the past 25 years and today is writer-in-residence at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

Reading Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone is a moving experience that lends heft to this issue by showing the personal side to the political debate, and giving voice to people who are increasingly living further in the shadows of our city. Will we as Arizonans make decisions from the most informed and human parts of ourselves? Or from a place of fear and bullying?

Wherever you stand on the immigration issue, there is no denying the complexity of the situation. The personal stories in Sterling's book shed light on what could spur someone to leave their family to travel thousands of miles, through territory dominated by dangerous narco-gangs, to come live as an outcast in a foreign city as unwelcoming as Phoenix with laws barring them from working, learning, and driving. The book gives context to what it means to be illegal.

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I have seen it firsthand, since I work in the school system, lots of gifted children are born to illegal inmigrants, or are illegal aliens themselves, remember, this kids speak more than one language, and most of their parents work labor jobs, so they learn to be handy, still they are not rising to their full potential, imagine what this country will be like with all this wonderful minds living here, working for a better world, not just america,and yes I think that there should be a dream act, let brains, not papers speak for themselves!


Hmmm....No mention of any drug smugglers or other criminals she interviewed.I wonder why??


Yes, it is a tragedy that these people decided that the law did not apply to them and decided to ignore it. The same can be said for a bank robber. They are, after all, just trying to improve their standard of living. Or a drug dealer. Or many other criminals. When one does something outside of the law, one is a criminal. There is no gray area there. You are or you are not. When a person chooses to flaunt immigration laws, tax laws, laws against bank robbery or sales of heroin, he has stepped to the side of criminal. As such, they are subject to the appropriate penalties as they stand - even if they cause pain or suffering to their families.

The same goes for those who flaunt the law to hire illegals. They are effectively aiding and abetting in the commission of a crime. Just like the driver of a get away car in a bank robbery.

Former Republican
Former Republican

The millionaires became billionaires under the Bush era. The middle class has evaporated and now America is left with a "slave class", only the middle class tea-baggers think it means the "illegals". Think again, it's everyone but those elected officials who have protected themselves, their pensions, their health care, their jobs at the ordinary small business owners and working class peoples' expense. The U.S. is #1 jailer in the world. Arizona is leading the way to mass incarceration of it's people.

AZ killed the golden egg
AZ killed the golden egg

The personal stories are important at this time when politicians consider human beings as only a number for $$$'s. The sick and demented society Arizona has become since 2003 puts Arizona is a position of a sinking ship.


Why don't you have a heart for the US citizens whose wages have spiraled downwards for decades? What about the self-employed hard working US citizen who has lost their business because they could not compete with sharks underbidding them on the backs of illegals who received government paid for healthcare and other benefits? Why do you consistently hate and marginalize the backbone of this nation that made you possible? Why do you think it is OK to rip the American Dream away from millions of American citizens and give the Dream Act to strangers?

For that matter what do you think about this:


With millions of Americans out of work do you really think this is a wise expenditure of our tax dollar?


Unfortunately history has shown these tactics used to great benefit before. For each ruling class, a scapegoat is created to manipulate the have nots into hating those less fortunate or different. The have nots buy it, hook line and sinker. Never bothering to look to the top for the real reason they are in the shape they are in.

To most of these folks, Reagan is a God. Ignoring the fact that he was at the forefront of deregulation which has effectively erradicated the middle class.


Yes, AZ is using the penal system as a source of income, that why Joe Dumbass, Andy "Pencil-stick" want to incarcerate everyone. These two live by the "guilty until proven innocent" philosophy. Thank God Andy Thomas is gone, if there is justice in the world he and Arpaio will end up as cell mate butt buddies in prison, they truly deserve each other. I just hope Joe's predecessor will continue the crack down on the illegal aliens, and included the 40,000 felony warrants on Joe's desk.