Book Review: Illegal by Terry Greene Sterling

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. 

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 this city in spite of 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. 

There could scarcely be a timelier book as our state moves toward enacting (or trying to enact, anyway) Arizona Senate Bill 1070. 

We are living in the epicenter of a searing immigration debate -- center stage for a legal battle that will further decide the fate of thousands of immigrants who call Phoenix home. One thing is for sure; there is a human cost on all sides. 

What veteran journalist Sterling -- whose years of experience include well over a decade as a staff writer at Phoenix 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 seventeen 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; Dollar Store owners Inocencio and Araceli, who are trying to keep their business afloat in a tough economy; and Viri, a bright math-whiz, 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 well-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.
Tomorrow: A Q&A with the author.
Read a chapter from the book here.  
Terry Greene Sterling will read from her book tomorrow evening, Thursday, July 29, at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe. For details, go to

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Sativa Peterson
Contact: Sativa Peterson