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Book examines lives of undocumented immigrants

July 29, 2010

The image of the lone male figure is barely visible in a weather-beaten photograph found along the borderlands. That tattered photo became the cover of Terry Greene Sterling’s new book, "Illegal, Life and Death in Arizona’s Immigration War Zone"

It’s a photo like many others, discarded for unknown reasons by unauthorized immigrants who cross the border from Mexico and leave a trail of belongings. The migrant litter often prompts outrage as well as a sense of wonder about the human beings who discard  toothbrushes, clothes and ever-present water jugs.

Sterling’s editor at Globe Pequot Press also wondered about the faceless immigrants at the heart of the immigration controversy, and asked her to write a book profiling some of the undocumented immigrants who have crossed into the country illegally from Mexico. "Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona’s Immigration War Zone" was published in July by Globe Pequot Press.

Sterling’s new book is well-researched narrative journalism that provides an intimate look into the lives of people living illegally in the Phoenix area, which is ground zero for the national immigration debate. Sterling is an award-winning journalist and writer-in-residence at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication who reported and wrote the book in about 17 months.

“I set out to profile immigrants, their friends and foes, and follow them through time,” Sterling said. “Something about each person I profiled fascinated me. I wanted to tell true stories about people, warts and all. ”

Tony Ortega, editor-in-chief of The Village Voice, says Sterling’s book “is not afraid to show the bad decisions immigrants make along with their resilience and strength of spirit.”  

There’s the story of Joaquín, who suffers from end-stage renal disease. Sterling enters his life as he’s deciding whether to move back to Mexico in hopes of getting a kidney transplant that will allow him to live without dialysis.

Although she lost touch with Joaquín and doesn’t know if he’s still alive, Sterling recently ran into a couple she profiled in the book. Lucy and Marco were arrested and sent to jail after a carwash raid by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. Their 8-year-old daughter, Angie, a U.S. citizen, saw her parents arrested on TV. Lucy and Marco are currently living in Phoenix and fighting deportation.

Sterling found her subjects endlessly fascinating. They were ordinary human beings who “allowed me into their homes, workplaces and their souls,” she said.

Reasons why immigrants risked kidnapping, crime and their lives to cross into the United States varied, but the overriding drive was to escape poverty in Mexico. Love, ambition, and flight from violence and persecution are other driving factors, Sterling said. 

Writing about undocumented immigrants has been an intriguing process in itself as Sterling experienced both sides of the issue that has polarized the state. As a Spanish-speaking reporter, Sterling easily translated spoken Spanish into written English.

To find her subjects, Sterling often stopped to talk with people when she heard Spanish being spoken. “I just wanted to get in there,” she said. “I wanted to do a book that I enjoyed reporting and writing. “

Sterling takes readers on a desert journey from the border to Phoenix through the undocumented underground. She visits businesses that immigrants frequent, a radio station that caters to Spanish speakers and the worlds of undocumented children who are taken to the United States by their parents and grow up as Americans. People on both sides of the immigration debate are interviewed for the book, including Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Sterling learned Spanish at the same time she learned English. Her family owned cattle ranches in southern Arizona and northern Mexico. “The border now is a very different place,” she said.

Sterling covered immigration for years as a reporter for Phoenix New Times, where her work earned her three Virg Hill Journalist of the Year awards, and as a freelance writer after she left the paper.

Her stories have appeared in The Washington Post, The Arizona Republic,,, The Nieman Narrative Digest, High Country News, Preservation Magazine and The Daily Beast.  She was recently interviewed on KJZZ and hosted a live chat about immigration on Her book was named one of three notable books on immigration by the St. Petersburg Times.  For more information, go to, @tgsterling on Twitter, and the Facebook fan page for "Illegal, Life and Death in Arizona’s Immigration War Zone."