The 2,000-mile border separating the United States from Mexico has long been a political flashpoint. Apple orchards in Washington state and farms in Florida in need of low-wage workers welcome migrants with open arms, but as Operation Gatekeeper and the passage of Proposition 187 demonstrate, many Americans would rather opt for closed doors. In the 10 years since Clinton’s border crackdown, fences have been erected, new agents have been stationed, the number of illegal border crossers has decreased in urban areas but increased in rural areas, and with each passing year, the death toll along the border has risen.

In Hard Line: Life and Death on the U.S.-Mexico Border, L.A. Times reporter Ken Ellingwood skillfully charts the devastating effects of the crackdown on migrants and on the communities receiving them. Ellingwood seamlessly moves between a cogent policy analysis, an overview of the border’s early history, and stories of migrants, ranchers, border patrol agents, human-rights and church activists, and members of a Native American tribe divided by the border. The Reverend Robin Hoover mounts a campaign to set up water stations in the desert; Betty Antone, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, shuttles Mexican members across the border to receive medical services; upset by property damage (discarded water jugs, shoes, clothing, flattened feed grass), angry ranchers living near one hard-hit Arizona crossing round up migrants on their own.

Close to 300,000 people have been caught trying to cross the border since October 1, 2003, and according to the Border Patrol, 83 people have died since then near the Arizona border alone, a new record. When bodies are uncovered in the Arizona desert, they are marked John and Jane Doe until authorities can identify them; but identifications are rare, and most end up in pauper’s fields like the one in Holtville, Arizona, where 133 migrants are buried.

Many of book’s heroes aren’t bleeding-heart liberals, just regular folks with big hearts. When a local
11-year-old shows up on one woman’s doorstep — with two Mexican women in their 30s found hiding in a ditch — “Beatrice,” a Cochise County hotel owner in her late 50s, can hardly turn them away. “This is tough stuff,” she tells Ellington, “these are
human beings.”

$25 hardcover

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