Aida became a mother at 16. She worked late at night in clubs to help support her son, but that made her vulnerable to violence from brutal men. Her struggles, triumphs, steadiness and character steer her story as it winds through immigration courts and detention centers.
Aaron Bobrow-Strain is the author of "The Life and Death of Aida Hernandez." He's a professor of politics at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., and joins us from there. Thanks so much for being with us.
AARON BOBROW-STRAIN: Thank you. It's wonderful to be here.
SIMON: The first look we get at Aida Hernandez, whom I will call a heroine - she's in an ambulance. How did that happen and why begin the book there?
BOBROW-STRAIN: So the book follows Aida's life. She's growing up undocumented in Douglas, Ariz. And there's a lot of twists and turns along the way as she comes of age amidst this evermore punitive and violent approach to border security that we've adopted. And so I think the best way to explain how she got into the ambulance without giving too much of the story away is simply to say that in this context, living undocumented in one of the most heavily policed small towns in America, even the smallest kinds of mistakes have extremely high costs.
SIMON: Wound all throughout your story is the increasing militarization of the border. And to be fair to the current administration, you don't see it as something that just began two years ago, but has been building up for a number of years.
BOBROW-STRAIN: That's right. I first went to the border in 1993, and I worked there for four years. It was a very formative moment in the border because it was really during that moment of the Clinton administration that we began what has become - I call it a 25-year-long bipartisan obsession with deterrence, which is to say an obsession with not dealing with immigration and the border in a real substantial way, but simply by coming up with evermore cruel, evermore drastic and evermore expensive forms of deterrence, even though they don't work.
SIMON: Yeah. The book opened your eyes to the fact that many women along the border face the constant threat of sexual assault and other violence, don't they?
BOBROW-STRAIN: Yeah. That was not something I expected to write about when I went into the project. But after meeting Aida and hearing her story, I realized that you can't understand the way we've approached border security without understanding its effects on violence against women. And I want to make sure that this is really different from when Trump talks about, you know, rapists on the border. What I'm focused on is the way our own policy choices have created a climate in which violence against women flourishes.
SIMON: Well, let me get you to be even a little explicit about that. What's the argument that you make - the increased militarization of the border leads to encouraging violence against women?
BOBROW-STRAIN: So there's two parts. One is that we've channeled migration into these fairly uncontrolled areas away from ports of entry, inspection, visas. We've kind of pushed migration into deserts. As we've made border crossing more expensive, that has drawn in and attracted evermore organized and violent criminal organizations who take over smuggling operations.
And there are other ways that the book talks about how violence against women is promoted by these policies. One of the key ones that appears in the book is just that by pushing undocumented people into the shadows, it gives abusers significant power in relationships.
SIMON: Aida winds up in detention separated from her son Gabriel. The conditions in detention, as you relentlessly and graphically lay out, are grimy and crowded and heartless. But she does find a purpose there, doesn't she?
BOBROW-STRAIN: Yeah, and I think what often gets missed in reporting on immigration detention is the way in which people in detention are able to craft agency and dignity for themselves even amidst these brutal conditions. And Aida finds her voice as a leader in the immigration detention. She's fluent in English, so she's one of the people who can really help other detainees navigate the very complex and confusing immigration law. And most people in immigration detention are navigating that complex body of law on their own without the help of an attorney. In that moment, Aida is able to come into her own and find a voice helping other people understand what's happening to them as best she can.
SIMON: Aida Hernandez is not her real name, but I wonder if you felt a sense of responsibility in telling her story to the public, in throwing her life open in this intimate and personal way.
BOBROW-STRAIN: Yeah. I mean, this is something I thought about through the whole project, spent a lot of time talking with Aida. And I think there's a long history of folks writing the stories of poor people in an exploitative way for the consumption of more affluent readers. And I really wanted to avoid those pitfalls.
In the end, this isn't just a book about Aida. Really, it's a book written in collaboration with Aida about the kinds of immigration policies and economic policies that the rest of us have created. It's a book about the world we've created as much as it's a book about Aida. And in that sense, I hope it's a sympathetic portrait of Aida, but it's also - should be a look in the mirror for the rest of us because these policies have been carried out in our name, supposedly to keep us safe.
SIMON: Aaron Bobrow-Strain, his book "The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez" - thanks so much for being with us.
BOBROW-STRAIN: Thank you. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.