Ananda ROSE. Showdown in the Sonoran Desert: Religion, Law, and the Immigration Controversy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. pp. 208. $29.95 hb. ISBN 978-0-19-989093-4.
Reviewed by Arthur KUBICK, Providence, Rhode Island.

Near the end of her excellent look at the immigration controversy, Ananda Rose poses a classic question with a new twist: What would Jesus do if he encountered a group of undocumented migrants struggling through the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, thirsty and confused? What would he preach in the surrounding towns? Would he insist on compassionate response and a tearing down of border walls? Would he insist on adherence to the rule of law as a necessary response to government authority? This proves to be much more that a simple WWJD exercise, filled as it is with complex issues on all sides of the immigration question—as well as deep emotions and divisive rhetoric. What Jesus might challenge us to is beyond our imagining, a call to a radical vision. What should we who read this book do? Understanding clearly the issues involved may be the best place to begin. And so this book serves as a valuable source for clarity.

Ananda Rose focuses on one geographical area for her examination of the immigration issue: the Tucson sector of the Sonoran Desert from Yuma, Arizona, to the New Mexico border. It is here that more than 2000 migrants have died trying to cross the unforgiving desert, forced into this border crossing by heightened (some might say draconian) security measures along the Rio Grande in Texas and the Tijuana/San Diego section in southern California. Through extensive fieldwork carried out in 2009—hundreds of interviews, analysis of writings and websites, reading articles, editorials, theological and political writings on immigration—she manages to bring together a comprehensive picture of the complex issues involved. Her goal was not to take sides “but rather to try to approach the problem in a disinterested fashion; to try to play a bit of the devil’s advocate all around; to see the merits and flaws behind conflicting philosophies.”

The book is divided into two parts. Part One: “God in the Desert: Migrant Deaths and the Rise of Border Ministries” profiles the work of individuals and groups carrying out compassionate service for migrants. In these first five chapters of the book we are introduced to the realities of migration first through the work of Sister Maria Engracia Robles and two other nuns serving migrants at El Comedor, a soup kitchen in Nogales, Mexico. Then in chapter two we meet John Fife and Jim Corbett who began the original Sanctuary Movement for Central American refugees in the 1980s, and continue it today through the New Sanctuary Movement based in the biblical tradition of radical hospitality. Rev. Robin Hoover and the work of Humane Borders introduces us to a theology of water in chapter three with the mission “to provide water for thirsty migrants who might otherwise perish of dehydration.” Chapter four centers on No More Deaths / No Mas Muertes and their more confrontational approach of “civil disobedience” and “civil initiative” through humanitarian aid, migrant aid centers, abuse documentation and “Arks of the Covenant”—often directly challenging law enforcement policies. Chapter five introduces the reader to another faith-based group, The Samaritans, who provide emergency medical assistance, food and water to migrants crossing the Sonoran desert.

Part Two looks at the law and order side of the immigration question: “Law in the Desert: Security, Sovereignty, and the Natural Rights of the State.” In chapter six, “Fencing Arizona,” Ananda Rose meditates on the history and philosophical meanings of the border wall by asking the larger question: “What does it mean to wall in a nation, or to wall out a neighboring one?” Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall,” offers some helpful reflection here. The arguments of those strongly opposed to illegal immigration are well-summarized in chapter seven: “Invasions, Floods, and Barbarians: What’s to Be Afaid Of?” For groups such as the Patriots Coalition, the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, and Ranch Rescue, it is the rule of law that must come first. The writings of Samuel P. Huntington, Pat Buchanan and others reveal a deep-seated fear at the heart of the movement, a fear that must be acknowledged no matter which side one takes. But does this level of fear equal the level of threat? While this debate goes on, Arizona has implemented the controversial immigration law Senate Bill 1070. Rose spends the whole of chapter 8 discussing the various dimensions of this law, “the wagers of love and fear at the border.” She concludes that “the popularity of SB 1070 points to a dissonance between moral and religious calls to love neighbor as self and the, perhaps ineradicable, existential realities of human fear and threat that others elicit in us.”

But perhaps the other is an invitation. This at least is the wager—renewed again and again—offered by contemporary philosopher Richard Kearney and echoing the work of Emmanuel Levinas. “Do we see the uninvited stranger as a threat to our freedom and well-being or as an invitation to a deeper moral awakening?” Rose’s brief look at the reflections of Freud, Sartre, William James, Levinas and Kearney on the Other provides a small philosophical framework for discussion. But it does not resolve the disputes. Such questions “point to why, perhaps, the issue of illegal immigration is both so incendiary and so hard to resolve, because it digs down deep to the core of what it means to be human.”

The main challenge of this book may be to imagine the immigration realities in the Sonoran desert right now with a sense of openness and compassion for the migrant, the Border Patrol agent, the rancher, the aid worker. Even as you read this review, “there is someone putting her money into the hand of a coyote, taking her first steps into the Sonoran desert. And there is you, reading this, asking yourself, what should we do?”

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