The Devil’s Highway is a 2004 book by Luis Alberto Urrea, who teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois/Chicago.
It focuses on the May 2001 tragedy where fourteen undocumented workers–the Yuma 14–died in the Arizona desert as they were walking in 110 degree heat seeking to get to jobs in the U.S.
But Urrea–who writes beautifully like the published poet that he is–puts this particular story in context. It is Operation Gatekeeper, Bill Clinton’s $3 billion militarization of the California border, that has forced immigrants to walk in the desert. On average, at least one immigrant dies each day in the Arizona desert. The smuggling of immigrants has become a big business, entangled with the narcotics cartels which are allied with both the Mexican and U.S. governments. Many of the immigrants in the desert are not Latino–they are often Chinese or Eastern European.
The stereotype of a border crossing is that it is just some minor unpleasantness–an afternoon in the trunk of a car or a midnight swim across a river. Urrea brings us face to face with the unbelievable horror that even successful entry into the U.S. has become. And he describes the conditions in Mexico that drive people to attempt it.
In Los Angeles, everyone knows many immigrants. Friends, co-workers, people you run into on the street. After reading this book, you wonder if they too had to travel the Devil’s Highway to get here.
Urrea also describes how, even in the reactionary cauldron of Arizona politics, most people know the treatment and conditions of immigrants is wrong. He describes how the train crews who cross Arizona have established policies to carry plenty of bottled water so they can throw it to anyone they see in the desert. A large group of Border patrolmen have, with their own money and despite intense political opposition, put up a network of large water tanks in the worst part of the desert.
Urrea’s book challenges us all to find ways to coalesce the huge pro-immigrant sentiment in the United States into a movement that is powerful enough and visionary enough to end the human traffic jam on the devil’s highway.
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