The Devil’s Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea, is a deeply evocative story about the border conflict between the United States and Mexico. More specifically, it follows the lives and experiences of illegal immigrants, smugglers, and U.S. border patrolmen. Urrea tells of the desperation of the immigrants— the desperation that drives them into the hands of cruel and business-minded smugglers. On the other side of the border, Border Patrol searches through the unforgiving desert, looking for illegals to capture, and oftentimes save from the throes of dehydration.
Apart from being an interesting story, or even an interesting tale of human bravery, The Devil’s Highway has a complex political meaning, one that is not easy to discern. Luis Alberto Urrea openly describes himself as a liberal opposed to the U.S. border policy, especially due to his Hispanic descent. During the investigative preparation for this book, he talks with numerous border patrol agents who are openly suspicious of his intentions. It would not be unheard of for media outlets to portray the agents in a bad light. And yet, they open up to Urrea, and in turn Urrea creates a fair and accurate book.
An English teacher once told me that reading The Devil’s Highway would open up a whole new world and cause students to develop a completely new mindset towards the 2016 presidential election. The reasoning was that once we learned about the hardships and root motivations of illegal immigrants, who were just trying to better their families’ lives, we would immediately support illegal immigration.
Even though this was Urrea’s intent, I don’t think The Devil’s Highway had the intended effect. Most readers already know why immigrants enter the United States: higher wages and less violence. Learning about the arduous journey through the Sonoran Desert doesn’t create support for illegal immigrants. If anything, it makes readers wonder “why would you do that?” and scoff at their foolishness. More conservative readers will see Urrea’s horrid descriptions of poverty in Mexico as further proof that border policy must be enforced. They see low wage workers as a weight on countries, and if more and more flee to the United States, the United States will eventually resemble the chaos in Mexico today.
Such a focus on nationalism over humanitarianism is a sad reflection on human nature, but it is equally unfair to blame everyday Americans for this mentality. No country wants to sacrifice its own well-being for poorer countries. Even Mexico must deal with poorer illegal immigrants from the countries to their Southeast: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Mexico supports giving citizenship to its immigrants in America, all while deporting Central Americans by the thousands. At the end of the day, each country wants the best for its own people, and that’s just the way it is. Any country claiming the moral high ground in this cutthroat world is an act of hypocrisy.
The more surprising aspect of The Devil’s Highway is learning about the border smugglers, called Coyotes, and the U.S. Border Patrolmen. The agents themselves are often overlooked in the great debate over border policy. Liberals see them as Mexican-hating racists while conservatives see them as soldiers defending a battlefront. But at the end of the day, the agents are just ordinary people. Urrea does a fantastic job at humanizing them. He describes many of the agents as “bleeding-heart liberals” who paid out of their own pockets for life-saving towers in the desert. Towers that save the lives of failed illegal crossovers, without any taxpayer dollars. The Devil’s Highway succeeds in teaching readers about every aspect of the border issue, even if it doesn’t provide a convincing solution.
Throughout his book, Urrea laments the misguided use of the term “illegal immigrants” and speaks about border security with cynicism. Although he can illustrate the problems of poverty and corruptions quite well, it is far more difficult to provide actual solutions. Yes, living conditions in Mexico are worse than in the United States, but would Urrea really have our country throw away the border and mesh the two countries? The solution cannot be purely humanitarian, which is far too idealistic, nor can it be purely survival of the fittest. Until we figure it out, two parties pointing fingers will get us nowhere. I don’t claim to know the answer, but I imagine it will rest in solving the root causes of elevated poverty and violence to the South.
Take The Devil’s Highway as a baseline education of all sides of the issue, not as an end-all solution. It merely illustrates the problem for readers to then develop their own opinions and solutions. If we can learn to meet in the middle, someday the world will be able to look back on this book as a historical text of bygones.
The Devil’s Highway is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.