Book Review: “The Devil’s Highway”

In May, 2001 25 men and one boy set out across the Sonoran Desert, determined to cross into southern Arizona, between Yuma and Nogales, from their native Mexico. Crossing into the US was easy; finding their way to civilization was deadly. Fourteen of them perished in the attempt. Luis Alberto Urrea reconstructs the details of this tragedy and presents them in an absolutely compelling account entitled The Devil’s Highway

The Devil’s Highway is a geographic area that corresponds roughly to the Cabeza Prieta (“dark head”) National Wildlife Refuge, an area the size of Rhode Island with a permanent human population density of zero. A hundred consecutive days of 100°+ temperatures is not unheard of, and parts of the area average only 3″ of rain each year. It also happens to be a popular conduit for those entering the country illegally from Mexico.

Urrea is a gifted author – this book was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction – and a tireless investigator. The breadth and depth of research that went into this quick-reading work is a reminder that being an author is difficult labor and there are no shortcuts.

Having recently read Urrea’s wonderful novel, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, I knew that while he loves Mexico, the country of his birth, he doesn’t view it or its history through rose-colored glasses. Nevertheless, I wondered how he would tell this story within the context of the ongoing controversies surrounding illegal immigration. In a recent poll, 85% of Americans agree that illegal immigration is “a problem,” and 55% say that it is “very serious.” Illegal immigration, especially from Mexico, is a hot button issue to many; emotions run strong on all sides of the debate, and it’s rare to hear or read an even-handed discussion of the issues. But that’s exactly what Urrea gives us.

He gives us a matter-of-fact overview of the economic and political realities that cause so many Mexicans to view migration to America as their only hope for a life above the subsistence level. He shows us the frustrations and dangers of being a member of the US Border Patrol, La Migra; he also reveals the tolerance and even compassion that many of the BP agents have for those they capture and turn back. It’s telling that most illegals will tell you that they’d much rather be caught by La Migra than by their own immigration police. La Migra carry life-saving bottles of water; los federales attach battery leads to body parts.

Urrea also provides some analysis of the costs and benefits that accompany illegal immigration, leaving it to readers to decide whether the math works for or against their perceptions.

But the most important thing he does with The Devil’s Highway is put faces and lives and families and aspirations onto those otherwise anonymous masses about which we see only reports on the 10:00 p.m. news. The result is uncomfortable, because it injects humanity into the situation and that turns our nice black-and-white, well-focused picture of How Things Should Be into a muddy gray swirl that, for me anyway, will defy re-separation.

Urrea accomplishes something else, probably unintentionally but still important to those of us who live in or near the desert. He describes in great clarity the unforgiving nature of the desert, the way it can turn the unprepared into corpses almost before they understand what’s happening.

The Devil’s Highway is a thought-provoking look at an issue that has perhaps more immediate relevance than any other now facing our nation. It should be required reading for everyone who wants to debate illegal immigration… regardless of the side they take.

As always, in the interest of full disclosure, you should know that this book was provided to me at no cost and for review purposes by Time Warner Book Group as a part of its Online Marketing program. And, once again, I’d like to thank my personal Book Angel, Miriam Parker, for recommending an excellent work.