"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


not-so-light reading

I read a disturbing, powerful book this weekend. Maybe you need to read it, too.

My mom and I talked a little about immigration while I was home this weekend. It's a huge issue in Tennessee politics right now, and all the politicians are running ads showing themselves defending Tennessee's borders from undocumented workers' perceived threat to Tennessee's economy.

Illegal immigration in Tennessee? This seems bizarre, but it isn't. Since I left Tennessee ten years ago, the state has experienced major demographic changes. Immigrants, illegal and otherwise, have flocked to the state, especially to the booming cities, to work construction and on the tobacco and soybean farms, and who knows what else. Schools that had maybe ten non-English speakers altogether now find themselves with overflowing ESL classes. And clearly the presence of so many more immigrants in a relatively short period of time has touched a nerve that politicians are eager to exploit to their advantage.

You don't see these kinds of ads in Texas as much. Sure, there's anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the overly concerned are out patrolling the border on their own. But our state, even the wealthy, conservative parts of our state, seems to understand that without the labor provided by undocumented workers, our economy would suffer a serious decline in productivity and profits. Our politicians also understand that to come out against immigration too strongly would cost them votes. In a state that no longer has a racial majority, politicians have to be careful not to upset any single community.

It might not be the same everywhere. Betsey, who lives 60 miles from the border in Tucson, said that illegal immigration is in all the political ads in Arizona this year. But it's striking to me the difference in attitude between Texas, a state whose history and future has been intertwined with Mexico's since its inception, and Tennessee, a state that is just beginning to experience the economic forces that drive illegal immigration.

All this was on my mind when I picked up The Devil's Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea. Urrea, a creative writing instructor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, tells the story of 26 men who tried to cross the border and who suffered disastrous consequences when the coyotes leading them got lost. It is a sickening story of normal men who left their lives behind in hopes finding of short-term economic gain, who put their lives in the hands of an international crime syndicate, and fourteen of whom died as a result of those choices.

Urrea is an outstanding writer, and he tells these men's story from several points of view. When those of us in the United States think about illegal immigration, I think we tend to think of small groups of individuals deciding to cross the border alone. Maybe they get a guide, maybe not.

Urrea blows that image out of the water, pointing out that most border-crossings are now in the hands of gangs that function like mafias. He sets the situation on the U.S.-Mexico border firmly in the context of international human trafficking, and shows how undocumented entrants are recruited, made to pay more money than they expected, and sent into the desert with guides who have no vested interest in their survival.

He also tells the story from the viewpoint of the Border Patrol, painting the agents as people who have jobs to do, but who also want to save lives, to the point that they will dip into their own pockets to provide lifesaving signal systems for immigrants who need rescue.

And Urrea does all this in narrative form, giving you an idea of the long bus ride from Veracruz to the border, and the even longer walk in circles through the Arizona desert. He describes how the Border Patrol searches for and finds undocumented entrants in a desolate landscape. He describes - in sharp detail - what it is like to die from dehydration and hyperthermia, what happens to a body when it is left to rot in the desert.

It is sickening. It is sickening in the abstract, and it is sickening to know that real mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and sisters and brothers die this way all the time, and that we never hear about it.

What is so striking about Urrea's narrative are the small details. The very ordinariness of these people's lives. The things they carried. The cost of flying the bodies back to Veracruz, which, as the consul points out, could have been invested in the town to begin with, preventing the need to immigrate in the first place.

We have different views about immigration in different parts of our country, and different views in the same cities and households as well. Knowing the role of organized crime has made me rethink my own views this week. But the basic inhumanity of the whole system - the crime syndicates, the inhuman policies, the brutal landscape - is more disturbing than anything the politicians have to say about threats to our jobs and security.

Gordon Atkinson noted in his beautiful Christian Century essay last spring:

"I've lived in Texas my whole life, and I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't have the greatest respect for the men and women who make this treacherous journey north, looking for work and a better life. The politicians are always upset about illegal immigration, but regular people shake their heads in admiration, understanding that gumption like that is a rare thing and deserving of our compassion and respect."

Does someone who has broken the law deserve our compassion and respect? I think this is the question at the center of our national debates right now - about immigration, about torture, about the war on terror. Do we treat people we hate, or whose actions we hate, as we want to be treated? Do we view them as images of the immortal, invisible God only wise, or as demons who deserve to be devoured by thirst in a desert hell?

Urrea's work is an angry, heartbreaking, tragic book. It is, paradoxically, easy to read and difficult to finish. If you are at all interested in the issue, in a well-written discussion of the surrounding history and politics and culture, I highly recommend The Devil's Highway. It will disturb you deeply. It might keep you awake at night. It is, in short, well worth your time.


Anonymous kirstin said...

very interesting. i might check out that book. thanks for the recommendation.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006 12:48:00 PM


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