In the early pages of The Devil’s Highway, Luís Alberto Urrea writes that “’Getting bodies,’ in Border Patrol lingo, didn’t necessarily mean collecting corpses. Bodies were living people.” He goes on to describe the ways in which the Border Patrol, or la Migra, refers to the “illegal aliens” they find wandering the Cabeza Prieta as “wets” (a shortening of the slur “wetbacks”), “tonks” (so called for “the stark sound of a flashlight breaking over a human head”), or simply as “illegals.” Humanity and illegality, in the world of The Devil’s Highway, are inversely proportional—that is to say, the more an immigrant’s illegality is emphasized, the more their humanity is minimized. Urrea describes the ways in which Mexican and Latino immigrants are systematically stripped of their humanity and ultimately raises the question of how a person can be “illegal.” Urrea’s goal in writing the book was to “make [readers] think a little about those people who are ‘illegal,’” and that as he set out to accomplish this goal he realized that “the story was really about all humans—all of us are lost wanderers.” By universalizing the story of the Wellton 26, Urrea humanizes all migrants and challenges the dehumanizing language of illegality.
In Urrea’s afterword, he reflects on encounters he has had and changes—or lack thereof—he has witnessed in the ten years since the book’s 2004 publication. While officials on both sides of the border haves struggled, privately and publicly, with how to offer dignity and recognition of humanity to the “illegals” they are tasked with apprehending, the changes that have been made do little to address the root of the problem of the border—the desolation and desperation which drives many immigrants to seek passage to America in the first place. Though glimmering, easily-visible emergency towers and portable waystations filled with water have been erected throughout the desert, little has been invested in the human lives on the Mexican side of the border. “More than two thousand people” died along the Mexican border just “in the half decade before [the Wellton 26,]” Urrea writes. Two thousand lives, two thousand sets of uncollected bones, two thousand “illegals” whose names and stories are forever lost to the world. The “stupidity” of border politics creates an endless cycle in which the perceived inhumanity of “illegals” is perpetuated and even deepened. Immigrants know that they will only be seen as “illegals,” “tonks,” or “wets”—they know they will be stripped of their humanity as soon as they set foot in the United States. Desperate to enter anyway, they place themselves in dangerous and potentially fatal circumstances. When they die in the desert, their stories die with them, and they become anonymous integers in a rising death toll.
The United States is founded on principles of equality which should, in theory, sanctify the humanity of refugees and immigrants, and yet the immigrants continue to be dehumanized by the United States’ policies and language surrounding immigration. In this book, Luís Alberto Urrea tells a story of humanity and inhumanity. To think of a human being as “illegal” is to strip them of their rights, their dignity, and their complexity. Urrea is optimistic about the future of the border, and willing to endow his view of the border with grace and hope. He describes an anecdote in which “kids play volleyball across the border, using the barriers for nets”—he envisions a world in which the border is not a “hideous scar” but an “imaginary line”—not an excuse for the destruction or erasure of humanity, but an instrument of connection and a celebration of its complexity instead.
Humanity and “Illegality” ThemeTracker
Humanity and “Illegality” Quotes in The Devil’s Highway
If the North American continent was broad (“high, wide, and lonesome”), then Mexico was tall. High, narrow, and lonesome. Europeans conquering North America hustled west, where the open land lay. And the Europeans settling Mexico hustled north. Where the open land was. Immigration, the drive northward, is a white phenomenon. White Europeans conceived of and launched El Norte mania, just as white Europeans inhabiting the United States today bemoan it.
“Getting bodies,” in Border Patrol lingo, didn’t necessarily mean collecting corpses. Bodies were living people. “Bodies” was one of the many names for them. Illegal aliens, dying of thirst more often than not, are called “wets” by agents. “Five wets” might have slipped out. “Wets” are also called “tonks,” but the Border Patrol tries hard to keep that bon mot from civilians. It’s a nasty habit in the ranks. Only a fellow border cop could appreciate the humor of calling people a name based on the stark sound of a flashlight breaking over a human head.
You’d be hard pressed to meet a Border Patrol agent in either southern Arizona sector who had not encountered death. All the agents seem to agree that the worst deaths are the young women and the children. The deaths, however, that fill the agents with the deepest rage are the deaths of illegals lured into the wasteland and then abandoned by their Coyotes.
The Mexican government’s border sign near Sasabe doesn’t actually say “Coyotes.” It uses the hipper slang of the border. It says, “Los Polleros.” A pollero would be a chicken-wrangler. The level of esteem the smugglers hold for their charges is stated plainly. They’re simply chickens. Of course, if you know Spanish, you know that the word for “chicken” is gallina. “Pollo” is usually reserved for something else. A pollo, as in arroz con pollo, has been cooked.
“I do not know who was dying or how many because I too was dying.”
It is important to note that within ten minutes of finding the lost men, the Migra was already fully engaged in rescue. While Mike F. cut for more sign, the old boys were kicking off their desert race. The Border Patrol sped there so fast, with so many vehicles, over such vicious terrain, that they suffered twenty-six flat tires. Some agents drove on rims to get there.
The survivors were suddenly paid professional narrators. At the beginning of their federal jobs, they were paid in room and board. They got cheap shoes and pants. T-shirts. As they sang, they learned they could get job advancement. Even a substantial raise. Like all good bards, they embellished and expanded their narratives. As long as they told their stories, they stayed. As long as they stayed, they had a chance to stay longer. Soon, they would surely earn money. It was the new millennium’s edition of the American Dream.
Since that May of 2001, the filth and depravity of the border churns ahead in a parade of horrors. The slaughtered dead turn to leather on the Devil's Highway, and their brothers and sisters rot to sludge tucked in car trunks and sealed in railroad cars. The big beasts and the little predators continue to feed on the poor and innocent. Hope began to glimmer for a short period as presidents Fox and Bush courted each other. A kind of border accord loomed, and the sacrifice of the Yuma 14 helped stir the leaders of each nation to pity. But the atrocities of 9/11 killed Border Perestroika. An open border suddenly seemed like an act of war or a flagrant display of foolishness.
In ancient days, the Rain God was fed by the tears of the innocent. For any rain to fall now, it will take gallons of tears, rivers. In the desert, the drops evaporate before they hit the ground.
Part of the idea was to foment discussion. Make us think a little about those people who are “like, illegal.” But the deeper idea was to bear witness—we saw an exodus straight from the biblical template, and it felt that no one was paying attention. As I started the work, I will confess, it was all about the good men who died. But it didn’t take long to see that the story was really about all humans—all of us in those ancient deserts are lost wanderers.
Every week, in some motel, in the back of some burger joint, in some brothel or in some field, a woman is weeping in a horror we cannot comprehend because we aren’t listening. After all, she’s “illegal.” Not even human.
Item: a Mexican Beta Group immigration cop asked me if the situation in the U.S.—the suffering of the undocumented—would be improved if we called them by other terms. What if they are called “refugees”? “Pilgrims”? He was a philosopher. “In God’s world,” he said, “no man is illegal.” Every night, he locked himself inside the police station so the cocaine cowboys from the desert couldn’t kill him.
The border makes me happy. Hard to believe. But, after all, I’m from there. Is the border all hate and fear and bad craziness? No. Of course not. Just like the Border Patrol agents aren’t all racist monsters looking to crack beaner heads. Just like the smugglers aren’t all savage beasts looking to slaughter innocents for filthy lucre…well, not all of them. Just like the walkers aren’t slobbering rapists and murderers—in spite of the blazing sign we float over their heads: ILLEGAL.