The Devil’s Highway: A True Story


Trolling for Latino votes, President Bush recently proposed granting
undocumented immigrants three-year work permits. The proposal has been a bust: Not only are Republicans
indignant, but immigrants fear being deported when the papers expire — many say that they’d
rather stay in the shadows.

Or in the killer sun. For years, Mexicans and other immigrants have been
sneaking over the border to reach minimum-wage jobs in the U.S. interior. For hundreds each year,
the crossing proves fatal. Many drown. Others cram into airless vehicles and suffocate. Some freeze
in winter. Then there is the heat.

“The Devil’s Highway” is a vast stretch of southern Arizona where ground
temperatures climb to the 130s. In May 2001, smugglers led some two dozen men and teenage boys through
this hell. They carried little water and got hopelessly lost. In the end, 14 people shriveled up,
turned black, went crazy, and died.

For essayist, poet, and border native Luis Urrea, the incident was a
doomed, 21st-century Odyssey. His harsh but lyrical prose celebrates man’s thirst not just to
make a living but to live a macho adventure — even when some of the “heroes” are Border Patrol
agents who chase immigrants to death’s door, then nurse the survivors with air conditioning and
water bottles. Urrea beautifully captures this cruel but seductive double play, which underscores
our country’s thirst for cheap labor, and the deadly ways in which that desire is slaked.