The Devil's Highway

by Luis Alberto Urrea

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What is Urrea's main argument/message in The Devil's Highway?

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Luis Alberto Urrea's message is that the immigration system is broken and needs to be addressed on multiple fronts. He also makes it clear how tragic the fate of the men who died on the Devil's Highway truly is.

One thing that needs to be improved is opportunities for people to support their families in Mexico. They would never risk the dangers of illegal immigration if there was something there for them to work toward. He discusses the men who decided to make the trek to America to show what each needed that he couldn't get in Mexico.

Next, he shows that the coyotes need to be stopped. They're a type of organized criminal force designed to transport people illegally over the border. Their concern is profit over people; they're more than willing to leave people to die if need be. If law enforcement worked to stop the coyotes, lives could be saved. However, Mexican authorities are often paid by the coyotes.

Finally, the immigration system in the United States is something that Urrea feels needs to be addressed. He thinks that there are inequities in the system that lead to dangerous and illegal crossings. He believes if those were fixed, it would cut off the source of the coyotes' income and prevent them from abandoning more people to their deaths.

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As other educators have already pointed out, in The Devil’s Highway, Urrea aims to humanize the immigrants who cross the border on foot illegally, to engender sympathy for their plight, and to raise awareness of its core cause: social and economic inequity.

Adding to that, from my perspective, Urrea’s main message and main argument is this:

Although it’s impossible to point the finger at any single villain or politician or corporation, saying “You’re at fault for this suffering,” and although it’s impossible to identify a single, clear-cut way to solve the rampant inequity that causes border crossings (and all its inherent suffering and loss of life), we all share responsibility for working to ease, and ultimately to resolve, this humanitarian crisis.

At the end of the text, in the “Reading Group Guide,” Urrea reminds us that many groups and regulations are at fault (such as “corporate bosses,” the “border enforcement policy” in the United States, and the Mexican government), and that there are, in fact, “any number of solutions” to the tragedies that occur along the border, the implication being that we cannot throw up our hands in despair and claim that the problem is unsolvable, as thousands of people are already doing good work to chip away at the problem:

We must look at the thousands of visionary localized efforts on both sides of the border to change the paradigm.

What can we do?

Urrea suggests that we keep ourselves informed of “the United States’ semi-secret welcoming of undocumented workers,” for one thing.

The articles linked below lay out updated information about the state of these workers, as well as concrete actions we can take to help them.

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In The Devil's Highway, author Urrea presents the stories of five men within the long-term context of border crossing. His main purpose seems to be to create a bond of empathy between the men and the reader. By humanizing the abstract idea of illegal immigration, he makes the reader look beyond the rhetoric and think deeply about the causes and effects of crossing that imaginary line.

Urrea points out the limits of the information available to people south of the border before they make their decision. He also conveys the drastic conditions, including political violence, that push people to take an action they know is illegal.

In the latter regard, Urrea encourages the reader to expand their views and to consider justice as much as legality in evaluating border crossing. His general message is to keep the big picture in mind.

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Apart from focusing on borders and migration, the most central message of this powerful text concerns the root cause of the problem depicted through the terrors of the Mexicans who tried to cross the border. Again and again, Urrea stresses that the real cause of what is going on in this part of the world is the massive inequality that lies between Mexicans and their proximity to the United States, where they can see the visible consumption of wealth that they can only dream of:

If only Mexico paid workers a decent wage.

In Iowa City, Omaha, Nutley, Waycross, Metairie, those who survive the northern passage can earn in an hour what it took a long day's work in radioactive chemical Mexican sludge to earn before...

Mexicans still behind the barbed wire continue to listen to fabulous tales of Los Estados Unidos. They watch drunk and disorderly teens vomit in the streets of Spring-Break-Atlan. They wait tables and mop floors while sailors scream and naked girls dangle from balconies.

It is clear that Urrea's central message is an attack not on the coyotes and the illegal immigrants that are entering the United States but on the root cause, which is the massive inequality that leads people to risk their own lives in the hope of gaining riches which, in their perspective, massively outweigh the risk they take of losing their life. That such a system can occur in our "civilised" age, Urrea argues, is deplorable.

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