Making the crossing ever more dangerous seems to be about the only tangible result of U.S. border policy in the past decade. In 1994, the Clinton administration—fearing the political repercussions after the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 passed in California—implemented a “prevention through deterrence” border program. One after another, the traditional urban crossing points, near San Diego, Nogales, and El Paso, were simply blockaded and more or less shut down. Military-sounding campaigns like Operation Gatekeeper, Operation Hold-the-Line, Operation Safeguard, and Operation Rio Grande didn’t do much to keep the migrants out of the United States. But driving them away from border cities got them—for a while, at least—out of the news. Historic and decades-old human streams were rerouted from California and Texas and funneled into the relatively unpopulated, inhospitable terrain along the Arizona border. Out of sight. Out of mind. Again, for a time.
No one was actually deterred, but more people died. Since the early 1990s, whatever the official policy, the Border Patrol has made about a million “apprehensions” per year (the number of detainees this past year was almost identical to that of 1993). And every year about half as many people—500,000 or so—elude arrest and make it across. But in 1994, the year of the Clinton clampdown, a total of twenty-three migrants died attempting passage. That number climbed to average 300 a year in the late 1990s and has topped 400 annually since 2000. Last year’s toll set a new record: nearly 500, more than half of them in south-central Arizona.
At the same time that the United States was blocking the border arteries, its trade policies were only increasing the pressure on Mexicans to leave their country. Before the 1993 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, only about 2.5 million undocumented Mexicans were living in the United States. Since then, by conservative estimates, the number has more than doubled. With all barriers dropped on the inflow of cheap American agricultural products, over a million Mexican subsistence farmers have been wiped out, and left with no choice but to head north. And the NAFTA boom for Mexican industrial workers, promised by the Clinton administration, never materialized. Over the past decade, wages for Mexican factory workers have actually declined.
The single most compelling, lucid, and lyrical contemporary account of the absurdity of U.S. border policy is Luis Alberto Urrea’s Devil’s Highway, a 2005 Pulitzer finalist for general nonfiction. Urrea writes with the clarity of a world-class journalist, the sensibilities of a poet, and the insight of a Mexican born in the purgatory of Tijuana but raised and educated in the United States. His terrifying and meticulously researched narrative reconstructs the tragic trek of twenty-six men, mostly Veracruz subsistence farmers, who in May 2001 tried to cross into southern Arizona along the legendary and brutal patch known as the Devil’s Highway. Led astray by three confused and frightened guides, fourteen of them—who came to be known as the Yuma 14—perished in the heat. The twelve survivors were found in a grotesque state, as if they were being broiled. Many of the group’s members had passed through Altar; one of their teenage guides hailed from Sasabe. Consular official Jorge Solchaga told me he spent days “camped out” in the Pima County coroner’s office, overseeing the gruesome task of identifying the sun-charred corpses and arranging for their shipment back to Mexico. “They are embalmed, then placed in a cloth-covered wooden casket,” Urrea writes of the processing of the recovered bodies of Mexican migrants.
This undertaking costs $650. If they are to be flown home, the “air-tray” to hold the casket costs an extra $50. The Mexican consulates pay for the embalming, and other parties—sometimes the governments of the walkers’ home states—pay for the flights. For more than 80 percent of the dead, it is the most expensive gift they have ever gotten.
The same sense of foreboding inevitability that marks Bowden’s attitude pervades Urrea’s storytelling. In his earlier and equally luminous nonfiction work By the Lake of Sleeping Children, Urrea takes us into the stinking, rotting heart of the Tijuana municipal dump. Here an entire community, dedicated to squeezing a living out of the rubbish, has mushroomed. On one storm-ravaged day, the dump floods and the washing walls of water erode the surrounding banks. Improvised children’s coffins, made of cardboard boxes, slide loose and break apart, and hungry seagulls pick away at the remains. The lake of sleeping children. Immersed knee-deep in this ghastly stew, Urrea taunts us:
Proposition 187? A new Berlin Wall at the border? California citizen identification cards? … You think they’re going to work? You think they can possibly work? Swim in this lake for a minute, then tell me you can keep these people on its shore. Jump in—you own it: it’s Lake Nafta.
In The Devil’s Highway, Urrea cuts through the prevailing mythologies surrounding the border and reveals, unsentimentally but with compassion, how a simple political boundary manages to scramble the basic humanity of all whose lives it divides and defines. He shows enormous sympathy for the world-weary Border Patrol agents who delight in calling their prey “tonks”—the sound made by a government-issue flashlight crashing on a skull—but who will later, at their own personal expense, build a rescue beacon to save the lives of future tonks. The twelve Mexican survivors of the doomed crossing party, meanwhile, are described as not only happy to be alive but also rather relishing the perks and comforts offered by the U.S. government in exchange for their cooperation in the criminal case against one of their hapless guides:
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 … It was the new millennium’s edition of the American Dream.
While Urrea’s sympathies are clearly with the walkers, he refuses to make martyrs of them, just as he balks at demonizing their pursuers. Instead, he casts them all in the drama of a global economy whose ominous pushes and pulls defy the logic of laws, policies, and even climate. What wasn’t wholly predictable about the deaths of the Yuma 14? The walkers were consumed at the onset of what is now known as the yearly “death season”—May through July, when Arizona temperatures float in the triple digits. Urrea writes:
It is then that lettuce, tomatoes, cu-cumbers, oranges, strawberries are all ready to be picked. Arkansas chickens are ready to be plucked. Cows are waiting in Iowa and Nebraska to be ground into hamburger, and grills are ready in McDonald’s and Burger King and Wendy’s and Taco Bell for the ground meat to be cooked. KFC is waiting for its Mexican-plucked, Mexican-slaughtered chickens to be fried by Mexicans. And the western desert is waiting, too—its temperatures soaring, a fryer in its own right.
The deaths of the Yuma 14, coming at a time when migrant fatalities were spiking, brought the border issue back into public view—at least for those who cared to notice at all. These “unintended consequences” of the Clinton-era lockdown—grisly border deaths and no letup in crossings, and all the bad publicity thereof—sparked some transitory hope that an obsolete policy of denial would be replaced by something more pragmatic. In early 2001, newly elected Presidents Bush and Fox publicly hinted that some grand, historic immigration compromise was in the making. In the summer of 2001, Mexico’s then–Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda told me and others that he was confidently pushing for the “whole enchilada”—an agreement that would provide a legal channel for Mexican guest workers and that would also “normalize” the millions of Mexicans already working and living in the United States without legal status.