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My mom and I talked a little about immigration while I was home. 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.

My mom and I talked a little about immigration while I was home. 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? It isn’t as bizarre as it seems.

Since I left Tennessee 10 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 10 non-English speakers total now find ESL classes overflowing. The presence of so many more immigrants in a relatively short period of time has clearly touched a nerve that politicians are eager to exploit.

You don’t see these kinds of ads as much in Texas, where I live now. There’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, for sure, and there are the overly concerned out patrolling the border on their own.

But even the wealthy, conservative parts of our state seem 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 too strongly against immigration would cost votes. In a state that no longer has a racial majority, politicians are careful not to upset any single community.

The difference in attitude is striking. Texas is a state whose history and future has been intertwined with Mexico’s since its inception. Tennessee, on the other hand, 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. A creative writing instructor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Urrea tells the story of 26 men who tried to cross the border and suffered disastrous consequences when the coyotes leading them got lost.

It is a story of normal men who left their lives behind in hope finding of short-term economic gain and put their lives in the hands of an international crime syndicate. Fourteen of them died as a result of those choices.

Urrea is an outstanding writer, and he tells these men’s story from several points of view. In the United States we tend to think about illegal immigration as 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, showing 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.

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 tells–in sharp detail–what it is like to die from dehydration and hyperthermia, and 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, if it been invested in the town to begin with might have prevented 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.

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.

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.

Laura Seay is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin and member of First Baptist Church in Austin, who has studied and lived in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. This column appeared previously on her blog, Texas in Africa.

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