The Devil’s Highway Remains Relevant

The border between Mexico and the United States has been a cruel space for many decades. The pull northward for opportunity is enticing, but the journey can be deadly, especially for undocumented immigrants. In 2001, twenty-six such Mexicans attempted the crossing. They had the great misfortune to have the wrong guides at the wrong time who chose the wrong path. Fourteen of them died of the terrible heat of the desert.

Luis Alberto Urrea, an award-winning author and professor of English at the University of Illinois Chicago, learned about the tragedy in 2004. He decided to investigate. Urrea’s background informed his approach to the project. His father is Hispanic, his mother Anglo, and he grew up in San Diego, where the border is a significant presence. He researched the story thoroughly, talking with as many of the participants as he could, from immigrants to border patrol agents. The result, The Devil’s Highway: A True Story, is a gripping and harrowing account of the event. Also an examination of the border and the many people who live and work around it, the book became a best-seller, a Pulitzer prize finalist, and the recipient of many awards. The book is regularly taught and read today.

The Devil’s Highway is lyrically written. Urrea’s prose is dramatic and compelling. The people in the book are described with compassion and understanding. There are no cartoon villains – even the coyotes who led the immigrants to their death are treated with empathy. Unfortunately, there are also no heroes who were able to erase the suffering or to stop future tragedies. The broader situation, the gross inequity, and poor policy, practice and culture doomed these immigrants – and many more before and after. It’s a haunting book.

I wish that I could say that things are better now at the border. Clearly, they are not. Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway remains as relevant as ever. It’s a difficult story and an amazingly good read.

David Potash

Latino Migrant Politics, History and Theory

Making sense of US immigration policy and practice – especially what has happened in the past few decades with America and its neighbors to the south – is an extraordinarily complicated task. There are many moving pieces: local histories, transnational histories, international histories, changing laws, policies, practices and economics, and a complex overlay of perspectives and agendas. No simple narrative that can capture what has happened and why.

Alfonso Gonzales, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside, provides a provocative and helpful take on the topic in Reform Without Justice: Latino Migrant Politics and the Homeland Security State. Gonzales’s research rests on a solid review of better-known historical events (public marches, legislation, speeches, etc.), interviews with more than 60 activists and many immigrants personally affected by the issue, and a powerful neo-Gramscian political theoretical lens. Antonio Gramsci was an Italian political theorist, communist, and anti-fascist who spent many years imprisoned by the Mussolini government. Gramsci’s work often revolved around questions of power and hegemony. He looked at ways that groups in power are able to remain in power, even in periods of transition and uprising. His insights – which cross many disciplinary boundaries – give tools to help map out complex issues of power, adjustment, and continuity.

Gonzales harnesses a reading of Gramsci to explore how, during a period of national shifts in political parties and massive street protests advocating for immigrant rights, conditions for so many Latino/a immigrants worsened. The US experienced a period where many thought that ground up change would lead to an opening of opportunities and supports for immigrants. It did not transpire. Governmental controls increased. The political culture worked against comprehensive immigration reform and the extension of immigrant rights. To explain this, Gonzales identifies an anti-immigrant hegemony that cuts across parties, social groups, and other categories. This “structure” has grown in power, too, under the Trump administration. Absolutely central to that effort, Gonzales effectively argues, is the criminalization of the immigrant.

Adding to the power of the narrative is Gonzales’s willingness to occasionally insert his voice as an immigrant. He is judicious but when he does insert himself, it resonates. Gonzales is an activist who cares. His work, as a theorist and as a chronicler of change, is valuable.

Reform Without Justice offers a persuasive lens to help to understand current American political culture and politics when it comes to immigration and Latinos.

David Potash

Emigration & Immigration: Mexico and the United States

mexico-and-its-diasporaAlexandra Delano, a professor at the New School, grounds her book Mexico and Its Diaspora in the United States: Policies of Emigration Since 1848 in history, foreign policy and the domestic politics of both nations. What sets this book apart, though, is that Delano assigns primacy to the Mexican government in analyzing the flow of Mexicans to the United States. Delano has a strong command of a wide range of scholarship and methodologies. In her hands, policy analysis and foreign policy is a surprisingly helpful lens with which to study emigration and immigration. The result is a comprehensive, compelling, and an insightful overview to a complicated international dynamic.

This is not a book for those new to immigration or Mexican-American history. It moves quickly over a lot of material, information and arguments. Delano writes to those have some understanding of the terrain and seek deeper and more sophisticated awareness of policy shifts and turns. Her underlying thesis examines the implications of the gradual transformation of Mexico into a more active and intentional player with United States. Delano is fully cognizant of the asymmetrical relationship. She notes, though, that Mexico’s willingness to engage – particularly from the 1990s and NAFTA – have had profound consequences on US-Mexico relations.

I found her investigation of IME (Institute for Mexicans Abroad) and the Matricula Consular – a card issued by Mexican consulates to Mexicans living in the US – to be especially informative. These policy efforts by the Mexican government to protect citizens’ rights, no matter where they live, to have an important role in understanding the immigrant experience. Emigration and immigration policies are critical. They have political ramifications, too, for both countries.

Mexico and Its Diaspora in the United States is a welcome addition to the studies of Mexican American relations and the flow of people across the border.

David Potash

Immigration Dreamers

Eileen Truax’s Dreamers: An Immigrant Generation’s Fight For Their American Dream is a journalist’s account of life for undocumented people in the age of the Dream Act (DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Truax hails from Mexico and lives in the US. She is well-versed in the small and large challenges of living in two different countries with different cultures. Her aim in this book is to give human faces and stories to the young men and women affected directly by DACA. She humanizes, explains and contextualizes the stories of those who are struggling in challenging times.

dreamersConsciously avoiding statistics and policy analysis (and there are places in the text that call out for further explication), Truax gives ten narrative histories. She writes about young men and women, their homes, their families and their friends. Their communities are described as are their clothing and appearance. Sympathy and understanding drives the text. Truax wants us to see these people as people who are as “American” as any neighbor, classmate, co-worker or colleague.

It is an effective strategy to generate emotions and sympathy. There is much to like about these young men and women. The anchor of the stories are those who are open about their lack of documentation. These courageous souls have decided to make their cause public and be active to seek seeking legislative and executive support. Truax helps us to understand just how terrifying this must feel. The book’s cover says “Undocumented Unafraid” – but these people are afraid, and with good cause.

Emotions and sympathy can aid in understanding policy consequences but they are not necessarily the best way to create solutions or to craft better policy. Immigration is notoriously complicated to reform.  Politics, history, economics, national security, and race are woven throughout any discussion of policy. Not acknowledging the harder complicating forces does little to advance the discussion. There were ample places in the histories, too, where Truax could have provided anchors to the stories and given the reader themes and direction. The role of education, for example, or how the experience was both empowering and demeaning. Much more could have been done with the material.

Truax’s book gives voice to those that may not be comfortable coming forward. It is here that I think her contribution is most effective. Policy and laws have real impacts on real lives. The consequences of ill-considered policy can be devastating. To earn and maintain our trust, our government and our laws must be fair, equitable and just. Humanizing our immigration policy and practice, as Truax does in this volume, helps to set a high bar for meaningful reform. One hopes that it is not just a dream.

David Potash

Second City Hometown Associations

Making sense of Chicago is no easy task. The city is an amazing jumble of neighborhoods and histories that are easy to misunderstand or miss. Chicago has the second largest population of Mexican immigrants in the US. However, the structure and social fabric of this community is not well-studied or well-known. Mexican Hometown Associations in Chicagoacan

Xochitl Bada, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, opens an important window into this world in her book, Mexican Hometown Associations in Chicagoacan: From Local to Transnational Civic Engagement. The title may be imposing but the read is informative. Grounded in scholarship and the product of Bada’s graduate studies, it is a thoughtful and carefully crafted work. It is also a correction on assumptions one might make about civic engagement and the Mexican immigrant community.

Drawn to the topic because of her interest immigrant rights and activism, Bada volunteered with the Federation of Michoacan Clubs in Illinois (FEDECMI). The Federation’s scope and history gave her a unique view to examine the HTAs and the people they affected. She saw the growing organizational prowess of the HTAs, in Mexico and across the Caribbean, and also the impact of a change in Mexican law that gave those living abroad the right to vote in state elections. All of this occurred against a backdrop of anti-immigrant and pro-immigrant laws and action in the United States.

Bada sketches out the broad conditions and history of Mexican immigration to Chicago. She focuses on the experiences of those who hailed from Michoacan, a state in western Mexico. Mostly driven be labor opportunities in the earlier parts of the twentieth century, Michoacan immigrants journeyed to the US and were supported by mutual aid societies. In 1964, the bracero program ended, meaning that laborers to the US were no longer “guests.” Consequently, the mutual aid societies became less relevant. For Mexican immigrants to Chicago, that spelled an increase in the importance and relevance of hometowns and hometown associations for the immigrant community. The HTAs range from social clubs to sporting groups to active political groups.

Using history, journalism, and first person interviews, Bada explores the Chicago – Michoacan HTAs. She maps their internal networks, the connections with church and state, and examines how they both recreate and challenge traditional social structures. Undergirding their importance to Mexico over the years are the consistent flow of remittances from Chicago. The HTAs are more than local Chicago organizations – they also have a powerful impact in their home towns and region.

By the 2000s, Mexican politicians would regularly visit Chicago HTAs to connect with the community and drum up support. Many members of the HTAs held dual citizenship and the organizations fostered a special kind of dual civic engagement. Bada digs deep into theory and practice to explain how. The HTA’s clout led to joint funding opportunities for economic development in Michoacan. While the projects did not meet financial expectations, the HTAs have maintained an active voice in local Mexican politics. When those living away from Mexico were granted voting rights in 2007, the importance of the HTAs increased significantly. They consistently press a democratic counter narrative to the plans of large-scale development as pushed by international organizations and states.

Pulling the pieces of these organizations and their history together, Bada explores what they mean in terms of identity, geography, and community. Organizations whose membership and focus spans countries face particular challenges just in terms of basic logistics, which also mean difficulties in terms of communication, trust and agency. Technology has been a powerful enabler. Bada does not write about this, but it clearly has an impact.

Bada does explore the consequences of transnational organization and advocacy. She rightly identifies the city as a key context for communication and interaction. Cities facilitate collaboration much more than nations. The democratic tendencies of the HTAs, which emerged in rural Mexico, have found support and meaning in Chicago’s urban environment. What happens in one area can resonate in the other, and the exchange is often mediated by the HTA.

The very nature of the book raises provocative questions. In an era of global travel, multiple identifies and instant communication, what does citizenship look like? How does one understand community? It is interesting work, indeed.

David Potash