The Illegal Death March:
The Harrowing Story of the Wellton 26
review written by Neil Fenani | book written by Luis Alberto Urrea
While immigration to the United States of America is routine, a recent upswing in illegal immigration has taken place. Even with large numbers of people dying while attempting to cross the border, those determined enough to find better lives in America will try to illegally settle in the United States. The Devil’s Highway follows a group of 26 men who tried to cross the border. Of those who attempted the trip, only 12 survived.
On May 19, 2001, the Wellton 26, a group of illegal immigrants from Mexico, attempted to cross the United States-Mexico border with insufficient provisions. In doing so, they faced the harsh conditions of the Arizona desert, and of the initial group of 26 men, 12 survived the ordeal. The aftermath of the case caused a great upheaval in debates on the controversial subject of illegal immigration. In The Devil’s Highway, Luis Alberto Urrea traces the fatal route of Jesús Lopez Ramos and the twenty-five men he led across the United States-Mexico border. The men, like most other immigrants to America, came searching for economic stability and a comfortable lifestyle. In the recent past, a move to the United States offered hope for a prosperous future. That is, one in which wealth is easily attained and a family can thrive. While this vision of life in America may seem optimistic, it is not far fetched. For decades, the American Dream drew people to the Land of Opportunity, and for decades, America has enthusiastically encouraged immigrants to settle, because they add to the financial and cultural wealth of the diverse nation. More recently; however, an unsettling trend has developed as a growing number of people are migrating to the United States illegally. They leave behind homes sometimes unfit for habitation in search of an alternative. Urrea uses the story of the Wellton 26 to highlight the issues of illegal immigration and the dichotomy it is creating in America today as a highly dividing issue.
Urrea prefaces his narrative of the Wellton 26 with a general overview of the growing threat of illegal immigrants. With the number of illegal immigrants growing, states that share a border with Mexico have strengthened efforts to curb the rising number of them. Under Operation Gatekeeper, implemented in 1994, Urrea explains, “Southern Arizona is divided into two Border Patrol sectors, Tucson and Yuma. Fifteen hundred agents patrol Tucson sector; three hundred work Yuma. Tucson handles the eastern half of the state…Yuma sector patrols the west all the way to the Colorado River and beyond... Strangely enough, they also patrol into California’s Imperial County.”1 This intensified protection of the United States border along with the desert’s harsh conditions make the Border Patrol’s work more successful. As part of their work, Border Patrol agents spend long hours—most groups of illegal immigrants cross the border between 11:00 at night and 3:00 in the morning—looking for coyotes, the leaders of groups of illegal immigrants and their gallinas—Spanish for chicken—the coyotes’ clients.2 Often times, these illegal immigrants are running out of supplies and willingly surrender to the Border Patrol agents. In the case of the Wellton 26, these factors combined with an unfamiliarity of the landscape led to one of the most highly profiled cases of illegal immigration.
Most of the Wellton 26 came from the Mexican state of Veracruz, in Mexico’s Southeast region. In total, nearly 4,000 people from Veracruz see immigration to the United States as an opportunity to escape the rising prices of food and other necessities in their home region.3 It is in Veracruz that the illegal immigration business is most notorious; in fact, it has developed into a highly profitable venture for bosses of immigration rings. The network of coyotes includes supervisors who take a cut of the coyotes’ income. On average, coyotes charge 20,000 pesos (about 200 United States Dollars) per person per trip. The scheme even provides for the people who cannot afford to pay the extravagant rates to cross the border: prospective immigrants can take out loans with collateral against their land or property at interest rates as high as 15 percent. Even with these high interest rates, illegal immigration networks bring nearly 1,500 people a day into the United States.4 These rings are so successful primarily, as in the case of the Wellton 26, because associates, usually in Arizona and Florida, help to make arrangements for the immigrants’ settlement.
Ramos, at the age of 19, was like most coyotes. Raised in extreme poverty, he was looking for a steady job that provided excellent pay; one that was relatively safe and steady in comparison to other available jobs. By making one round-trip between Mexico and the United States every week, Ramos was able to earn money faster working as a coyote than working at a traditional job. Most likely, he would have worked on an agricultural field. The events leading up to the ill-fated trip were not unusual and Ramos had prepared himself as usual for the journey. He described the walk straightforwardly to his clients: the destination was 65 to 80 miles away, the group would only walk at night, and the walk would take 2, maybe 3 days, at most.5 The first leg of the group’s expedition would involve a truck ride near the border. Although the actual border crossing required that the group merely step over low-lying barbed wire, the group’s destination was Ajo, Arizona, nearly 25 miles from the border and with triple digit temperatures, the group had used most of its water by nightfall. Because at that point Ajo was within a few miles, the group believed the trip to be nearly complete. However, Ramos’ poor decision-making and under-preparedness in walking at night and enduring the harsh desert conditions caused the group to fail in its ultimate goal. Although Ramos was supposed to walk in a straight line, fatigue caused him to veer left. With this leftward path, the group was actually walking in a circle. Not only did this add distance to the walk, but it also confused a group already disoriented by severe heat. By May 20, the second day of the journey, most of the Wellton 26 were distrustful of Ramos’ knowledge of the desert landscape; they predicted death would soon plague the group. In a panic, Ramos fled the group, promising to return with a sufficient supply of water. When spotted by Border Patrol agents, Ramos surrendered and notified the agents about the illegal immigrants he abandoned. After a massive helicopter search and rescue operation, the survivors were taken to the Yuma Medical Center.
The Wellton 26 incident disturbed not only the Border Patrol, but also the local media. While stories of rescued illegal immigrants were not uncommon, the number of fatalities in the group was a cause for concern. The surviving walkers, after being released from the hospital, were offered American citizenship, housing, and jobs, in exchange for testimony in Ramos’ trial. Ramos, who had been deported during previous walks, was charged with “14 counts of illegal immigrant smuggling that resulted in death and on 11 counts [of] illegal immigrant smuggling that resulted in serious bodily injury”.6 He pleaded guilty to all counts against him. In response to the Wellton 26, and in an effort to curb the number of deaths among illegal immigrants, the Border Patrol Agency installed rescue stations for people incapacitated by the desert’s harsh climate.
Urrea’s tone in presenting the story of the Wellton 26 makes his thesis clear. He understands that illegal immigration is the subject of a growing debate in America and he tries to present both sides of the argument.7 Throughout his delivery, Urrea attempts to maintain neutrality on the issue of immigration. In discussing the issue of illegal immigration, Urrea feels obligated to present both sides of the argument fairly. Because Urrea was given access to documents that the Border Patrol Agency does not release to the public, he acknowledges his early tendency to portray Border Patrol as the protagonist against the antagonists, the illegal immigrants. Later, in trying to fairly portray the illegal immigrants, he acknowledges demonizing Border Patrol agents. Urrea remarks, “I have to trust my readers to make up their own minds. Even if that means reaching decisions I didn’t intend for them to reach”.8 However, while he does not condone illegal immigration, he believes Americans should be more accepting of them and more importantly, understand their desperation. Urrea does not forgive illegal immigration; rather, he tries to identify the motives that would cause people to immigrate illegally.
In his narrative, Urrea uses the Wellton 26 as an example of the dividing issues surrounding immigration. But the circumstances surrounding the Wellton 26 case are neither unique nor rare; they are merely representative of the growing problem of illegal immigrants. As the number of illegal immigrants rises, cases like the Wellton 26 will become more common. While the Wellton 26 case happened just months before the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City, neither event helped to alleviate American resentment of foreigners and caused a deeper a rise in patriotism.
Although the subject of Urrea’s work is highly dividing, critics were receptive to its highly controversial and blaring arguments. In a review of Urrea’s book, Jeff Salamon of the Austin American-Statesman writes, “It makes what currently passes for our public debate over illegal immigration seem appallingly abstract and tin-eared. The Devil’s Highway isn’t just a great book, it’s a necessary one.”9 Many reviews praised Urrea for presenting both sides of the immigration debate fairly. Perhaps as a result of the Wellton 26 case, itself, illegal immigration immediately became the most discussed issues in the United States.
In 2005, The Devil’s Highway was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. Noted for his storytelling abilities, Urrea is able to seamlessly blend the story of the Wellton 26 into his narrative about illegal immigration.10 Organized chronologically, beginning with background information about the illegal immigration trade, the story then transitions to the tale of the Wellton 26, and concludes with the aftermath of the entire case and the fates of each member of the group. Based on critical reviews of his work, not only does Urrea succeed in presenting both sides of the illegal immigration debate fairly, he also imposes his work as a leading figure in illegal immigration literature.
To those unfamiliar with the issues surrounding the illegal immigration debate, The Devil’s Highway is a revealing book. From the frank narrative of the beginnings of an illegal immigration ring to the explicit descriptions of death, Urrea holds no bars in explaining all aspects of the debate. With his extensive research and highly praised book, Urrea reveals his vast knowledge on the issue of illegal immigration. His vision of an informative book on the dangers and issues of illegal immigration becomes a reality primarily because of this research. Urrea is able to present his narrative such that his audience travels in anguish with the Wellton 26.11 Desperate thirst, the unbearable heat, and inevitable death become all too real.
In describing the recent increase in the number of illegal immigrants, Urrea opens the debate of illegal immigration to include the evolution of immigration trends in throughout the United States’ history. Although Urrea never discusses the evolution of immigration, his book notes changes to immigration policy that, long ago, would seem unnecessary. Widely regarded as a cultural melting pot, with its diverse population and acknowledgement of different cultural traditions, the United States has long welcomed immigrants. They have long been important to the history of the United States; notably, they were vital to the success of the Gold Rush, and were a large part of the labor force during the turn of the Twentieth Century. Although illegal immigration has been a problem for the United States for a many years, it became a serious threat when illegal immigrants begin using false Social Security numbers to obtain jobs.12
The terrorist attacks in New York City, New York, and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001, proved to be a watershed event in the United States’ policies on immigration. The attacks not only exposed lax security in public areas, but also elicited outrage among the American population. In the months following the attacks, President George W. Bush searched for ways to make America safer, primarily, by securing her borders. Bush focused on the Untied States-Mexico border as an early security measure. He recognized the economic threat that undocumented workers posed, not only to the nation’s security, but also to the nation’s economy. His proposal, at the time, was to put military forces at the border. But Bush was not alone in his mission to secure the border. From California to Texas, several groups of immigrant protestors built makeshift walls to protect the border. Such measures to protect the border have had varied measures of success: in most cases, the desperation of illegal immigrants to enter the United States is stronger than the will of the groups defending the border. Illegal immigrants succeed in their goal of entering the United States primarily because of their large number; it is estimated that nearly eight million illegal immigrants live in the United States. As military personnel do not reinforce the United States-Mexico border, Border Patrol agents, stationed half a mile apart, are still not sufficient enough to guard it. In addition to the social issues surrounding illegal immigration, its impact on the economy is profound. With the number of undocumented workers in the United States on the rise, it is often argued that federal, state, and local governments lose money from these workers’ taxes. However, Urrea points out that it is estimated that nearly $36 million in taxes are gained per hour because of illegal immigrants. Further, in response to the argument that illegal immigrants from Mexico are costing the United States government millions of dollars in social welfare, he uses statistics from the American Graduate School of International Management. Urrea writes: “‘Mexican immigrants paid nearly $600 million in federal taxes and sales tax in 2002… Mexican immigrants use about $250 million in social services such as Medicaid and food stamps…Another $31 million in uncompensated health care…’ That leaves a profit of $319 million [for the government].”13
Illegal immigration has been a problem for the United States since the Second World War; during the recession of 1953-1955, the United States government exploited Mexican laborers under the bracero program, as a part of “Operation Wetback”. Under this program, Mexican citizens, known as “wetbacks” were brought into the United States to work in agricultural fields for less than the minimum wage; during the program’s duration, all people of Spanish descent feared exploitation of labor. Even more frustrating to Hispanics during the recession was the large portion of the demographic—at least a third—living below the poverty line. When the recession had ended, the Mexican laborers were deported back to Mexico.14 But as long as the United States maintains its status as a global power, illegal immigration will remain a lasting social issue as Americans remain deeply divided on the issue. Despite the intense debate over the issue, governments on the federal and state levels are pushing pieces of legislation that deal with illegal immigration and undocumented workers, suggesting punishments for illegal immigrants ranging from deportation to imprisonment. Further altering the illegal immigration debate are the policies of the presidential administrations in office. The most recent major legislation signed by a president was “Operation Gatekeeper” by Bill Clinton. With changing administrations, policies will be enacted that will both fuel and calm the intensity of the issue. The case of the Wellton 26 draws great attention to the issue of illegal immigration because of its cost; it is estimated that each deceased person’s burial cost the government approximately $58,000.15 Officials on both sides of the border ponder the opportunities should that money be spent, instead of on burials, on investing in helping poor towns and regions in Mexico. They wonder how many more corpses are going to be collected before the debate over illegal immigration is settled.
1. Urrea, Luis Alberto. The Devil’s Highway. New York: Back Bay Books, 2005. 18.
2. Urrea, Luis Alberto 60.
3. Urrea, Luis Alberto 48.
4. Urrea, Luis Alberto 50.
5. Urrea, Luis Alberto 79.
6. Urrea, Luis Alberto 202.
7. Urrea, Luis Alberto 4.
8. Urrea, Luis Alberto 4.
9. “The Borderlands—Arizona, California, and Mexico”. 5 December 2007. 29 May 2009.