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Culture & Religion

The Devil’s Highway: Truth and Consequences Across the Borderline

The issue of illegal immigration is heating up again as November’s presidential decision looms. A fresh wave of political rhetoric along both sides of the aisle — mostly disingenuous assertions calculated to woo a perceived, as-yet-undedicated pool of potential new voters — is picking up pace, left and right. All that speechifying will further ratchet up racial tensions. Over-the-top cartel bloodletting along both sides of the border is just more fuel sprayed on that crazy fire.  

A guest post by Craig McDonald, author of El Gavilan

Cancións, narcocorridos and Americana border ballads: folk songs played out along both sides of an increasingly treacherous expanse of La Frontera. Hard but tuneful tales, some of them quite bloody, told to the strum of guitars, the soulful blare of mariachi horns and the keening blast of all those accordions that drive polka-inflected norteño music.

Singer-songwriter Tom Russell lives in El Paso, tight up against the border. He has written extensively and movingly about border tensions. Few years back, Russell co-wrote a song with Dave Alvin called “California Snow.” That tune, the soulful lament of a Border Patrol agent, was the spark-point of inspiration for my new book El Gavilan, a thriller/cum social novel about illegal immigration’s profound effects on a small Ohio town circa 2005.

The issue of illegal immigration is heating up again as November’s presidential decision looms.

A fresh wave of political rhetoric along both sides of the aisle — mostly disingenuous assertions calculated to woo a perceived, as-yet-undedicated pool of potential new voters — is picking up pace, left and right. All that speechifying will further ratchet up racial tensions. Over-the-top cartel bloodletting along both sides of the border is just more fuel sprayed on that crazy fire.

An unprecedented mass of hurting, too-long-out-of-work gringo constituents will likely be too susceptible to all that fulminating this trip to the ballot box.

The same old songs and the same tired refrains: Illegal immigrants take away American jobs . . .

Bruce Springsteen crooned the flip side of those sentiments in a tune he penned during the height of the previous, comparatively milder recession: “They worked side by side in the orchards . . . doing the work the hueros wouldn’t do.”

They take our jobs . . .

They’re doing jobs Americans won’t do, not ever . . .

Well, yes and no.

The truth regarding the impact of undocumented workers on America’s current unemployment rolls is decidedly undecided.

An imaginary line is drawn along more than 3,000 miles of southernmost U.S. real estate — it’s there to be sure, and crossing that line can produce profound consequences ranging from life changing, to life ending.

But along that stretch of sand and saguaro, absent the Berlin-style wall described in Russell’s tune, you go out there and try pointing to that border. Attempting that task is more than a little like trying to stroke smoke or to nail down mercury.

Facts are assumed; truths are elusive. Rhetoric and conventional wisdom further blur the line. Yet in the manner of so many things that stubbornly endure to become cliché, some kernel of truth lurks between the lines of the same old standards.

Flashback to 1992: Jug-eared independent presidential hopeful H. Ross Perot waves a finger at the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement and declares in his nasal clarion voice, “That loud sucking noise you hear is American jobs going south to Mexico.” It’s a line good for some chuckles and applause: Ol’ Ross says the damnedest things, don’t he?

Flash-forward a very few years: Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. In a post-NAFTA world, many American companies did indeed subsequently shut down operations and move plants and jobs south of the border.

I recently participated in a project to survey the growing poverty in my home state. Among those Ohioans profiled was a woman who worked nearly two decades for a local manufacturer under conditions she regarded as paternal and sturdy. She was sure she would retire from her position after a couple more decades of doing that same job.

But in 2009, some execs looked at their books and promptly closed that plant in a small village in eastern-central Ohio. They relocated the plant and its 150-or-so jobs to Mexico. The woman, like so many others cast aside by longtime employers over the course of the past four or five hard years, remains unemployed and increasingly desperate to find work despite our current “recovery.”

NAFTA certainly took American jobs and turned them into Mexican jobs. But NAFTA cut along both sides of the border. Mexican dairy farmers, for instance, were so incensed to see their profits heading north, they staged Pancho Villa-style border incursions to sabotage or destroy American dairy farmers’ equipment in retaliation.

That’s one side of the myth of Mexico and lost American jobs. The other is the issue of undocumented workers crossing that elusive line in the dust to take away jobs, quite literally, right here in our own backyards.

My current novel was composed circa 2006, and drawn from the headlines . . . headlines that as a journalist I was often-as-not writing. The infusion of Latinos into central Ohio over the past few years was profound and profuse. There was a period in the building frenzy and high times of the late 1990s when nearly every sheet of drywall was being hung by Latino work crews.

The subdivision where my house sits was a-borning around 1999. The sounds of Spanish voices and music filled the neighborhood. The exposed sheetrock in my garage is covered in measurements and instructions written in Spanish in black Sharpie.

Back then, you could cruise into any village, even in Amish country of rural northern Ohio, drive up to a hamburger joint, and embark upon an adventure in fast food ordering with a Latina clerk whose range of English was palpably limited to the phrase, “Do you want to Biggie that?”

That clerk likely traveled some hard road for the chance to serve up French fries and stingy, scripted repartee with the likes of me.

They don’t call it the “Devil’s Highway” for no reason at all: Undocumented workers take extraordinary risks crossing over the line to find jobs here, and unknown numbers of them fall prey to various sectors of the human trafficking trade, never earning the privilege to scrub a motel toilet or to roll a burrito for you at some rusting, roadside taqueria.

This isn’t anything new, of course. Commerce along both sides of the border has long turned on a workforce of crossers. Woody Guthrie wrote about it in his song “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” in 1948 following a plane crash that killed a number of Latinos:

They’re flying ’em back to the Mexico border

To take all their money to wade back again.

That stubbornly enduring refrain: They take away jobs Americans could be doing . . .

Amongst all those headlines we were writing before the Great Recession were some about the unemployment problems of that time. There were more jobs going around back in those halcyon days than there were Americans — even teenagers — to take them. We were actually writing headlines back then about what an economic problem too-little unemployment (say, anything under three percent) posed in a booming economy.

Fact was, all those immigrants, legal or otherwise, were doing jobs Americans really wouldn’t do back then. And they did them for not a hell of a lot of money.

Pesky market forces: In El Gavilan, a couple of cops are talking about that border wall some still crave:

“What do you think about this wall they want to build along the border?”

“I think they better have the illegals build it before they kick them out,” Tell said.

“Only way that damned wall will be anything like affordable.”

All those undocumented workers weren’t getting rich by American standards, but they were doing well by standards in Mexico. An economic balance, legal or not, had been struck.

Indeed, whole Latino communities sprang up such as the ones I describe in El Gavilan: improvised barrios around Ohio strip malls that once catered to automobile workers whose jobs had gone away two or three previous recessions ago. Entrepreneurial possibilities presented themselves that, again, presented no real threat to American workers: specialty grocery stores and the like that were run by Latinos and specifically intended to serve other Latinos abounded.

Flash forward again, to, well, now: If a rising tide raises all boats, then a rogue wave swamps them all alike, too. Anyone who harbors doubts about the reality of a global economy need only look to Europe’s current precarious economic state. When it rains, we all get wet.

The housing bubble burst. The days of under-three-percent unemployment in the Buckeye State seem like a fairytale, now. And, so, over the past couple of years, the face of Ohio has again changed.

A few of those brave, industrious Latinos who dared so much to cross that invisible line going on nearly twenty years ago are still around my pocket of Ohio. Most of them are restaurateurs now . . . they own chains of Mexican restaurants that dot the Buckeye landscape. Others own their own lawn care services.

There’s a Mexican restaurant on the west side of town I favor (they make the best margaritas around). We’ve gotten to know the staff well over the years. We’ve watched one another’s kids grow up. They’re doing fine in a down economy, actually aggressively expanding their facility at this writing. They’re legal, and they own the joint.

But they’re the exception in present-day Ohio. When the U.S. economy went south so to speak, so too did tides of undocumented workers. Suddenly, unthinkably, prospects started looking better back in Mexico. The writing was on that wall so many on the right seemed to be spoiling to construct.

They take our jobs . . .

You still hear that around these parts, but now the cry often as not comes from college or high school students and they’re pointing to workers who look a lot like their own parents.

Few years back, I stopped at a particular coffee chain outlet and had the damnedest time trying to order a large coffee with cream from a young Latina who was clearly a long way off from any facility with English. My Spanish was equally challenged.

I visited that same coffee shop yesterday morning. My pre-dawn barista was a balding, fifty-something fella I sensed could have bought and sold my middle-class ass twenty-times over not so very long ago.

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Ninety-nine-plus weeks of soul-crushing unemployment can drive a man to unexpected places to support his family.

That remains true for the industrious and challenged on both sides of that invisible, divisible line in the sand we call the Mexican border.


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