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Dying to Cross: The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History

Dying to Cross: The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History

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by Jorge Ramos

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From esteemed journalist Jorge Ramos, in what is indicative of the strained and even desperate times in which we live, comes a tragic story about the death of nineteen people, the final hours of their incredible ordeal, and the network of individuals (and countries) who profit from what is considered by many nothing less than modern-day slavery.

According to the


From esteemed journalist Jorge Ramos, in what is indicative of the strained and even desperate times in which we live, comes a tragic story about the death of nineteen people, the final hours of their incredible ordeal, and the network of individuals (and countries) who profit from what is considered by many nothing less than modern-day slavery.

According to the latest reports, approximately three thousand people a day are caught attempting to cross the borders of the United States. Yet for every three thousand caught, hundreds actually do make it across and begin what they think will be a better life than the one left behind in their homelands.

The risks are immense for these individuals: the dangers lurking behind every decision made, every shady deal agreed upon, lead many toward the edge of mortality. Many fall off this edge and are later found dead -- an unmarked, unidentified corpse in a country where their dreams will never be realized, and, worse, their bodies never even identified.

On the hot and humid evening of May 13, 2003, at least seventy-three people boarded a tightly sealed trailer truck in what they hoped to be the final leg of an intricate journey toward their dream of living and working within the United States. The trailer they were riding in was to take them from Harlingen, Texas, to Houston, about three hundred miles away. The trailer never made it passed Victoria, Texas, a place that would become the site of the single worst immigrant tragedy in U.S. history.

With the passion and insightful analysis that characterizes his work, Emmy Award-winning journalist Jorge Ramos recounts the events of this chilling tragedy, as he tries to understand how something so inhumane can happen in the twenty-first century. Through interviews with survivors who had the courage to share their stories and conversations with the victims' families, and in examining the political implications of the incident on both U.S. and Mexican immigration policies, Jorge Ramos tells the story of one of the most heartbreaking episodes of our nation's history.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
May 14, 2003, began as a day of hope for a large group of immigrants looking for a better life in America and ended as a day of unspeakable tragedy. Packed into a trailer truck like cargo, at least 74 men and women suffered dehydration, asphyxiation, and fear as they traveled from Harlingen to Houston for over four hours with virtually no air and no water. In the end 19 died, all male, including a five-year old boy. Ramos (Noticiero Univision anchor; No Borders) tells the story of the tragedy utilizing official case documents and interviews with survivors and investigative personnel. He places blame on the "coyotes" involved, primarily 25-year-old Karla Chavez, who faces life imprisonment in a May sentencing. The author also points a finger at Mexican and U.S. officials, proclaiming the urgent need for immigration reform and an end to such needless deaths. Like Luis Alberto Urrea's The Devil's Highway, this excellent account of modern-day murder is highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 1/05.]-Boyd Childress, Auburn Univ. Lib., AL Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.73(d)
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Dying to Cross
The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History

Chapter One

When the Door Opened

It smelled of death.

When truck driver Tyrone Williams opened the door to his trailer on the morning of Wednesday, May 14, 2003, he never would have imagined that he would find so many people inside. Or that several of them would be dead. Surprise can be such an unwelcome visitor.

As he pulled the lever and opened the door to the trailer of his eighteen-wheeler, he had to move quickly in order to avoid being crushed by the swell of humanity that spilled out, gasping for breath. Some of the bodies simply fell to the ground, motionless, not seeming to breathe at all. One glance was all it took to realize that something was very wrong. Very, very wrong.

Inside the trailer, dozens of people were strewn across its metal flooring: some were unconscious, while others merely seemed to be sleeping. Seventeen were dead, and two more would die in the hospital later that night. At that moment, however, there was no way to know exactly who had perished and who was on the brink of death. It was two in the morning, and there wasn't a soul on that rural road, just off U.S. Highway 77 in Victoria, south Texas.

There was no light inside the trailer, and there were no flashlights handy, either. The only light the panicked group had to penetrate the thick cover of night was the yellow glow of the Texan moon. The lights of a faraway gas station filtered in through one of the trailer doors, creating a thin, whitish line along the horizon. Inside, the dim shadows seemed to suggest piles of sweating flesh and broken wills. Not everyone jumped out of the trailer. Walking like zombies, some people found their way to the door of the truck and, with difficulty, lowered themselves down the two or three steps that separated them from the ground. The few people who still found themselves with a bit of strength left in them helped the others out of the truck. When the doors were opened, some had regained consciousness, and with painstaking effort dragged themselves toward the doors. Those who remained inside the trailer scarcely moved. Some were still as stone.

We will never know exactly how many people were traveling inside that trailer. If we count the nineteen who died and the fifty-four who survived (and who were then detained by the police), we know that there were at least seventy-three. Of the nineteen who died, sixteen were Mexican, and the other three were from El Salvador, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic. Of the fifty-four survivors who were identified, thirtytwo were from Mexico, fourteen were from Honduras, seven were from El Salvador, and one was from Nicaragua.

But how many escaped? There may have been eighty people inside the trailer. Maybe more. Some news reports suggested that there may have been up to one hundred. We don't know. We will never know. What is very probable, however, is that some of the younger, stronger survivors managed to escape once the doors were opened. They wouldn't have been able to help much if they had stayed. They didn't really know each other as it was, and their staying would've only put them at risk. The immigrants inside that trailer had not formed strong bonds of friendship, and the majority of them were not united by family ties, either. This was not a primary concern for them, then, and if they managed to escape, they could skip out on the last installment of the coyote's fee. At the end of the day, even they wanted something for nothing.

Tuesday, May 13, was one of the hottest days in Texas that spring season in 2003. Shortly after noon, the thermometers hit 91 degrees Fahrenheit, one degree shy of the record for that date. It didn't rain at all that day, so the heat held steady throughout the night. The worst, however, was not the heat, but the humidity. The humidity and heat are so intense in that part of Texas, that it is easy to perspire through a shirt after walking a block. Clothes stick to one's body like adhesive tape. When the trailer doors were opened at that early dawn hour on May 14, the temperature had gone down a bit to 74 degrees Fahrenheit. But the relative humidity, at 93 percent made it feel like a hot rainstorm.

The weather conditions turned that trailer into a sauna. The high daytime temperatures, the humidity, and the heat generated by so many dozens of bodies pressed against each other turned the trailer into a deathtrap. There is no way to know exactly how high the temperatures rose inside the trailer, but the Associated Press, citing local authorities, suggested that it may have actually hit 173 degrees Fahrenheit. There is of course no way of knowing for sure.

The trailer was hermetically sealed shut, for a very simple, commercial reason. This type of trailer often transports perishable goods: vegetables, fruits, meat, and other food items. The less air that enters the inside of the trailer, the longer the merchandise remains intact, and the farther these goods can be transported. These trailers are not outfitted to transport human beings.

The walls, the ceiling, and the floors were all lined with one layer of aluminum and then another layer of insulation. This inner structure ensures that the temperature remains constant inside the trailer, even if there are shifts in the outside temperature. Even if the immigrants had been able to cut through these two layers, they would have then found themselves facing the steel shell on the trailer's exterior. It was impossible for the trailer to be opened from the inside. Once inside, there was no way out ...

Dying to Cross
The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History
. Copyright © by Jorge Ramos. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Jorge Ramos has been the anchorman for Noticiero Univision for the last fourteen years and has won seven Emmy Awards for excellence in journalism. A bestselling author, he also writes a weekly column for more than thirty-five newspapers iii the United States and Latin America, and provides a daily radio commentary to dozens of radio stations. He has won numerous awards, including the prestigious Maria Moors Cabot Prize for excellence in reporting on Latin America, given by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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Dying to Cross: The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jorge Ramos really brings out the stories of the victims and really gives you a piece of their lives. Highly recommended.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is not only Great but it also captures the real truth. When reading this book you tend to realize what people go through to have a better future and the dangers that are in their way. This is a book i recommend to everyone.