Luis Urreas, The Devils Highway is a compelling story about a group of twenty-six men from Mexico who on May 19, 2001, out of desperation and a promise for a better life, attempted to cross one of the most treacherous and unforgiving stretches of desert located near the Arizona border. Tragically, this hot and arid desert known as the Devil's Highway, a stretch of US Route 491, would claim the lives of fourteen men, the largest single group of Mexicans ever to die while attempting to cross the border.
In what may be the largest human immigration on earth, every year more than a million illegal immigrants make a similar trek, pouring through the Arizona border, a 261 mile corridor protected by border patrol agents and every year hundreds perish, succumbing to exposure from the harsh desert environment. They are the victims of Operation Gatekeeper, an initiative set forth by the Federal Government and California lawmakers in response to a 1990's public outcry over the financial strain illegal immigrants were having on the local and state governments (Urrea 19). Before this operation began, urban San Diego was a popular immigration destination and drug smuggling route. The operation, enforced by Border Patrol, was successful in reducing illegal immigration and drug smuggling in California, but caused an unintended consequence of diverting all of this traffic into Arizona. Soon after the operation began, illegal immigrants were forced to take more hazardous routes and as a result, began dying in the desolate terrain of the Arizona desert in alarming numbers.
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Despite the dangers presented by the rugged terrain, Arizona has become a major hub for illegal immigrants and drug traffickers. These migrant workers coming from Mexico have faced great hardships, are in desperate need for work and thus willing to risk anything to feed their families. Luis Urrea's book is a whole hearted attempt to atone for the deaths of these men and thousands of others who have died, by bringing to light another tragedy, the current U.S. immigration policy and the many hands that have helped to shape it. The current rules on immigration don't reflect the principles for which have made America so great all these years and has failed the impoverished and hardworking immigrants from Mexico. It has proven to be ineffective, too costly for the U.S. taxpayer, and only serves as a roadblock to our economic recovery.
The current legal immigration process is complex, lengthy and very few Americans, let alone outsiders, understand how it works. Immigration policy is based upon three criteria which are, family based, employment based and refugee based. The governing body of law, The Immigration and Naturalization Act, currently allows a worldwide limit of 675,000 permanent immigrants a year and exceptions are only made for immediate family members. A separate number for refugee admissions is set and determined by Congress and the President.
The family based policy allows U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to bring only certain family members to the United States and 480,000 family based visas are available each year. Immigrants in this category are brought in either as immediate relatives or through the family preference system. There is no limit set on available visas for immediate relatives, but they must be either, a spouse, an unmarried minor child, or parent of the U.S citizen. A limited number of visas are set for the family preference system, which is calculated by subtracting from 480,000 the number of immediate family visas issued in the previous year and the number of aliens who have been paroled into the U.S. for at least a year. The numbers for any unused employment preference visas are then added to get the final total. The preference system allows adult children and siblings of U.S. citizens, while legal permanent residents can only bring spouses and children. By law the number of family preference visas issued must be higher than 226,000 and as a consequence the total number of family based visas issued each year always exceeds 480,000.
The U.S. also provides ways for immigrants with valuable skills to either become a permanent or temporary resident. There are 140,000 permanent employment based visas available each year and they are divided into five preference categories with their own set of numerical limitations. The first three categories are set at 40,000 each and the first two categories are reserved for people with either extraordinary abilities or advanced degrees. The third category is reserved people with college degrees, skilled shortage workers with two years experience and unskilled labor that is not seasonal or temporary. The last two categories are set at 10,000 each and are reserved for either religious, foreign, or government workers. The final category is reserved for people who will invest at least $500,000 in a job creating enterprise. For temporary employment visas, a separate numerical limit is set with 20 different types of visas issued, which can include athletes, entertainers, religious workers, diplomatic workers, nurses, and a host of other occupations. Some temporary visas have no numerical limitations such as the H-2A visa for agricultural workers.
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With the current immigration policy, it is nearly impossible for an illegal alien to enter the U.S. and gain legal permanent resident status. In order to gain legal status they must prove to the government that they deserve to stay here either by claiming to be a refugee, marrying a U.S. citizen, gaining college admissions or joining the military. Due to these strict limitations, many are unqualified. However, if they can meet one of these requirements, it is still a very long and very expensive process. Most illegal immigrants simply do not have the time, money, or resources to accomplish this and many are scared to even apply, as they also face deportation if the government were to find out they came here illegally. Their only true motivations for coming here are to earn money and return back home to support their families.
As a result of the current rules on immigration, these poor hardworking men from Veracruz had no other choice but to hire a coyote to sneak them through the border. A coyote is a person who specializes in human trafficking and the drug cartels are who control these elaborate human trafficking rings. The drug cartels have benefitted greatly as a result of increased border security and these policies have done nothing but keep them in business. The treacherous routes these immigrants now have to take, ensured that they will always need to hire a guide, who often charge a hefty sum to take them across. "Now, more than ever, walkers need a Coyote" (Urrea, 60). Due to these policies, once an illegal makes it into America, most do not return home as trying to make it back over is simply too risky and costly. "Coyotes charge more every year, and because of this, fewer Mexicans are willing to return to Mexico" (Urrea 180). "Operation Gatekeeper and its ilk, ensure that illegal immigrants stay for longer periods" (Urrea 216).
The years following the tragedy, both sides of Congress have attempted to reform immigration policies in order to address the growing problems of low skill labor shortages and the millions of undocumented aliens living here. These policies would allow certain people to gain legal status, such as temporary agricultural workers, by reforming the H2-A visa and even a pathway for illegal aliens who have lived in the U.S. for a certain number of years. The most notable, which included both of these provisions, was The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006. Opponents against these policies, from both sides of Congress, have argued that immigrants will take over American jobs, depress their wages, and destroy the economy. Sadly, they have, so far, been successful in stopping these bills from passing.
These arguments however, are unfounded and only play to America's fears. There has been very little scientific evidence to support the allegation that these guest workers actually depress wages and even if that was the case, as Urrea stated in his book, "This means savings for the managers: Captains of Industry and loyal Dittoheads in the grand cirque du capitalism are saving money on low wages and cheaper product" (Urrea 216). Immigrants are not going to take over our jobs. They aren't planning some great conspiracy to deprive Americans of their bread and butter. The H2-A visa has seen a sharp increase of issuance in the past decades due to the fact that farm owners have found it increasingly difficult each year in recruiting American workers. It is hard to believe that with the current high unemployment rate, certain industries would even have a hard time filling their positions with U.S. workers. American attitudes towards manual labor have become increasingly negative over the years and they simply are not interested in working these types of jobs. These industries and many others have thrived and benefitted from immigration; it has provided them with a reliable source of cheap low skilled labor and it has kept a host of consumer product prices low. Illegal and legal immigration have both brought money into the state and federal coffers by way of payroll and sales taxes. "Most of these workers pay federal income tax: shaved right off the top. No choice just like you. They pay state taxes: shaved right off the top. They get tapped for Social Security and FICA" (Urrea 216).
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The issuance of the H2-A visa is a complex and lengthy process however, and many farm owners have long complained that it is too burdensome and doesn't always meet their immediate needs. When their crops are ready to harvest they cannot afford to wait for these visas to be issued. It is not a wonder why some of them find it much easier, faster, and cheaper to simply circumvent this process and hire undocumented workers. Because Congress has failed to address the millions of undocumented workers, some companies may have avoided paying payroll taxes by hiring these workers and paying them under the table. The current immigration policy has allowed the state and federal government to lose millions of dollars in otherwise collectable tax dollars and has given some companies no choice but to engage in illegal business practices.
It is understandable that some people living in the U.S. may feel a lot of negativity towards immigration and the "browning out" of their towns. The social services that are provided to illegal aliens may cost taxpayers millions of dollars and a possible increase in crime rate is also concerning. However, these allegations may not always be entirely true, an AP poll found that 19 percent of Americans said that immigrants were more likely than the native-born to be involved in crime, 12 percent thought they were less likely, and 68 percent said no difference"(Bianco 551). This poll found that about 80% of Americans felt immigrants were less likely or no different than native-born to be involved with crime. Is it possible that many Americans against immigration reform are falsely associating illegal immigrants with gang activity or the drug cartels? It could explain the many prejudices they feel towards them. Luis Urrea also makes a good point about the costs illegal aliens have on social services, "Mexican immigrants paid nearly $600 million in federal taxes and sales taxes in 2002â€¦ Mexican immigrants use about $250 million in social services such as Medicaid and food stampsâ€¦Another $31 million in uncompensated health careâ€¦That leaves a profit of $319 million" (Urrea 218). Although immigrants may impact some services provided by our government they have far greatly benefitted others aspects of it. In the grand scheme of things the benefits to our economy have been far greater than the costs. We have spent more to harm immigrants than to help them, border patrol alone costs $5.5 billion a year in federal tax dollars, yet it has done nothing to slow the influx of people coming across. It has proven to be completely ineffective and has only caused thousands to die. "The border makes number crunchers go madâ€¦.the numbers of crossers, in spite of the $5.5 billion spent to stop them, keep swelling." (Urrea 180)
The Mexican government benefits from immigration as well, and they have done little to deter their citizens from illegally entering. Their army doesn't actively patrol the border and is usually nowhere to be found. Why would they want to do anything to stop it? It brings in billions of dollars in remittance money for their country. It is one of the largest sources of income for them. "It turns out we have an overwhelmingly generous foreign aid policy to Mexico: it's just filtered through Burger King" (Urrea 246).
Whether Americans like it or not, and no matter what we do, illegal immigration is not going to stop anytime soon. As long as we keep our policies in place, people will continue to die out there in the desert. Millions of undocumented aliens will continue to enter our country. Billions of tax dollars will be lost and wasted. The problem is very complex and hard to wrap your head around. However, we can't just keep putting off immigration reform because we're not sure if it's going to be the right thing to do. We have to act soon and find a balance between these conflicting issues. I know that, we can at least fix some of these issues right now. I believe the first thing we must do is create a more straight forward way for immigrants from Mexico to get a legal status, that way we can at least ensure they are paying their fair share of taxes and are being accounted for. Make the process less cumbersome and realistically attainable. I'm not saying just hand everyone a green card, but at least have some requirements that are reasonable. Make them prove they are responsible, willing contribute to our society and not a criminal. Have them sign a contract with a probationary period that reserves the right to deport them if they violate any of the terms, such as getting arrested for a serious crime or being too much of a burden on the social welfare system. Once they fulfill this agreement, granted them full citizenship with full rights. We can't just expect some of these illegal immigrants, who have lived here for many years and now call this place home, to just get up and leave. If we wanted them to leave, we shouldn't have let them stay so long in the first place, we're the ones who gave them jobs and let them get comfortable, it's called the Statute of Limitations and Estoppel by Laches. We failed to act in a timely manner and now we have lost that right to deport them. I'm totally okay with anybody wanting to live here as long as they are willing to contribute to society and not be a burden on it.