Lisa Irving Venus's picture


  by  Lisa Irving Venus

The New York Times feature "How U.S. Policy Turned the Sonoran Desert Into a Graveyard for Migrants" by James Verini published late this summer profiles 23 year old Roberto Primero Luis, a "cheerful, studious and devout" barbershop entrepreneur in Guatemala who tragically died, dehydrated and exhausted, while traversing the Sonoran Desert in an attempt to illegally enter the United States last year.

Roberto made the decision to take a much longer route through the Sonoran Desert than expected after being abandoned by his guide amidst alerts of border patrol presence - even though, according to author James Verini, "[h]e had heard about migrants dying in the desert; everyone in Guatemala had."

Verini meticulously describes the hostile and unforgiving elements of the Sonoran Desert. But for Verini, the Sonoran Desert's inhospitality to survival is not an "ultimate" cause of Roberto's death. Rather, he points to U.S. federal policy on "prevention and deterrence."

"Prevention and deterrence" began in the early 1990s under the Clinton Administration and has continued. This policy was created to decrease illegal border crossings by adding Border Patrol agents along cities that at the time were more accessible and convenient for migrants.

As a result of this policy, Verini notes, migrants like Roberto have attempted to avoid patrol by seeking entry through locations like the Sonoran Desert that are much more remote and perilous.

At the time Roberto set out for the U.S., he was more successful financially than anyone in his family had ever been. He had contemplated becoming a nurse. Roberto was not desperate, but saw potential for increased upward economic mobility by securing a job in the United States. Verini touches slightly on this topic:

"Whatever Roberto might be making at his barbershop, whatever he might make in the future as a nurse, would be dwarfed by the pay he would find in the U.S., even in a job like construction or meatpacking."

While focusing on "prevention and deterrence" policy, however, Verini fails to discuss U.S. employment verification policy. In doing so, he neglects how Roberto's employment in construction or meatpacking would violate U.S. law. He also neglects how self serving employers would have the most to gain from Roberto's unlawful employment by exploiting migrant labor while diminishing prospects and wages of Americans struggling in those industries.

E-Verify is a program that allows employers to determine whether a new hire has authorization to work in the US. Since its availability in 1997, political, policy and economic leaders and journalists - recognizing that job availability contributes to illegal border crossings - have at times endorsed its efforts to curb unlawful employment and punish exploitative employers.

However, congressional leaders and presidents of both parties have refused to make E-Verify mandatory, thereby refusing to hold employer and trafficker profiteers accountable.

A comment by JM, one of the top reader picks, more fully and accurately underscores the tragedy of Roberto's story:


"The only winners in this story are the coyotes, cartels & human traffickers. The saddest part is that Roberto left his pregnant wife, family, culture & small successful business to chase a mirage. He was not desperate. As the border agent said of the journey "they had no idea what was coming." This is a huge part of the problem. Roberto's talents & determination would have been more beneficial to his family & community if he had used those thousands of dollars paid to the coyote to build his future at home. A humane immigration system should not perpetuate this hugely profitable racket that lures families, unaccompanied children, and immigrants to pay with their lives. This is a global problem & the US cannot solve it alone. Migrants from all over the world pass through Columbia & Ecuador to make the dangerous trek north to cross our southern border. If only they knew what was coming. Applying for asylum in ones own country or a bordering country might be a start. Enforcement of E-verify. And eliminate incentives for illegal crossings such as automatic citizenship for a child birthed here by an illegal."

LISA IRVING VENUS is the Volunteer Coordinator for the Media Standards Program for NumbersUSA

Updated: Mon, Nov 16th 2020 @ 11:45am EST

NumbersUSA's blogs are copyrighted and may be republished or reposted only if they are copied in their entirety, including this paragraph, and provide proper credit to NumbersUSA. NumbersUSA bears no responsibility for where our blogs may be republished or reposted. The views expressed in blogs do not necessarily reflect the official position of NumbersUSA.