What makes people cross the border illegally?

Liz Goodwin
Yahoo! NewsAugust 7, 2013
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US Border Security

Fear of being caught and deported does not appear to have a significant deterrent effect on people who are considering crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, a new study finds.

The study, published in the American Sociological Review’s August issue, raises questions about the central premise of some immigration reformers’ arguments that putting up more border barriers and enacting stricter punishments for illegal immigration will prevent future waves of migrants.

The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform package backed by President Barack Obama in June that would legalize most of the country’s unauthorized immigrants and increase security spending on the southern border by about $46.3 billion over 10 years. It’s unclear if the Republican-controlled House will take up similar legislation.

The study, which relies on surveys of Mexican men from 2007 and 2008, shows that people’s conception about how likely it is that they would be caught by immigration authorities is not a significant factor in their decision about whether or not to cross the border illegally. The perceived severity of punishment if arrested by U.S. authorities also did not appear to have any effect on Mexican men’s decision to migrate or not.

The Mexicans surveyed were more likely to say they’d risk a border crossing if they believed the jobs situation in Mexico was poor, if they had friends or family who had attempted the crossing in the past, and if they agreed with the statement that Mexicans have a “right” to be in the United States without the government’s permission.

The study, written by University of Southern California law professor Emily Ryo, complicates the notion that illegal immigration is solely an economic phenomenon, with migrants dispassionately weighing the risks of capture against the rewards of a better job in the United States before coming to a decision about whether to cross.

Economic factors do play a key role in deciding whether or not to migrate illegally, with the perceived availability of jobs in Mexico topping the list. But attitudes about the legitimacy of U.S. immigration laws themselves appeared to be as important.

Respondents who said that it is sometimes justified to break the law were 80 percent more likely to say they intended to migrate illegally. People who agreed with the statement that it’s “OK to migrate illegally to the United States to make more money even with a good job in Mexico” were 2.6 times more likely than those who disagreed to say they intended to cross. And those who agreed that “Mexicans have a right to be in the United States” without permission were more than two times as likely to say they would migrate illegally than those who disagreed.

Ryo said the study suggests that increased enforcement is not the most effective way to discourage illegal immigration. But she conceded that it’s possible the border could become so secure under the proposed reform that it would start to have a bigger effect on potential migrants’ decision-making processes. “There’s likely a threshold point to which increased enforcement ... will have some deterrent effect,” Ryo told Yahoo News. “It’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t if you think about the kinds of measures being proposed."

But Ryo said she hopes her study will cause policymakers to think about other ways to deter illegal immigration that are not related to border security and enforcement. “We should be asking whether this level of spending on this single issue is justified in terms of opportunity costs,” she said.