“The US started dramatically ramping up immigration enforcement in the 1990s with bipartisan support. The line of thinking was that making it more expensive and arduous to cross the border would dissuade more people from making the journey in the first place. It became the preferred strategy for policymakers because it was easy to sell to constituents, even though it wasn’t necessarily grounded in a deep understanding of the factors driving unauthorized immigration.
But a growing body of research shows that the threat of immigration enforcement isn’t an effective deterrent for migrants in the long run. Emily Ryo, a professor of law and sociology at the USC Gould School of Law, found in a paper published earlier this month that it has no significant effect on people’s decision to migrate from Mexico and Central America’s “Northern Triangle”: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
In cooperation with Vanderbilt University and the Latin American Public Opinion Project, she designed an experiment that was included in the 2018-’19 AmericasBarometer survey of nearly 11,000 voting-age adults across the four countries. She divided the respondents into three groups and provided them with different prompts offering information about how many migrants are apprehended by US officials when trying to cross the border, subject to detention for an indefinite period of time, and face a lack of judicial process when it comes to their deportation. They were then asked how likely it would be that they would choose to live and work in the US in the next three years.
The patterns in responses across the groups were strikingly similar, though they were provided with different information about US immigration enforcement policy. Most said they weren’t likely to go to the US, but in all three groups, about 21 percent said they were “a little likely to go,” 10 percent said they were “somewhat likely,” and roughly another 10 percent said “very likely.”
Knowledge about US deportation and detention policy didn’t have any significant effect on their intentions to migrate.”
“Another study, conducted by Vanderbilt University political science professor Jonathan Hiskey and co-authors, similarly found that knowledge of heightened US deterrence efforts didn’t influence people’s decision to migrate.”
“Another unintended effect of US immigration enforcement has been the increase in the number of undocumented immigrants living in the US from roughly 3 million in 1986 to over 11 million today. Princeton sociologist Doug Massey and his co-authors found in a 2016 paper that the rapid expansion of immigration enforcement in the years following 1986, the last time that a major immigration law was passed, actually caused more migrants to decide to settle in the US permanently.
Before then, Mexican men had moved back and forth across the border, usually looking for opportunities for temporary work and crossing in El Paso and San Diego. The US’s decision to expand immigration enforcement didn’t really alter their ability to cross the border. They weren’t much more likely to be apprehended when they attempted to cross, and even if they were discovered by US immigration officials and swiftly returned to Mexico, they could still succeed after multiple attempts.
What changed, however, was the costs and risks associated with returning to their home country and then attempting to reenter the US. Migrants had to start crossing in more dangerous regions of the border, going through the Sonoran Desert and Arizona, and came to rely more heavily on the services of paid smugglers, which became more expensive. Between 1980 and 2010, the probability that a migrant would return after their first trip to the US consequently dropped from 48 percent to zero, according to Massey’s paper.
“The combination of increasingly costly and risky trips and the near certainty of getting into the United States created a decision-making contest in which it still made economic sense to migrate but not to return home to face the high costs and risks of subsequent entry attempts,” the authors write in the paper.
In this way, immigration enforcement had the opposite of the intended effect. And the authors write that if policymakers had never increased border patrol’s funding beyond accounting for inflation, the population of undocumented immigrants living in the US likely would have “grown substantially less.””