Impacts of Border Enforcement on Unauthorized Mexican Migration to the United States
Published on: Sep 26, 2006
To summarize, this is what we can say about the consequences of our 13-year experiment with tougher border enforcement:
  • Most would-be migrants have become well-informed about the difficulty and hazards of clandestine entry.
  • Such knowledge has no effect on the propensity to migrate.
  • Unauthorized migrants are willing to take greater risks and pay much more to people-smugglers to reduce risk and gain entry.
  • Despite the border build-up, most unauthorized migrants still succeed in entering on the first or second try.
  • Migrants’ strategies of border crossing have been affected by enhanced enforcement (crossing points have changed; use of smugglers has increased), but illegal entry attempts are not being deterred. 

The unintended consequences of the post-1993 border enforcement effort have been more important than the intended ones.  The key unintended consequences include:

  • Creating new opportunities for people-smugglers.  Stronger enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border has been a bonanza for the people-smuggling industry.  It has made smugglers essential to a safe and successful crossing.  Our research in rural Mexico shows that more than 9 out of 10 unauthorized migrants now hire smugglers to get them across the border.  And the fees that smugglers can charge have tripled since 1993.  By January 2006 the going rate for Mexicans was between $2,000-3,000 per head.  But even at these prices it is still economically rational for migrants – and often, their relatives living in the U.S. – to dig deeper into their savings and go deeper into debt to finance illegal entry. 
  • Making the southwestern border more lethal.  By forcing migrants to attempt entry in extremely hazardous mountain and desert areas, rather than the relatively safe urban corridors traditionally used, the concentrated border enforcement strategy has contributed directly to a ten-fold increase in migrant fatalities since 1995.  A new record of 516 fatalities was set last year, and the real death toll could easily have been twice that many, because we only know about bodies that have been discovered.  Since 1995, more than 4,045 migrants have perished from dehydration in the deserts, hypothermia in mountainous areas, and drowning in the irrigation canals that parallel the border in California and Arizona.  
  • Promoting permanent settlement in the U.S.  We have succeeded in bottling up within the U.S. millions of Mexican migrants who would otherwise have continued to come and go across the border, as their parents and grandparents had done.  Given the high costs and physical risks of illegal entry today, they have a strong incentive to extend their stays in the U.S.; and they longer they stay, the more probable it is that they will settle permanently.

Additional investment of taxpayer dollars in a border enforcement-centered strategy of immigration control is likely only to produce more of the same unintended consequences — not to construct an effective deterrent to illegal migration.

It could be argued that partial fortification of borders fails because of its incompleteness.  If the probability of apprehension is not uniformly high, migrants will continue to cross in areas where the risk of detection is still relatively low.  But complete militarization of the U.S. land border with Mexico – a sea-to-sea system of physical barriers and electronic surveillance – inevitably would push people-smuggling operations into the Gulf of Mexico and up the Pacific Coast, as well as to the U.S.-Canadian border. Mexicans could fly, visa-free, to Vancouver or any other Canadian city in close proximity the United States and seek to be smuggled across our northern border.

Securing our maritime borders would be hugely difficult, as the European Union has discovered in recent years.  This year alone, more than 25,000 economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have braved perilous seas to try to enter the E.U. via Spain’s Canary Islands – this despite the world’s most elaborate electronic border-surveillance system.  Thousands more have landed on the coasts of Italy, Malta, and Greece.