For years the U.S. government has addressed unauthorized immigration primarily through the lens of deportation and removal, pursuing enforcement-only policies that have not effectively curbed unauthorized immigration. An increase of personnel and technology along the U.S.-Mexico border has been accompanied by increased worksite enforcement in the interior of the United States. In addition, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has partnered with state and local police agencies and jails to identify and apprehend immigrants and to remove them from the country. None of these efforts has resulted in a significant decline in the size of the unauthorized population, but these enforcement policies and priorities have had devastating impacts on U.S. families and communities.
The Department of Homeland Security released a report this week showing that apprehensions of undocumented immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border are at their lowest level since 1973, leaving many observers contemplating the factors responsible for this decline. Is it the recession-plagued U.S. economy or beefed-up enforcement efforts? New data from a research team led by Wayne Cornelius, Director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego, sheds light on the decline in apprehensions and reveals the surprising, unintended consequences of border enforcement.
Since the mid-1980s, the federal government has tried repeatedly, without success, to stem the flow of undocumented immigrants to the United States with immigration-enforcement initiatives: deploying more agents, fences, flood lights, aircraft, cameras, and sensors along the southwest border with Mexico; increasing the number of worksite raids and arrests conducted throughout the country; expanding detention facilities to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants apprehended each year; and creating new bureaucratic procedures to expedite the return of detained immigrants to their home countries. At the same time, the economic integration of North America, the western hemisphere, and the world has accelerated, facilitating the rapid movement of goods, services, capital, information, and people across international borders. Moreover, the U.S. economy demands more workers at both the high-skilled and less-skilled ends of the occupational spectrum than the rapidly aging, native-born population provides. The U.S. government’s enforcement-without-reform approach to undocumented immigration has created an unsustainable contradiction between U.S. immigration policy and the U.S. economy. So far, the economy is winning.
Since 9/11 the watchword in the debate over immigration reform has been “security.” As a result, most policymakers and pundits now approach the subject of immigration largely from a law-enforcement perspective. However, the current border-enforcement strategy, which tends to lump together terrorists and undocumented jobseekers from abroad as groups to be kept out, ignores the causes of undocumented immigration and fuels the expansion of the people-smuggling networks through which a foreign terrorist might enter the country.
The U.S. government's efforts to stem undocumented immigration by fortifying the U.S.-Mexico border have increased the profitability of the people-smuggling business and fostered greater sophistication in the smuggling networks through which a foreign terrorist might enter the country. U.S. national security would be better served if undocumented labor migration were taken out of the border-security equation by reforming the U.S. immigration system to accommodate U.S. labor demand.
A proper understanding of the causes of international migration suggests that punitive immigration and border policies tend to backfire, and this is precisely what has happened in the case of the United States and Mexico. Rather than raising the odds that undocumented immigrants will be apprehended, U.S. border-enforcement policies have reduced the apprehension rate to historical lows and in the process helped transform Mexican immigration from a regional to a national phenomenon. The solution to the problems associated with undocumented migration is not open borders, but frontiers that are reasonably regulated on a binational basis.
The current crisis of undocumented immigration to the United States has its roots in fundamental misunderstandings about the causes of immigration and the motivations of immigrants. A growing body of evidence indicates that current border enforcement policies are based on mistaken assumptions and have failed. Undocumented migrants continue to come to the United States, rates of apprehension are at all-time lows, and migrants are settling in the United States at higher rates than ever before. Developing effective and realistic immigration policies requires overcoming five basic myths about immigration.
New proposals for more fencing and Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border may only perpetuate an unsuccessful and counterproductive policy that does not effectively enhance national security or control undocumented immigration.
After September 11th, efforts to reach an immigration accord with Mexico came to a halt. As a result, the Bush administration continues a poorly conceived border-enforcement strategy from the 1990s that ignores U.S. economic reality, contributes to hundreds of deaths each year among border crossers, does little to reduce undocumented migration or enhance national security, increases profits for immigrant smugglers, and fails to support the democratic transition that the administration of Vicente Fox represents for Mexico.