During the past 10 years, the overwhelming emphasis in U.S. immigration policy has been on border enforcement, primarily on the U.S.-Mexican border. Congress has more than tripled spending for border enforcement activities since 1993, despite evidence that this unprecedented border build-up has failed to deter significant numbers of unauthorized migrants from attempting entry.
At the same time, some major unintended consequences have materialized, including more than 2,640 border crossing-related deaths – 10 times more lives than the Berlin Wall claimed during its 28-year existence – and a sharp increase in permanent settlement of unauthorized Mexicans in the United States.
A Border-Centered Strategy of Immigration Control
Since 1993 the U.S. strategy of immigration control has heavily emphasized border enforcement over worksite enforcement and other forms of interior control. Spending on border enforcement has more than tripled, while the worksite enforcement effort has virtually collapsed. By 2001 there were only 124 immigration agents assigned to full-time enforcement of immigration laws in the workplace, throughout the country, compared with 9,500 agents stationed on the border. During the last three years, an average of only 1,900 employer investigations were completed annually; only 12 unauthorized immigrants per week were detained at their place of work. This token level of worksite enforcement is the fundamental reason why much tougher border controls in the last 10 years have had such a weak deterrent effect.
The border build-up had its origins in the Clinton administration's efforts to inoculate the president politically against the anti-immigration backlash that began in California in 1992 and loomed as a potential threat to Clinton's reelection. It was believed that a symbolic show of force on the border would neutralize Republican criticism of lax immigration control.
Rather than spreading out the new enforcement manpower and technological enhancements all along the southwestern border, a decision was made to concentrate them on four relatively short segments that traditionally had been used by 70-80 percent of "illegals" entering from Mexico. This method of deploying Border Patrol resources was intended to raise the difficulty, financial cost, and physical risk of illegal entry to such a level that deterrence would be achieved at points of origin in Mexico and other key sending countries. The logic of this "prevention through deterrence" strategy was that if the four main corridors in the San Diego, El Paso, central Arizona, and south Texas area were effectively secured, geography would do the rest. Formidable mountains and scorching deserts would deter crossings in the more hazardous areas between the fortified border segments. That critical assumption would prove untenable.
Falling Apprehensions and a Growing Stock
The southwest border enforcement build-up did, indeed, make illegal entry more costly, difficult, and dangerous for Mexican immigrants. However, there is no convincing evidence that it has reduced either the stock or the flow of unauthorized migrants from Mexico. Since FY2001 there has been a downward trend in Border Patrol apprehensions, but the decline may have bottomed out (the decline in FY2003 was only three percent, and the trend since October 2003 has been upward). Moreover, it is highly arguable that fewer apprehensions being made along the southwestern border mean that the flow of unauthorized migrants has declined. According to several independently made estimates, the total population of undocumented immigrants living in the United States has been growing robustly during most of the period of "concentrated border enforcement." The most recent estimate, by the Urban Institute's Jeffrey Passel, is a population of 9.3 million, well over half of whom are Mexican nationals (see related article). The percentage of unauthorized migrants working in specific sectors of the economy also has continued to rise (e.g., such migrants probably constitute more than 60 percent of the total U.S. agricultural labor force).
How can we explain declining apprehensions at the border, at a time when the stock of unauthorized migrants and their presence in specific labor markets continue to expand? There are at least two plausible explanations. First, the post-1993 border enforcement strategy may have succeeded in raising the costs of entry to the point that undocumented Mexican migrants are staying longer on each trip they make or settling permanently in the United States. If they are not coming and going across the border they are not at risk of being apprehended. If that is what is going on, it means that the U.S. border-centered immigration control strategy has been effective in bottling up illegal migrants inside the United States, not necessarily in deterring them from coming in the first place. A second possible explanation is the learning process: As the border build-up has continued, migrants and people-smugglers have become more adept at evading detection.
The most unambiguous consequences of the border build-up of the last 10 years have been to redistribute illegal entries geographically, and to fuel the professional people-smuggling industry to an extent unimagined by the "coyotes" of the pre-1993 era. As measured by apprehension statistics, illegal entries along the California segment of the border – where most of the new Border Patrol resources have been deployed – dropped sharply, while entries along the Arizona segment skyrocketed. As the border has been squeezed in the San Diego, El Paso, and south Rio Grande Valley areas, it has bulged elsewhere, most notably in central Arizona (the Tucson sector) and in mid-Texas (the Del Rio sector). A $10 million enhanced border enforcement effort in Arizona, announced in March 2004, already has begun to shift the traffic into New Mexico.
As border control has tightened, a higher percentage of migrants have sought assistance from people-smugglers (U.S. policy has made them indispensable to a safe crossing), and the smugglers' average fee has more than tripled since 1993, to $1,500-2,000 per head. Smugglers, however, have not yet priced themselves out of the market. Rather, U.S.-based relatives of would-be unauthorized migrants have just dug deeper into their pockets to help finance the trip.
A Rising Death Toll and More Vigilantes
One of the most visible consequences of the border-focused strategy has been to increase the deaths resulting from clandestine entry. From January 1995 through March 2004, more than 2,640 migrants died – more than one death per day in the last four years. Deaths occurring along the Arizona and Texas segments of the border have increased ten-fold since the implementation of the concentrated border enforcement strategy. Border-wide, the probability of dying versus being apprehended by the Border Patrol has doubled since 1998. These statistics understate the number of fatalities, since they include only those migrants whose bodies have been recovered by the Border Patrol and Mexican police.
Most migrant deaths in the last 10 years have been due to "environmental causes:" freezing to death in the mountains of San Diego County, succumbing to dehydration or heat stroke in the deserts of California and Arizona, or being asphyxiated in sealed trucks and railroad cars as migrants are being transported away from the border area. There has also been sharp increase in deaths due to drowning (mostly in the All-American Canal, an irrigation ditch that parallels the U.S.-Mexico border for long stretches in California and Arizona). Federal officials routinely blame these deaths on the tactics of professional people-smugglers. But the smugglers are only satisfying a demand that has been created largely by the strategy of concentrated border enforcement.
The strategy has also provoked an upsurge in organized, anti-immigrant vigilante activity on the U.S. side of the border. Vigilante groups now operate in all four southwestern border states, and they have been acquiring increasingly sophisticated technology like night-vision cameras and unmanned aerial drones. They make extra-official apprehensions and turn their captives over to the Border Patrol. While only a few cases of migrant injuries or deaths resulting from vigilante activities have been documented to date, the potential for greater loss of life is evident.
In light of the heavy collateral damage resulting from the current strategy of border enforcement, several alternatives might be considered. One would be to simply dismantle the four existing concentrated border enforcement operations. This option is a political non-starter, however, because it would be fiercely opposed by residents of the now-secured areas and their elected representatives, who are happy to have illegal entries pushed out of their sight.
Another option would be to extend concentrated border enforcement operations all along the southwestern border. That would require tens of billions of dollars in new spending, and there would be major disruptions of the border economy – another non-starter.
A third option would be to strengthen enforcement of immigration laws in the workplace, in order to reduce the demand for unauthorized immigrant labor. At this point in time, however, enforcement of the employer sanctions approved by Congress in 1986 is greatly complicated by the proliferation of false documents, which can be obtained easily on the streetcorners of any Mexican border city. Congress has shown no appetite for a new, national system of verifying employment eligibility, without which effective worksite enforcement is impossible. Moreover, most members of Congress have no stomach for the widespread economic disruptions and constituent complaints that a systematic crackdown on employers of unauthorized immigrants inevitably would generate.
A temporary worker program of the type envisioned in President George W. Bush's recent immigration reform proposal (and variations on this option proposed by members of Congress) would probably do little to change the basic dynamics of Mexico-to-U.S. migration. Such programs usually are more efficient as vehicles for importing labor than for reducing unwanted immigration. Typically they produce parallel flows of legal-temporary and unauthorized migration. Even if the program is designed perfectly to maximize participation among migrants and employers, there can be major unintended consequences, most notably the permanent settlement of "temporary" workers whose continued services are sought by employers. And if the program is limited to specific sectors of the economy (like the "Ag-Jobs" bill championed by senators Edward Kennedy and Larry Craig), migrants seeking employment in the excluded sectors will come illegally.
In the long run, research indicates that the most effective approach would be to get serious about creating alternatives to emigration in the key sending areas of Mexico and Central America. In the case of Mexico, we know exactly where such efforts would need to be targeted: the roughly five percent of municipalities that contribute the lion's share of migrants to the United States. Thus far, however, neither the U.S. nor the Mexican government has shown any serious interest in the "developmental approach" to immigration control, which would take at least 10-15 years to show results.
Meanwhile, the "Maginot line" that we have built along the southwestern border continues to claim more than one life per day. There is no reason to believe that the current, border-centered approach will ever succeed in deterring significant numbers of new entrants, absent the political will to do what is necessary to reduce employer demand for migrant labor. Any strategy of immigration control that addresses only the supply side is doomed to failure. That is the fundamental lesson that U.S. policy makers can draw from the past decade of steadily escalating spending on border enforcement.