Donald Trump

Stronger Border Enforcement Backfired

Militarizing the border unintentionally fueled the growth of undocumented immigration



Practically the first campaign promise that Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump made was that he would deport all 11 million undocumented migrants living in the United States. An interesting new study looks at why so many migrants came and, but more crucially, also at why they chose to stay. Their conclusion: Ratcheted up border enforcement played a big role. The article, "Why Border Enforcment Backfired," published in the American Journal of Sociology looks at how ever greater attempts to close down the border led to decisions by those who made it across to stay here rather than risk returning to their home countries.

The researchers argue that rising "border enforcement emerged as a policy response to a moral panic about the perceived threat of Latino immigration to the United States propounded by self-interested bureaucrats, politicians, and pundits who sought to mobilize political and material resources for their own benefit." From 1986 to 2010, the U.S. government spent $35 billion on border enforcement. The result was to essentialy militarize the border, making it ever harder for migrants to travel back and forth. This policy unintentionally transformed "undocumented Mexican migration from a circular flow of male workers going to three states into an 11 million person population of settled families living in 50 states."

"Greater enforcement raised the costs of undocumented border crossing, which required undocumented migrants to stay longer in the U.S. to make a trip profitable," explained researcher Douglas Massey, a sociologist at Princeton University to "Greater enforcement also increased the risk of death and injury during border crossing. As the costs and risks rose, migrants naturally minimized border crossing—not by remaining in Mexico but by staying in the United States."

Also over at Harvard University sociologist Mary Waters (who was not involved in the research) further noted: "This is a very important article that looks at a long sweep of history and provides the very best data and analysis to lead to a conclusion that most Americans would find very counter-intuitive. Throwing money at militarizing the border led to the growth of undocumented immigration and if we had just done nothing, undocumented immigration would be much lower."

As it happens the flow of undocumented migrants from Mexico has significantly slowed. Border enforcement may have played a role, but so did the lack of economic opportunities in the U.S. subsequent to the Great Recession, and even more significantly sharply falling Mexican fertility is producing a labor shortfall in that country.

Massey suggests that if the U.S. government were to grant some kind of legal status to the 11 million undocumented migrants lots of them would return home secure in the knowledge that they could come back.

Ultimately, Trump's border wall is "solving" a "problem" that is well on its way to solving itself.

For more background, see my article, "Immigrants Are Less Criminal Than Native-Born Americans."