Fenced In (The Dallas Morning News)



Research from the Mexican Migration Field Research Program was mentioned in The Dallas Morning News


BY GABRIEL ESCOBAR   NOVEMBER 4, 2011

A U.S. Border Patrol agent along the fence at the Mexican border.

Let’s say you want to cross the U.S.-Mexico border the unconventional way. If you pay someone to sneak you in through a legal port of entry–a more popular option with women–it costs $2,850 and requires that you hide in a vehicle of some sort. If you choose the desert or mountain route, the added hazard and rigor drop the price to $1,587.

Despite the aggressive enforcement along the U.S. Mexico border, this illegal act still occurs with some frequency. Fewer people are trying to get in, for a host of reasons, but those who are bent on coming pay coyotes the fee and venture across. Sometimes it takes several tries, but the success rate is still an astonishing nine out of every ten.

We know these details thanks to the social scientists at the Mexican Migration Field Research Program, which is run by the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Since 2005, their surveys of immigrants in Mexico and California have given us a remarkable insight into the factors that drive migration.

Illuminating this issue helps everyone, regardless of where you stand on this intensely debated issue. It is only when you know the forces at work that you can begin to understand immigration in all its complexity and (cue the hope and dream) begin to develop a coherent public policy.

David Keyes, one of the researchers, shared with me some of the latest findings, which were also presented at a conference in California this week. Based on interviews with residents from the Mexican town of Tlacotepec–those still in the village and those now in California–researchers offer some sobering insights into the limits of enforcement.

The poor economy in the U.S. and the perception that the route north is more perilous than before are indeed deterring people from leaving. But those who are bent on coming will make the trip and, by dint of repeated tries, sneak across. “Border enforcement efforts of the U.S. government are not effectively stemming the undocumented migrations of Tlacotepense migrants,” according to a draft of the research paper.

Keyes, in a PowerPoint presentation, does an interesting analysis that links the hours the U.S. Border Patrol spends watching the frontier and the fees charged by human smugglers. In the early 1980s, when the total number of hours standing guard was under 2 million, it cost under $500 to sneak cross. In 2010, when the number of hours more than quadrupled, the fee averages a little under $2,000.

What does this tell us? Well, it supports the theory that one consequence of more aggressive enforcement is more aggressive attempts at violating the border. Researchers who interviewed Mexicans from Tlacotepec, in the southwestern state of Guerrero, conclude that 38 percent of those who entered illegally were apprehended at least once when crossing via desert or mountain. Those who snuck in at border crossings fared better–22 percent were caught at least once.

These apprehension rates have not really changed much from 2002 to 2010, a period of rather dramatic enforcement. The reason, researchers conclude, is that the tactics and methods of those running this market changed. Between 1986 and 1993, 53 percent of Tlacotepenses used a coyote. Between 2002 and 2010, an astonishing 87 percent resorted to these human smugglers.

I think it is misguided to use this data to argue that enforcement doesn’t work, for the simple reason that there is no way to measure how many would have entered had security not increased. Logic argues that the numbers would be higher, maybe much higher. But the persistence demonstrated by these migrants, particularly when the economy is not a draw, really does show that enforcement alone can only accomplish so much. If the economy improves and if migrants sense that the drug violence is abating, well you reach your own conclusions.

The Border Patrol and its parent, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, are now focusing enforcement on human smuggling networks and migrants who repeatedly cross the border. The research, certainly unintended, validates that change in policy by providing a statistical framework.

The Mexican Migration Field Research Project, along with an even more ambitious Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University, provide an invaluable service and should be required reading for all public officials and agencies involved in immigration. Among other things, the research conducted by these social scientists is the only antidote to the extreme politics of immigration, where rhetoric rules and intemperate shouts drown out data.

Here’s what the numbers tell us: The border is far more secure now than it has ever been–all that money, all those boots on the ground and all those eyes in the sky offer vigilance at a level that is unprecedented. This is beyond dispute, and anyone who argues otherwise is simply ignoring the facts. The number of illegal immigrants entering has dropped rather dramatically, to 150,000 a year down from as high as 600,000, according to one reliable estimate.

Enforcement is an important factor but not the only one. A bad economy in the U.S. has always worked as a deterrent. Important demographic changes in Mexico and the persistence of violence along the border are also significant factors. We are living in an unusual time because all these forces are at play at the same time, and all are having an impact.

But even when the border is at its most secure, when migration is further checked by these other factors, the frontier with Mexico is still a porous place. Look at the determined Tlacotepenses. Barring a hermetic seal (or Herman’s electrified fence), people bent on moving north will find a way, eventually. There’s an industry with high profit margins that practically guarantees it.

“I don’t think it will stop,” a middle-aged migrant, taking stock of all of this, told the researchers. “It might deter people like me, who are very cautions. But a lot of people that have made up their mind, they are tired of not having money….And that wall, we might not be able to jump it, but there will be coyotes that will dig a kilometer-long hole. And they will do it. They will do it because there is money to be made.”

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