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What happens when deportation separates parents from their kids?

Immigration policies can often split apart families. But at least one study has found that deported immigrants will likely keep trying to come back to the United States to be with their families — regardless of the risks involved.

The study, published in International Migration Review, looked at fathers deported back to El Salvador in 2002. A majority said that — despite the risk of being caught — they would still return to the United States.

Granted, the study was looking at a period when deportation policy was very different than it's been for the past several years — so there are some questions about how applicable the study is to the current policy regime. But combined with more recent data, the study makes a compelling argument about whether immigration enforcement is working — and for whom.

The US has adopted harsh immigration-enforcement policies over the past two decades — specifically for the purpose of deterring future migrants from trying to come to the United States. But if most of the people who are deported end up making their way back, the extra cost of long prison sentences and repeated deportations isn't paying off.

Researchers already know that deporting parents of American children has terrible unintended consequences for the kids left behind. This study suggests deporting parents doesn't meet its intended purpose, either: it fails to keep them from trying to come back. That raises the question of whether there's any upside to deporting parents at all.

Many deportees said they'd try to return to the US

The 2014 study, led by Jodi Berger Cardoso of the University of Houston, examined a 2002 survey of Salvadoran men who'd recently been deported. A little over 40 percent of all deportees said they would try to return to the United States.

The most important factor in whether a deportee would want to return, the researchers found, was whether or not he had children in the US. These children are almost always US-born, and therefore citizens.

As the study's authors write, "Deportees in these families face no good solutions to the problem of separation from their spouses and children — either they remove their children from their country of citizenship, or they remigrate to a hostile environment." In this study, the choice was clear. The majority of deportee fathers said they'd rather return to the United States, even if it meant getting caught.

How are the immigrants who get deported today different from the deportees in the study?

The deportation system has been completely transformed in the 13 years since that survey was conducted. Only 165,168 people were formally deported in 2002. Deportations rose drastically for a decade — in 2012, 419,384 people were deported — and have since started to drop off again.

In particular, deportees in 2002 were much more likely to be legal immigrants who had lost their legal status because they'd been convicted of a crime. And legal immigrants have higher "social capital" in the US than unauthorized immigrants: they're more likely to be educated and speak English, for example. It's possible that the parents being deported today have less social capital than the parents in the study.

These factors can make a difference when someone who's left the US voluntarily decides whether to come back. But the study's authors found that when someone had been deported, there was only one factor that mattered. As long as deportees had family in the US, they were more likely to return, regardless of social capital.

And there are more "mixed-status" families — families that have both US-citizen and unauthorized members — than there were in 2002. According to a Pew Hispanic Trends Project report from 2011, "the number of U.S.-born children with at least one unauthorized immigrant parent has more than doubled since 2000."

How many deportees who say they want to return to the US actually try?

Research has shown that a significant number of people who say they'll remigrate actually do — between 45 and 75 percent. So the study's authors conclude that between 20 and 32.7 percent of all deportees they surveyed would actually return. Among deportees with kids in the United States, it could be as many as 40 percent. That means that of all the parents deported in 2011, for example, up to 31,000 would end up returning.

But that range is based on estimates of all migrants — including those who've returned voluntarily. And there's evidence that migrants who get deported are actually more likely to try to come back than migrants who leave on their own.

Why might people who get deported be more likely to try to return than people who leave on their own?

For one thing, deportees are more likely to have family in the US, whom they were forced to leave. As the study shows, that kind of separation isn't something families are willing to put up with easily.

According to Jacqueline Hagan, one of the study's authors, deportees are also "very disadvantaged" back in their home countries — which makes it harder for them to reintegrate, and makes the choice to return to the US more attractive. "It's much harder for them to get jobs, they've lost contacts, they've come back to few resources. It's very different from a return migrant, who has completed his goals or her goals and voluntarily returns home with savings, with family waiting for them, being successful."

Additionally, she says, being deported itself carries a stigma. It can be especially hard for deportees with criminal records to get a job in their home countries. And with increasing numbers of immigrants being prosecuted for illegal entry or illegal reentry, lots of deportees have criminal records — even if their only crime was coming to the US without papers.

"These are the failures who come back, who are deported," says Hagan. And it's certainly plausible that migrants who are seen as failures are more likely to attempt to come back and try again.

Is it possible that immigration enforcement is a more effective deterrent today than it was in 2002?

Yes. The federal government is putting a lot more effort into deporting immigrants caught at the border — especially if they've been deported before. There's evidence that that's paying off — at least for some migrants.

But even as of 2010, a majority of migrants who'd returned to Mexico said they planned to return to the US immediately. Immigrants who've been deported might have a higher return rate than that.

And government data suggests that parents who have been deported are, in fact, even more likely to try to return than other deportees. Twenty-one percent of all deportees in 2012 were repeat violators, but over a third of deportee parents were deported for returning to the US.

What does this tell us about immigration enforcement?

Keeping immigrants from wanting to come back to the US after they've been deported has been the single biggest goal of US immigration enforcement policy for the last 20 years. So both before this survey data was collected in 2002 and afterward, the government has continued to increase the penalties on people who've been unauthorized immigrants once and try to come back.

But this study's authors conclude that if the deportee has family in the US, the pull of family reunification is just plain stronger than the effect of deterrence. Even the deportee parents who would face the harshest penalties if they were caught, the authors found, don't see that risk as "a significant deterrent."

The jury is still out on whether deterrence is working generally in deterring unauthorized migration. But this study makes a compelling argument that deporting parents, in particular, might not be worth the cost.