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What does a new deportation study mean for the migrant family crisis?

A new International Migration Review study shows that deported immigrants' desire to reunite with family can often trump the threat of enforcement and lead them to return to the US. That has pretty clear implications for enforcement policy toward unauthorized immigrants who are settled in the United States — especially parents of children who are US citizens.

But does the study have any implications for the children and families who've been arriving in the United States from Central America in recent months?

The short answer is that it's not clear, because it's not clear how much of a role family reunification plays in driving the current influx. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees found that 36 percent of the unaccompanied immigrant children it interviewed had at least one parent in the United States — but only a slight majority of those children (59 percent) named family reunification as a reason they wanted to leave their native countries.

That said, there are definitely some people, including policymakers, who believe that family reunification is a big cause of the current crisis. These tend to be the people who believe that the crisis has been precipitated by federal immigration policy, which they feel is overly lax: because some unauthorized immigrants are here in the country, it's encouraging others (including their relatives) to come. On the other hand, these policymakers argues, if the United States took a firm hand in deporting the children and families arriving now en masse — or even deporting unauthorized immigrants who've been here for a long time — it would deter Central American families from coming.

But this study suggests that deportation won't deter those families from coming.

If it's true that the desire to reunite with family is a major factor in the current crisis, then it's more likely that children and families will want to try again after being deported. That means that mass deportation will be totally counterproductive: instead of inspiring fewer people to come to the United States, it will force children and families to make the life-threatening journey again.

Jacqueline Hagan, one of the co-authors of the study — who's also done research on the dangers of the journey to the US — thinks that deterrence isn't likely to keep most children and families from coming, period. In her view, any child or mother who has already decided that the life-threatening journey to the US was worth it the first time is likely not to feel that he or she has any other options. That means that they'll have no choice but to try to come back. "It's incredible that they're willing to take their life into their hands because there is no other option," she says.

I asked Hagan about the theory that deporting children and families now will 'send a message' that will deter future families from coming. She responded in something between amusement and disbelief. "Isn't that what we're trying to do with deportations? Isn't that the endgame?" The paper she and her coauthors wrote makes a powerful argument that deterrence through deportations doesn't work for parents. It's easy to imagine it wouldn't work for children, either.