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The false promises of more immigration enforcement

Harsh detention and deportation policies haven’t deterred migrants.

A family of asylum seekers from Colombia boards the Border Patrol Inmate transport after they turned themselves in to US Border Patrol agents on May 13 in Yuma, Arizona.
Apu Gomes/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

President Joe Biden has taken some steps toward reversing his predecessor’s legacy of broad, indiscriminate immigration enforcement, including a recent announcement that it will no longer detain immigrants at two locations under scrutiny for alleged abuses.

But Republicans are adamant that increased immigration enforcement be a prerequisite to any broader immigration reform.

“There’ll be no immigration reform until you get control of the border,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told Roll Call last month.

There are now nearly 40 percent more people in immigration detention compared to when Biden first took office, and his administration is continuing to turn away most migrants arriving on the border under pandemic-related restrictions put in place by his predecessor, President Donald Trump, which have led to the expulsions of more than 350,000 people this year alone.

But research shows that the threat of detention and deportation in the US doesn’t dissuade migrants from making the journey to the southern border, especially if they are victims of violence and may be seeking to escape the “devil they know” in their home countries.

“Managing migration at the border, particularly the kind of migration we’re seeing now, from a strictly deterrence, enforcement lens is just not sustainable in the long run and is not having the impact that people think it should have,” Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said. “That’s why we need to rethink our paradigm for how we talk about migration and everything that we do at the border.”

Detention and deportations don’t deter migrants from coming

The US started dramatically ramping up immigration enforcement in the 1990s with bipartisan support. The line of thinking was that making it more expensive and arduous to cross the border would dissuade more people from making the journey in the first place. It became the preferred strategy for policymakers because it was easy to sell to constituents, even though it wasn’t necessarily grounded in a deep understanding of the factors driving unauthorized immigration.

But a growing body of research shows that the threat of immigration enforcement isn’t an effective deterrent for migrants in the long run. Emily Ryo, a professor of law and sociology at the USC Gould School of Law, found in a paper published earlier this month that it has no significant effect on people’s decision to migrate from Mexico and Central America’s “Northern Triangle”: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

In cooperation with Vanderbilt University and the Latin American Public Opinion Project, she designed an experiment that was included in the 2018-’19 AmericasBarometer survey of nearly 11,000 voting-age adults across the four countries. She divided the respondents into three groups and provided them with different prompts offering information about how many migrants are apprehended by US officials when trying to cross the border, subject to detention for an indefinite period of time, and face a lack of judicial process when it comes to their deportation. They were then asked how likely it would be that they would choose to live and work in the US in the next three years.

The patterns in responses across the groups were strikingly similar, though they were provided with different information about US immigration enforcement policy. Most said they weren’t likely to go to the US, but in all three groups, about 21 percent said they were “a little likely to go,” 10 percent said they were “somewhat likely,” and roughly another 10 percent said “very likely.”

Knowledge about US deportation and detention policy didn’t have any significant effect on their intentions to migrate. Ryo even did an analysis to account for potential differences in how persuasive the information about US policy might be for different populations, such as people experiencing crime and violence, people with family ties to the US who might be seeking reunification, and people leaving for economic reasons. It still didn’t make a statistically significant difference.

“To the extent that what we’re trying to do with our immigration enforcement policy is to deter people, my study does not support that approach in terms of use of policies like immigration detention to achieve that purpose,” Ryo said.

Another study, conducted by Vanderbilt University political science professor Jonathan Hiskey and co-authors, similarly found that knowledge of heightened US deterrence efforts didn’t influence people’s decision to migrate.

They analyzed 2014 survey data from more than 3,000 people in 12 Honduran municipalities with varying rates of homicide and crime victimization. The survey was conducted just as the Obama administration was pushing its “Dangers Awareness” campaign featuring more than 6,000 public service announcements and more than 600 billboards. The overriding message was that the US would send people back to their home country if they tried to cross the border.

Most survey takers thought that crossing the border was more difficult and less safe than it was the previous year, and that it involved an increased risk of deportation and worse treatment of migrants. In that respect, the campaign had appeared to succeed in persuading Hondurans that migrating to the US was a “highly dangerous proposition with little chance of success,” according to the researchers.

You might expect that would have made them less likely to eventually migrate. But that’s not what the researchers found; the survey takers’ views of the dangers of migration to the US and the likelihood of deportation did not seem to influence their plans to migrate in any meaningful way.

Rather, the factor that was most associated with people’s desire to migrate was whether they were victims of crimes, as is the case for many asylum seekers fleeing gang violence in Honduras.

“The detention and deportation of current migrants from El Salvador and Honduras, along with the extensive publicity of these detention and deportation proceedings, is unlikely to persuade many of the individuals in these countries who are directly experiencing the tragically high levels of crime and violence,” the researchers wrote.

Knowledge of US immigration detention, however, did have an unintended effect on survey takers in Ryo’s experiment — it made them more likely to think outcomes and legal procedures in the American immigration system are unfair. That is worrisome, given that perceptions of fairness are significant predictors of people’s willingness to obey the law and cooperate with legal authorities, Ryo said.

“We really ought to be concerned about the extent to which generating these kinds of perceptions of unfairness can backfire in terms of more people disregarding our laws and undertaking that dangerous journey in order to get to our border and try to cross it,” she added.

More undocumented immigrants have settled in the US due to increased enforcement

Another unintended effect of US immigration enforcement has been the increase in the number of undocumented immigrants living in the US from roughly 3 million in 1986 to over 11 million today. Princeton sociologist Doug Massey and his co-authors found in a 2016 paper that the rapid expansion of immigration enforcement in the years following 1986, the last time that a major immigration law was passed, actually caused more migrants to decide to settle in the US permanently.

Before then, Mexican men had moved back and forth across the border, usually looking for opportunities for temporary work and crossing in El Paso and San Diego. The US’s decision to expand immigration enforcement didn’t really alter their ability to cross the border. They weren’t much more likely to be apprehended when they attempted to cross, and even if they were discovered by US immigration officials and swiftly returned to Mexico, they could still succeed after multiple attempts.

What changed, however, was the costs and risks associated with returning to their home country and then attempting to reenter the US. Migrants had to start crossing in more dangerous regions of the border, going through the Sonoran Desert and Arizona, and came to rely more heavily on the services of paid smugglers, which became more expensive. Between 1980 and 2010, the probability that a migrant would return after their first trip to the US consequently dropped from 48 percent to zero, according to Massey’s paper.

“The combination of increasingly costly and risky trips and the near certainty of getting into the United States created a decision-making contest in which it still made economic sense to migrate but not to return home to face the high costs and risks of subsequent entry attempts,” the authors write in the paper.

In this way, immigration enforcement had the opposite of the intended effect. And the authors write that if policymakers had never increased border patrol’s funding beyond accounting for inflation, the population of undocumented immigrants living in the US likely would have “grown substantially less.”

What might reverse the trend is if the US legalizes the population of undocumented immigrants living in the US, or at least broad swaths of it, which might allow more people to return to their home country.

But first, US policymakers need to reckon with the ways existing strategies to deter unauthorized immigration haven’t worked.

“Our policymakers have not actually been very attentive to trying to better understand what the actual effects of our enforcement policies are, and that’s very problematic because tons of resources are going into implementing certain policies that actually don’t need to the outcome that we desire, and can lead to unintended consequences that we do not desire,” Ryo said.