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Family separation isn’t just immoral. It’s likely ineffective.

Deterrence tactics have dominated our border for decades. We’re still not sure if they work.

Central American asylum seekers wait as US Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018, near McAllen, Texas.
John Moore/Getty Images

The Trump administration is under searing criticism nationwide as a result of its “zero tolerance” policy that has resulted in the separation of thousands of children from parents who are being criminally prosecuted for illegally entering the United States. Facing a torrent of criticism, even from traditional allies, the administration has hunkered down; officials are framing the policy as necessary to deter rising family migration from Central America.

“When you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally, which should happen, you have to take the children away ... when people come up, they have to know they can’t get in,” President Donald Trump said Tuesday.

Deterrence is hardly a new concept in border enforcement. It’s been the basic principle behind immigration policy, enforced to varying degrees, for several administrations. But until now, the stiffest forms of punishment — prosecution and federal prison time — were reserved for adults traveling alone, not families.

But it is far from clear whether the new shock-and-awe measures will substantially deter future migrants from Central America, including families with children. Past experience does not demonstrate an “implement policy, achieve desired outcome” effect.

The reasons are many, not least that the forces that impel people to migrate are entangled with profound economic, political, and other realities. This is especially true for recent migrants from Central America, who have faced intense pressure to migrate due to poverty, natural disasters, civil wars, and extreme gang violence in recent decades.

A quick history of recent border deterrence strategies

For decades, deterrence has guided the philosophy of policing the border. Starting in the 1990s, the US Border Patrol expanded its capabilities to apprehend illegal crossers along the US-Mexico border. It sealed off major urban centers and thereby forced migrants to cross in more remote, dangerous areas. The US government has also used public service announcements in Mexico and Central America to broadcast messages about the dangers of crossing the border in arid deserts and rugged mountainous areas.

During the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, the government began imposing what the Border Patrol calls “consequences” for illegal crossing beyond simply turning them away. This includes the repatriation of migrants far from where they crossed — for instance, sending people apprehended in California back to Mexico through ports of entry in Texas, in an effort to break bonds with local smugglers.

Other tactics include formal deportation, which bars people from future legal admission to the United States, and prosecuting them in federal courts, where they may receive significant prison sentences.

These strategies were designed to raise psychological and financial costs for would-be border crossers, forcing them to think twice about the consequences of attempting illegal entry. There is some evidence that this system of deterrence worked. Fears about dying of exposure in the desert or mountains, being kidnapped or extorted by criminal elements along the border, or spending a few months in a US jail appear to have cut down the number of people who attempted a border crossing.

Border Patrol apprehensions at the Southwest border, which hit a peak of 1.6 million in 2000 and exceeded 1 million as recently as 2006, plummeted to just over 300,000 in 2017 — a level not seen since the early 1970s.

The effectiveness of deterrence policies can also be seen in the declining number of people trying to cross the border more than once. In 2007, 29 percent of apprehended migrants were “recidivists” who were caught more than once in the same year; in 2014, the rate was just 14 percent. Border Patrol agents and researchers have attributed the decline to increased costs and dangers associated with repatriation through remote areas, the shock of being forced to appear in federal court (often in shackles and chains), and federal prison sentences that can last up to six months for first-time entrants and longer for those accused of multiple reentry or assisting smugglers.

But the dramatic drop in apprehensions is not due to deterrence alone. The United States has become a less attractive option for migrants for other reasons: In Mexico, historic improvements in the economy and education system have also kept more people at home. (And birthrates are declining, reducing the supply of migrants.)

Finally, the US recession in 2008 reduced the number of jobs that served as magnets for unauthorized immigrant workers. For immigrants seeking a brighter economic future, crossing the border to the US was no longer worth the risk.

Changing flows and migration pressures alter the deterrence equation

Historically, the vast majority of apprehended migrants have been young adults from Mexico. But in 2014, for the first time, the Border Patrol apprehended more Central Americans than Mexicans.

That year, moreover, 29 percent of apprehensions were families or children traveling alone, up from less than 10 percent a decade ago. They did not fit the profile of previous migrants looking for economic opportunity: Many were fleeing domestic or gang violence in their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

During the Obama and preceding administrations, asylum-seeking migrants like these were largely spared from harsher deterrence tactics. Most families and adults traveling alone who were intercepted and who claimed asylum were released into the United States pending immigration court hearings.

Due to immigration court backlogs, most of the families, children, and other asylum seekers spent years in the United States awaiting the resolution of their cases. The vast majority of families and children apprehended since 2014 remain in the United States. On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump joined others in criticizing “catch and release” policies that allowed asylum seekers to remain in the United States for years, a practice that, he argued, incentivized illegal immigration.

The election of Trump, who made tough immigration enforcement a centerpiece of his campaign, proved a deterrent of its own, at least for a while. During 2017, apprehensions fell to near-record lows amid sharp rhetoric from the president combined with tough executive orders on immigration and a surge in arrests of unauthorized immigrants in the United States.

But a year later, this “Trump effect” has largely subsided; from March through May 2018, apprehensions reverted to levels similar to those of 2014 through 2016. Meanwhile, the share of families and children among apprehended migrants rose to 39 percent, compared to under 10 percent a decade ago.

“Zero tolerance” is the new deterrence approach

Last month, the Trump administration responded to the increase in family arrivals by announcing the new “zero tolerance” policy, which has resulted in the heartrending stories of family separation we’re hearing about. Prosecution of parents for illegal entry in federal court requires separation from children, who cannot be held with them in criminal incarceration.

But in the worst case, if their asylum claims are denied, parents may be deported, leaving their children in the US. These children could remain in our country in long-term foster care if the Office of Refugee Resettlement cannot find another family member in the country who is willing and able to care for them.

And whether this strategy will deter family flows from Central America in the long term remains to be seen.

El Salvador and Honduras have among the highest murder rates in the world. Gang violence is an ever-present danger, especially for women and young people gangs try to recruit. Guatemala is experiencing ongoing political instability and has a high rate of extreme poverty. Research shows significant shares of child migrants from all three countries witnessed violence or were threatened by violence before fleeing.

The fact that apprehensions slowed last year only to rebound this year suggests that the reasons people are fleeing the region are powerful enough to overcome severe deterrence policies. Migrants are risking their lives to get away from horrific conditions without guarantee of success — only a small percentage ultimately meet the stringent US criteria for granting asylum.

What, then, is the answer? How can humanitarian protection for adults and children with valid asylum claims be balanced against policies that are essential to maintaining border security?

The solution cannot simply be more punishment, especially when it inflicts significant and lasting psychological harm on children. Such a solution is antithetical not just to international norms but to American values, whatever the deterrent effect might prove to be.

Moreover, while there is evidence that prosecution, shackling, and the threat of prison time have in the past deterred economic migrants from attempting to enter the United States illegally, these forms of deterrence are likely to be less successful with humanitarian migrants, especially families and children, who are often fleeing life-or-death circumstances in their home countries.

Family apprehensions have not dropped since the new policy was implemented, but it is still too soon to know. Even if they do, it is morally reprehensible to forcibly separate children from parents under any circumstances — deterrence cannot justify such cruelty.

Randy Capps is the director of research for US programs at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, DC. He is a leading national expert on US immigration policies and immigrant demographics and integration. Capps has written numerous reports on immigrant populations at the state and local levels and recently completed a national study of immigration enforcement during the Trump administration.


The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at thebigidea@vox.com.

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