An eight-year, $20-billion campaign to strengthen enforcement along the U.S.-Mexican border has failed to stem unauthorized immigration, according to a study released today by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
The study buttresses what immigration scholars and advocates have been saying for years: The massive enforcement buildup along the U.S.-Mexico border has not reduced illegal immigration. Some border-jumpers may even have been persuaded to remain in the United States, rather than return to Mexico, because of the difficulty and high cost of repeat border crossings, the study concluded.
Officials at the Immigration and Naturalization Service immediately rejected the report’s conclusions. Apprehensions at the border, recently reduced, suggest fewer migrants are trying to cross, and longer stays in the U.S. indicate that illegal migrants are worried that if they leave, they might not be able to get back, the INS official argued.
Researchers took two years to reach their conclusions, relying on sources that included annual Mexican surveys in 18 border-crossing communities and data from immigrants meeting in focus groups from Los Angeles to Fresno.
Although not meeting its main goal of reducing illegal immigration, the border crackdown has had some “tactical successes,” including doubling the number of immigrants apprehended at the border from 1992 to 1998, the authors found.
Other consequences of the U.S. strategy, however, are that migrant smuggling has become big business and that migrants have switched their border crossings to more treacherous desert and mountain terrain. The number of deaths from exposure and drowning has increased dramatically--from 57 in 1994 to 227 in 2000.
The beefed up Border Patrol presence has increased the price paid smugglers, or coyotes, from about $300 a decade ago to around $2,000, authorities say.
The study also noted a buildup of illegal immigrants who were coming to America to stay permanently. U.S. authorities have long estimated that figure at about 350,000 per year, but the researchers found the number has swelled to between 400,000 and 500,000 annually.
Immigration policy reform advocates hailed the study as an affirmation of their long-held beliefs.
The problem, said Christian Ramirez, director of the American Friends Service in San Diego, is that the U.S. government is trying to halt social and economic forces with military might.
“As long as there is poverty in the sending nations and jobs are available in the receiving nations, the problem will exist,” Ramirez said. “I don’t care if they put 20 fences and armed guards there, people will make their way north.”
At the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, a spokesman took sharp issue with the report’s findings.
Fewer undocumented immigrants are successfully crossing the border, said INS spokesman Bill Strassberger. He noted that, after spiking upward, apprehensions at the border have fallen steadily in the last two years.
The fall in apprehensions is a strong indicator that fewer people are trying to cross the border, Strassberger said. In 2000, 1.67 million people were apprehended at the nation’s borders; 1.26 million were caught in 2001; and so far this year 639,000 people have been apprehended, putting the agency on track to detain slightly under 1 million people in 2002.
The INS statistics for apprehensions include those made at the Canadian border, but they account for only about 15,000 yearly, Strassberger said.
Strassberger added that the finding that more immigrants are staying in the north confirms how much more difficult the crossings have become.
The 2000 Mexico census showed that only 7% of those who moved 24 months before the survey returned to Mexico within the first six months and only 11% had returned within a year. In 1992, 20% of people who moved to the U.S. returned to Mexico within six months of migration.
“If the border strategy isn’t working, then people would feel free to go and come,” Strassberger said. “But they realize it’s that much harder to come across and less of a guarantee that they’ll make it back over. To us, that underscores the fact that the border strategy is working.”
Although he agreed that migration patterns have shifted from urban to rural areas, Strassberger said the border strategy must be considered as a multiyear plan that has been making steady progress.
“Will we ever seal off the border entirely? I doubt it. But the goal is control and to restore safety to the border and quality of life for those Americans living along the border,” the INS official said.