Column: Why do people cross the border illegally? It’s not what you think

Sociologist Emily Ryo is an assistant professor at USC's law school.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

President Obama’s executive order on immigration will affect the lives of millions of undocumented immigrants — perhaps as profoundly as their illegal crossing into the U.S. did in the first place. It’s been a divisive action about people some Americans regard as criminals. Yet what neither lawmakers nor law enforcers may know much about is this: What do the border-crossers think of themselves and their decisions? And how could that information shape U.S. thinking about immigration? Sociologist Emily Ryo, an assistant professor at USC’s law school, has asked those questions — using interviews and a random sample survey of prospective migrants in Mexico, and interviews with undocumented immigrants in the U.S. — supplying missing pieces of data in the enormous puzzle of the nation’s immigration quandary.

What surprised you from your research?

Economic calculations don’t offer a complete account of the decision to migrate illegally. The risks of getting arrested, the severity of the sanctions — those are not significant determinants in the decision or intention to migrate illegally. That’s quite surprising given that much of our enforcement policies have been built on basic assumptions that people are making cost-benefit calculations.


Second, people’s personal values, and what people believe to be right morally, shape their decisions to violate U.S. immigration laws, to see these violations as moral.

You found that undocumented immigrants not only believe they’re moral people, but that they’re helping the United States.

They view the violation as resulting in something that’s good for the U.S. economy. They recognize that engaging in work without authorization is illegal, but they focus on the nature of the work they’re doing, which to them is admirable. Our refusal to grant them legal status to work legally they see as a pretty hypocritical stand, that we’re benefiting from the fruits of their labor at the same time we’re saying, “We don’t want you.”

What lies underneath is this idea that immigration law occupies a fundamentally different moral sphere from other kinds of laws. They see themselves as law-abiding despite their violation of our immigration laws. A lot of Americans also think of immigration laws differently from other kinds of laws. That is a fundamental challenge of trying to regulate the behavior of people who draw this clear distinction.

Are perceptions about immigration law shaped by the history of the American West, parts of which were once Spanish and Mexican?

I think that is important to understanding the nature of [the migrants’] values. Mexicans constitute the largest unauthorized population in the U.S., and that is due in large part to the long history of U.S. involvement in Mexican economic and political affairs, both the U.S. government and employers — through the bracero program, for example. We for decades had a well-regulated, highly predictable and in some ways self-sustaining system of circular migration based on the movement of labor from Mexico. In some ways, our current laws don’t recognize that long-standing history.

Has the U.S. wrongly perceived illegal immigration to be entirely about economic need rather than more complex motives?

One thing’s been abundantly clear, our enforcement-only approach to immigration policy [doesn’t recognize] that migrants’ decisions are embedded in all sorts of moral values.

By not recognizing that there might be these non-economic factors at play, we really missed an opportunity to think about what shapes people’s decisions, [to] build a tool kit for a more effective and transparent system that could promote voluntary compliance with the law.

For example, immigration reform that can result in a visa system that’s transparent and affords realistic opportunities for migrants to enter the U.S. for designated periods of time to satisfy our continuing demands for foreign unskilled labor.

More prospective migrants might be willing to wait to enter legally because they recognize that fair policies are in place that will give them an opportunity, rather than the current system, which operates on this very hypocritical basis of [wanting] undocumented immigrants to satisfy our labor needs, and at the same time denying them legal status. In some ways, that’s what enables them to engage in this kind of behavior, [because the law] doesn’t seem logical or rational.

One thing I want to make clear: I don’t mean to suggest through my research that the U.S. government ought to be worried solely about changing our laws to cater to the needs and fears and values of unauthorized migrants. The message of my work is that recognizing that there are these moral values in operation will give us a much better set of tools that we can use as levers, if you will, to try to motivate people in a way that might produce greater voluntary compliance with our laws.

You frequently encountered the belief that immigration law was administered unfairly and inconsistently.

They see racial bias in our system, that skin color is critical for evading enforcement, and that discriminatory treatment characterizes our system. That’s one thing. The other is that from their perspective, wealth is a prerequisite to entering the U.S. legally, that our system is biased toward people who can afford to pay their way in. These kinds of biases fuel perceptions of illegitimacy [of the law]. There is a significant relationship between people’s perceptions and people’s intentions to migrate illegally.

Yet the people you surveyed agreed that countries have a right to enforce their borders to keep out criminals; they just think, “That’s not us.”

That’s a consistent distinction [in studies of migrants]. They have a strong sense that it’s legitimate for sovereign nations to control their borders to keep out quote unquote bad people, but that their behavior doesn’t come within that sphere of regulation — that their violation doesn’t amount to that kind of threat to national sovereignty.

Do most want to live here permanently, or just work here?

If we are talking about families, a lot of females and children who are coming come for a more permanent basis. Labor migration is different. For a lot of people in my study, their desire is not to migrate permanently, especially if their families are in their country of origin. Their goal is to be able to work and send money home and return to their families. When I asked about an ideal immigration system, almost unanimously they [wanted] a system to allow them to legally and temporarily migrate in order to work, and then to return home to their families.

Certain fundamental values undergird their decision to migrate: their belief in the importance of engaging in legal, honorable work, and [their] commitment to provide economic security for their families — fundamental values which are not unlike motivations that shape us.

Where did the people in your study think the responsibility lies for providing an economy that creates jobs?

They hold both governments responsible. Obviously their own government has failed to provide a sustainable economic environment [for] work that pays living wages, to provide them with viable options to stay at home. There’s also a recognition that a lot of what’s happened in their economy has been a result of capitalist expansion and trade imbalance, that the U.S. is an intricate part of what’s happening with economies around the world, that are so much more interconnected than they ever have been.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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