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Research Essay on Illegal Immigration

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In the Shadow of the Wall: The Effects of the US Expansion of Border Protection

The case of the USA and Mexico may be different from any other in the world. Although the two countries are economically very differently developed, they have a unique common history, are important trading partners for each other, and are linked by a remarkable Mexican diaspora spread throughout the territory of the United States. However, both countries are also connected by a 3,000-kilometer border, which is militarily very secure on the US side; and by a political context in the US in which Mexican immigrants (and other ethnic groups) are routinely seen as 'outsiders' and criminalized by the state.

'They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.' states US President Donald Trump, who used these words during the election campaign to warn against supposedly unchecked illegal immigration from Mexico (Jackson). This warning is astonishing inasmuch as illegal migration to the USA is at a historic low and more Mexicans have been moving from the USA to Mexico than vice versa for more than ten years. The traditional narrative of Mexican immigrants coming illegally to the US, whose numbers are constantly increasing, is now outdated. Today, illegal migration from Mexico has reached an all-time low (de Haas). While more than a million undocumented Mexicans were arrested at the border in 2005, less than 200,000 were arrested ten years later. At the same time, more and more Mexicans are returning to their homeland after years in the USA. Mexico's migration balance for the USA, i.e. the difference between immigration and emigration, has even been negative for some years. Between 2009 and 2014, one million Mexicans left the USA, while only around 870,000 emigrated. Already since 2013, China and India have been the main countries of origin of new immigrants to the USA, while Mexico only occupies third place. According to information from the Census Bureau, some 125,000 Mexicans immigrated to the US in 2013, compared with 147,000 Chinese and 129,000 Indians (Zong and Batalova).

The reasons for the lower immigration from Mexico are manifold. The recession of 2008 in the USA with increasing job opportunities in Mexico at the same time plays just as important a role for returnees as the desire for reunification with the family. Declining birth rates and an aging society in Mexico are also reducing the number of potential new emigrants. Despite lower migrant flows in recent years, the Mexican diaspora (migrant stock) in the USA remains large (Passel). For some years now, it has remained constant at almost twelve million and thus accounts for almost one-third of all immigrants living in the USA. About half of Mexican immigrants, i.e. around six million people, live irregularly in the USA. These impressive statistics are the result of decades of steady legal and illegal immigration. Since 1942, many Mexicans have entered the USA legally with temporary work visas via the so-called Bracero program. After the program ended in the mid-1960s, many Mexican migrant workers maintained their close ties with U.S. employers and continued to work in the U.S., but illegally. Legal migration from Mexico also increased as the 1965 revision of the US Migration Act introduced generous family reunification provisions. In the 1970s, less than a million Mexicans lived in the U.S., doubled to 2.3 million by 1980, and then rose exponentially to 11.7 million in 2010 - a figure that has remained with slight fluctuations ever since.

While the number of Mexicans moving to the USA is decreasing, the number of Central American migrants is rising steadily. Every year hundreds of thousands of people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the 'Northern Triangle' of Central America, set off for the USA and cross Mexico as transit migrants. 110,000 Central American migrants tried to cross the border illegally to the USA in 2006, but by 2016 this number had more than doubled ( Cornelius). Combined with the sharp decline in illegal migration from Mexico, this means that the proportion of Central Americans crossing the border illegally has risen rapidly during this period, from 10 to 54 percent. The fact that more Central Americans than Mexicans now try to cross the border is all the more impressive when one considers that the three countries together have only about 30 million inhabitants - and thus only a quarter of Mexico's population. Nevertheless, the region is considered fragile and plagued by a multitude of problems. The people suffer from extremely high levels of violence and murder rates of between 30 and 75 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Poverty and unemployment are widespread, and a quarter of all young people are so-called 'Ninis' who neither have a job nor attend school. Massive corruption reinforces growing social inequality and already weak state institutions are further eroded by the overwhelming influence of gangs.

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To put it bluntly, illegal migration from Mexico to the USA is already history. The data situation described here - declining Mexican migration and simultaneously growing Central American migration - is clear. However, it is largely ignored by the current public and political debate in the USA. Donald Trump's claim that he has to build a wall against illegal migration from Mexico ignores the fact that illegal migration reached a 40-year low at the southern border of the USA in 2015. However, the local perception of migration, the 'perceived' migration, is independent of statistics and the actual number of migrants. People experience immigration not at the federal level, but locally, through concrete examples such as the ethnic composition of their children's schools or the daily street scene in their communities or cities. Thus, the subjectively perceived migration situation of a country can be fundamentally different, depending on whether someone lives in the city or in the country or whether the neighborhood is ethnically diverse as in New York City, or homogeneous as in Salt Lake City. Furthermore, it is not so much the number of migrants as the speed at which migrants change the demography of a place that is decisive in the perception of migration. More and more immigrants in the US are settling not only in the traditional immigrant states of California, Texas, and New Mexico but also in regions where locals have had little experience with immigrants (Casselman). The faster the demography of a place changes due to migration, the more likely people are to react to migration with skepticism. Fear of migration is therefore more widespread where the number of migrants is rising by leaps and bounds; slow change, on the other hand, is less worrying.

US voters, despite historically low levels of illegal immigration, continue to be strongly concerned about this issue due to the contrast between flows and stocks. Even though fewer and fewer Mexicans are trying to enter the country illegally (flows) today, the total number of Mexicans (stocks) already living illegally in the country is so high that they perpetuate the traditional narrative of undocumented Mexicans. The election of Donald Trump has shown that it can be politically opportune to ignore facts. Trump and his advisors have succeeded in artificially 'boiling up' the issue of illegal migration to make political capital. Populism propagates a simplified worldview in which corrupt elites on the one hand and honest people on the other are hostile to each other and complex problems can be solved by simple common-sense solutions. In this worldview, migrants are ideal scapegoats because they can be portrayed both as not belonging to the people and as supposedly easy to get out of the country - be it by entry bans, deportations, or even by walls. The strengthening of border protection has always been associated with the hope of curbing illegal immigration. Since the mid-1990s, the USA has erected several walls and fences along the border. Some of them run through populous cities, others through deserted areas. The construction method is inconsistent - some concrete walls, and some lattice fences. What all border fortifications have in common is that they do not cover the entire border but end somewhere along the border. Building a wall is an extreme form of border protection, but countries have many ways of protecting their borders. Typical border management measures include checks on persons entering and/or crossing the border, carried out by border guards, or using electronic equipment at airports, ports, or other border crossings. Increasingly, technical means such as cameras, ground sensors, motion detectors, or drones are being used.

Walls and border management measures operate on two levels: On the one hand, they can block existing migration flows and, on the other hand, they can act as a deterrent to potential future migrants, so that they can contribute - at least in the short term - to a decline in migration figures. While walls can successfully prevent illegal migration, this is not necessarily the case. A clear assessment of how effective walls and border management actually are is hampered by three factors: First, the impact of walls is not clearly measurable. Even if illegal migration figures fall after the construction of the wall and investments in border protection (as in the case of the USA in the 1990s), other factors may also have contributed, such as an economic recession or changed living conditions in countries of origin (as in Mexico in recent decades). The establishment of legal migration routes, e.g. through temporary work or student visas, can also influence illegal migration figures in one country, as can changing border management regimes in other countries in the same region. Second, a fundamental dilemma of border management is that more border officials can make more arrests, even if the number of attempted border crossings remains relatively constant. Thus, paradoxically, investing in more border personnel can even lead to the impression of more rather than less illegal migration, as more arrests are recorded. Thirdly, illegal immigration need not be linked to illegal entry. As the numerous so-called visa - overstays in the US show, migrants can legally enter the country, for example on a tourist or temporary work visa, and remain in the country after its expiration. Border guards and the construction of the Wall have no effect on this form of illegal immigration. Walls and reinforced border management measures also pose a number of problems and unintended side effects. For one, walls can be bypassed, particularly in the case of the USA, where they only cover part of the border. More or less creative methods range from tunnels, ladders and ropes to ramps, catapults, and drones (e.g. drug smuggling). In addition, more border protection makes migration more dangerous. Even if walls are able to block migration flows in the short term, in the medium and long term they tend to displace them rather than decrease them (displaced not decreased). Border protection often shifts migration routes into more inhospitable terrain - in the case of the USA into the desert. More border protection can also lead to tugboats raising their prices and adapting their business models. Tugboats in Central America are increasingly offering their customers three border crossing attempts for the price of one. If a migrant is caught and deported to his home country, he has two more attempts without additional financial costs - a business model that exacerbates the so-called revolving door problem (of migration, repatriation, and renewed migration).

Building walls alone is not enough to get rid of the problem of illegal migration. Another side effect of border protection is that circular migration can become permanent migration. For decades, Mexican immigration had been characterized by seasonal and circular work migration, but the more difficult it became to cross the border, the more Mexicans and their families permanently settled in the United States. While walls and border guards can be an effective symbol of deterrence, shifting migration flows and thereby contributing to a short-term reduction in migration, they do not solve the problem of illegal immigration in the long term or completely and cause considerable problems and undesirable side effects. In view of the fact that many migrants around the world do not leave the homes of their own free will, but are forced to do so by economic hardship, war or civil war, fighting the causes of migration and flight, as well as development aid to countries of origin, seems to be a logical strategy to reduce migration flows. Mexico is indeed an excellent example of a country where improved economic conditions have contributed to a sharp decline in emigration. Mexico's gross national product (GDP) has grown by an average of 2.5 percent over the last ten years. Between 2001 and 2011, the proportion of Mexicans in the middle class increased by nearly nine percentage points, i.e. more than ten million Mexicans rose to the middle class. In the same period, annual illegal migration from Mexico fell from 1.2 million to 290,000. The actual causes of irregular immigration are both social and economic. The solution, therefore, lies in dealing with these causes, not in permanently expanding border protection and criminalizing immigration.

Walls and border protection can only solve the problem of unwanted migration flows in the short term and in parts; investments in causes of migration and flight, on the contrary, can only solve them in the long term to some extent. Real solutions are therefore policies that combine both approaches - compromise solutions. Sustainable migration policies include both border management measures as well as the fight against causes and treat the two concepts not as a zero-sum game, but as necessary elements of effective migration policy. Neither the best border management nor the best fight against the causes can completely stop undesirable migration flows. US policymakers must look for human alternatives to immigration control that respect the rights and dignity of their southern neighbors. Therefore, mature migration policies must be able to weigh both approaches and merge them.

Works Cited

    1. Casselman, Ben “Immigration Is Changing Much More Than the Immigration Debate” FiveThirtyEight, 9, July 2014.
    2. Cornelius, Wayne A., and Marc R. Rosenblum. “Immigration and Politics.” Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 8, no. 1, June 2005, pp. 99–119. EBSCOhost.
    3. David Jackson, and USA TODAY. “Republicans Hit Trump over Mexico Comments.” USA Today. EBSCOhost,
    4. de Haas, Hein, and Simona Vezzoli. “Migration and Development on the South–North Frontier: A Comparison of Mexico–US and Morocco–EU Cases.” Journal of Ethnic & Migration Studies, vol. 39, no. 7, Aug. 2013, pp. 1041–1065. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/1369183X.2013.778019.
    5. Migration Policy Institute (MPI) tabulation of data from U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 and 2017 American Community Surveys (ACS).
    6. Passel, Jeffrey S. “Demography of Immigrant Youth: Past, Present, and Future.” Future of Children, vol. 21, no. 1, Spring 2011, pp. 19–41. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1353/foc.2011.0001.
    7. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) 2016, pp.2–3, n.5.
    8. Zong, Jie and Jeanne Batalova. 'Mexican Immigrants in the United States.' Migration Policy Institute (2017).
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