Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · July 17, 2002

Costly Border Build-Up Has Not Reduced Number Of Unauthorized Immigrants In United States

Some Success: Crossing Locations Have Shifted, Apprehension Rates Up

SAN FRANCISCO, California, July 17, 2002 – Despite an eight-year effort, and a cost of more than $2.5 billion annually, increased enforcement along the U.S.-Mexican border has failed to reduce unauthorized immigration, according to a report released today by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). The build-up has accomplished some secondary goals – driving migrants to cross at more remote locations and increasing the likelihood of apprehension – but it has also produced unintended consequences, including a sharp increase in the number of deaths at the border.

While border enforcement efforts are a key element of national security strategy in the wake of September 11, the border build-up actually began in 1994 with the goal of reducing the nation’s unauthorized population. The study, Holding the Line: The Effect of the Recent Border Build-up on Unauthorized Immigration, is the most comprehensive analysis, to date, of that strategy. It includes an exhaustive review of available data in Mexico and the United States and new information gathered from focus groups and a community survey.

Authors Belinda Reyes, Hans Johnson, and Richard Van Swearingen find that the total number of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States increased substantially in the mid to late 1990s – coinciding with the period of increased enforcement – and now stands between 7 and 9 million. “Overall, the picture is one of a large and rapidly growing population of unauthorized immigrants in the United States,” says Johnson, a demographer and PPIC research fellow.

Although the authors found a small decline (1%) in the probability of a first migration to the United States in the late 1990s, they also saw an increase (6%) in the probability of migration for experienced border-crossers during the same period. Moreover, unauthorized immigrants are staying longer once they arrive in the United States. Data from a 1992 survey in Mexico indicate that of the people who moved to the United States in the two years prior to the survey, 30 percent returned to Mexico within a year. By 1997, this proportion declined to 22 percent. By the time of the Mexican 2000 Census, only 11 percent returned to Mexico within a year.

“While some migrants decided not to cross, others stayed longer once they got here. On balance we see an increase in unauthorized immigration during the period of increased enforcement,” says Reyes, an economist and PPIC research fellow. “Ultimately, we find that economic opportunities in the United States and Mexico have a far stronger effect on unauthorized immigration than does heightened enforcement.”

While border build-up has not achieved its primary goal, it has won some tactical successes. In particular, the policy doubled the proportion of immigrants apprehended at the border. Apprehensions grew from about 15 percent of male migrants in 1992 to more than one-third in 1998. In addition, the strategy changed the crossing places of migrants from urban areas such as San Diego and El Paso to more remote and less-populated locations. Finally, the policy vastly increased the average costs associated with crossing the border, from $500 in 1993 to $1,000 in 1998 according to one survey.

However, the strategy has had serious side effects. Most notably, migrant deaths at the border grew substantially in the late 1990s, reaching a 15-year peak (367 deaths) in 2000. Migrants are also now more likely to die from environmental causes, probably as a result of the change in crossing locations. In fiscal year 2000, the Border Patrol tracked 135 deaths from exposure to heat and 92 deaths from drowning, up from nine exposure deaths and 48 drownings in 1994. The build-up has also created a thriving black market for smugglers (coyotes): More than 89 percent of male migrants reported using a coyote in 1997, compared to 70 percent in 1993.

The authors note that recent reports of declines in apprehensions and deaths at the border are consistent with their finding that economic opportunity in the United States is the primary driver of unauthorized migration. “We expect that during a recession, the number of people coming to the United States in search of illegal employment will decline,” says Reyes.

The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy through objective, nonpartisan research on the economic, social, and political issues that affect the lives of Californians. The Institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. David W. Lyon is President and CEO of PPIC.