Tag: Border Patrol

Family Reunification and Other Explanations for the Border Surge of Unaccompanied Children

There are two main issues surrounding the increase in the migration of unaccompanied children (UAC) and asylum seekers in recent years that have recently reached crisis proportions.  The first is the treatment of those children who are apprehended by Border Patrol and how American policy is reacting to the surge. 

The second is explaining why UACs are coming.  Below I will lay out three different theories that attempt to explain the surge in UACs.  Each theory has some merit and I present evidence in support and opposition to each one.  

First Explanation: Family Reunification

Immigration by stages and family reunification could explain part of the UAC border surge.  Stage migration works like this:  First, the single breadwinner of the family immigrates to find work in the United States.  After getting established, finding employment, and figuring out how to function in his new country, the initial immigrant then sends for the rest of his family.  Sometimes the initial immigrant’s spouse will come alone while leaving the children in the care of extended family.  Often times, after the second parent is working, they will then have the funds to send for the children to join them in the United States. 

This pattern of family separation through stage immigration and eventual reunification is a desperate strategy undertaken by poor people who don’t have any other options.  Regardless, it explains part of the surge in unaccompanied children who are joining their unlawful immigrant parents and families who previously arrived in the United States.

Smuggling prices for unauthorized immigrants from Central America are higher than for unauthorized Mexican immigrants.  Mexicans pay about $4000 to be smuggled to the United States by land and $9000 to be smuggled in by sea.  Guatemalans pay about $7000.  But since Guatemalans are so much poorer than Mexicans, on average, it can take many more years for them to save for the trip, often meaning that both parents are more likely to come to the United States first to work and send money back to Guatemala to finance the sending of their children.  As a result, many of the children would come alone. 

The price of human smuggling has risen substantially due to increased U.S. border enforcement.  The higher price of migrating and the relative poverty of Central American migrants mean that families are more likely to be separated during the migration process, explaining part of the surge in UACs from Central America.  Ironically, increased border enforcement and crackdowns on human smugglers have probably caused more family separation and eventual reunification – partly explaining the scale of the current UAC migration.

Unaccompanied Minors Crossing the Border–The Facts

Over the last few weeks, the media has been abuzz with stories of unaccompanied minors coming across the border and being apprehended by Customs and Border Protections (CBP).  Many of the facts on the ground are fuzzy because we do not have a complete picture of all of the relevant data.  In this post I will lay out several of the relevant facts as they exist.  I will present information that focuses on how the detention facilities are overwhelmed but that it is less likely that border patrol agents on the border are actually overwhelmed.

Background

The unlawful immigration of minors is not a new phenomenon, although it has increased recently.  CBP released this table showing the large increase in the number of unaccompanied minors that have been encountered (different from “apprehended”):

Country Fiscal Year 2009 Fiscal Year 2010 Fiscal Year 2011 Fiscal Year 2012 Fiscal Year 2013 Fiscal Year 2014
El Salvador 1,221 1,910 1,394 3,314 5,990 9,850
Guatemala 1,115 1,517 1,565 3,835 8,068 11,479
Honduras 968 1,017 974 2,997 6,747 13,282
Mexico 16,114 13,724 11,768 13,974 17,240 11,577
Total: 19,418 18,168 15,701 24,120 38,045 46,188

Source: http://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-border-unaccompanied-children

The government has not released data for the total number of unauthorized immigrants encountered or apprehended so far in 2014.  As a result, I have to use 2013 data to see how big of an addition unaccompanied minors made to apprehensions of unlawful immigrants in that year.  Encounters and apprehensions are not synonymous in Border Patrol statistics but they are close enough for a back of the envelope calculation.

Guest Worker Visas Can Halt Illegal Immigration

There is a trade off between the number of lower skilled guest worker visas and the number of unauthorized immigrants.  More lower skilled guest workers means fewer unauthorized immigrants.  Fewer guest workers mean more unauthorized immigrants.  We just have to look back to the Bracero program to see this relationship.   

The number of removals and returns is an approximation of the stock of the unauthorized immigrant population and flows.  Many, but not all, of those removed or returned during this time period were funneled into guest worker visas.  Beginning with the adoption of the Bracero program and the H2 visa in the early 1950s, there was a flurry of removals and returns whereby many migrants were funneled into the guest worker visa programs.  After that, my thesis is that the large numbers of work visas decreased the number of apprehensions by shrinking the pool of unauthorized immigrants and channeling future ones into the legal system.  After Bracero was ended in the mid-1960s, the number of removals and returns began a steady increase along with an increase in the stock and flow of unauthorized immigrants deprived of their previous lawful means of entry and work.

Ending the lower skilled guest worker visa programs preceded the modern increase in unauthorized immigration. 

Source: Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Naturalization Service annual reports.

The more low skilled guest workers there are, the fewer unauthorized immigrants there are to deport. 

One legal worker on a visa seems to be worth more than one unauthorized immigrant worker – meaning a pretty favorable trade off in numbers for those concerned about the numbers of immigrants.  In 1954, 1 guest worker visa replaced 3.4 unauthorized immigrants, meaning that one legal worker seemed to be equal to more than three illegal workers.  If an important goal of a lower skilled guest worker visa is to eliminate the American economic demand for unauthorized immigrants, relatively few guest worker visas can replace a much larger unauthorized immigrant population.

Increases in Border Patrol and border enforcement are also unnecessary to get this result.  By allowing unauthorized immigrants to get the work visas, by not punishing them or employers for coming forward, and by making work visas available to those who want to enter, almost all future and current unauthorized immigrants can be funneled into the legal market without a large increase in enforcement.  This was the policy followed in the 1950s and it appears to have worked:   

Sources: Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Naturalization Service annual reports.

This chart zooms in on the 1942 through 1965 time period when the Bracero guest worker visa was in effect:

Sources: Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Naturalization Service annual reports.

This is not to say that Bracero was a perfect program and that it should be replicated today.  There were a lot of problems with it, namely that migrants were constrained in changing employers, migrants were limited to working only in agriculture, and the work visa was annual – all issues that should be fixed in any new lower skilled guest worker visa adopted.  A lower skilled guest worker visa is indispensable to vastly reduce or even halt unauthorized immigration. 

Obama’s Deportation Numbers: Border and Interior Immigration Enforcement Are Substitutes, Not Complements

It’s become clear over the last few months that something very funny is going on with immigration enforcement statistics (here, here, and here).  The data generally show that interior enforcement, what most people commonly think of as “deportations” (but also includes I-9, Secure Communities, and E-Verify), has declined as a percentage of total removals.  Many of the removals appear to be unlawful immigrants apprehended by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and then turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for removal – a trend that began in 2012 and accelerated in 2013.  That transfer makes it appear as if there was more internal enforcement than there really was.  The administration is therefore deporting an increasing number of recent border crossers and a decreasing number of unlawful immigrants apprehended in the interior. 

It appears, then, that President Obama’s reputation for severe interior enforcement was earned for 2009, 2010, and 2011 but is somewhat unjustified in 2012 and 2013.  The Bipartisan Policy Center has an excellent report on the enormous court backlogs and other issues that have arisen due to interior immigration enforcement.  I’m waiting for additional information from a FOIA request before wading into the data surrounding the interior versus border removals controversy because we do not have data on internal enforcement numbers prior to 2008.    

Interior enforcement is only part of the government’s immigration enforcement strategy and must also be looked at as a component of broader immigration enforcement that includes border enforcement.

The Border Security Obsession

Immigration is mainly an economic phenomenon, but the politics surrounding reform are mired in border security talking points. The soon-to-be-voted-on Hoeven-Corker amendment to the immigration reform bill will double the size of border patrol and place an absurd array of technology and fencing on the southern border. The Hoeven-Corker amendment is a political necessity, but a policy absurdity.

Securing the border is largely a rhetorical excuse to oppose reforming the immigration system. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said of the Hoeven-Corker amendment that, “I do not think this amendment is going to touch many of the objections that I spoke about.” The Hoeven-Corker amendment militarizes the border to an embarrassing degree–replacing the Statue of Liberty’s promise of liberty to all with a wall facing southward.   

How will this $5-billion-a-year security buildup be financed? The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates enormous fiscal gains from immigration reform–reducing deficits from between $700 billion and $1.2 trillion over the next 20 years. Spending large portions of those anticipated savings on more security will convince some Republicans to vote for the entire immigration bill, but it won’t solve the unlawful immigration problem going forward. Fixing the legal immigration system will. 

Allowing more legal low-skilled guest workers will channel would-be unlawful immigrants into the legal market. Immigrants won’t cross illegally if they can come in legally through a checkpoint. Shrinking the size of the unlawful immigrant population by channeling most of them into the legal system will help Border Patrol weed out the criminals, national security threats, and sick people from the vast majority of willing peaceful workers. History shows us the way. 

In the early 1950s unlawful immigration was a problem, but Border Patrol did not just punish the immigrants, it funneled them into the legal market. During that time there was a guest worker visa program called Bracero. After arresting unlawful immigrants, Border Patrol drove them down to the Southern border and immediately let them enroll in the Bracero program, allowing them to return to their jobs after taking a few steps over the border and coming back into the U.S. with lawful permission. 

Soon, would-be unlawful immigrants learned they could just enter legally–and they did. Unlawful immigration dropped by more than 90 percent in the following years. If there was a legal immigration option today, expanded to sectors of the economy besides just agriculture, immigrants would overwhelmingly make the same choice.

Today, the immigration enforcement infrastructure already exists to funnel would-be unlawful immigrants into the legal market. The only thing lacking is a functional guest worker visa program. The current immigration reform bill’s guest worker visa program is a complicated mess that is barely better than the current system.  

Allowing additional legal guest workers will accomplish more than spending $5 billion a year on border security.  It will channel peaceful people in the legal immigration system while leaving Border Patrol to deal with the real criminal and national security threats that remain.  Militarizing the border without improving the guest worker visa system risks a repeat of the 1986 Reagan amnesty.

The good portions of this immigration reform bill still outweigh the bad but we cannot afford too many more Hoeven-Corker amendments.

Immigrants Are Attracted to Jobs, Not Welfare

Unauthorized and low skilled immigrants are attracted to America’s labor markets, not the size of welfare benefits.  From 2003 through 2012, many unauthorized immigrants were attracted to work in the housing market.  Housing starts demanded a large number of workers fill those jobs.  As many as 27 percent of them were unauthorized immigrants in some states.  Additionally, jobs that indirectly supported the construction of new houses also attracted many lower skilled immigrant workers.

Apprehensions of illegal crossers on the Southwest border (SWB) is a good indication of the size of the unauthorized immigrant flow into the United States.  The chart below shows apprehensions on the SWB and housing starts in each quarter:

 

Fewer housing starts create fewer construction jobs that attract fewer crossings and, therefore, fewer SWB apprehensions.  The correlation holds before and after the mid-2006 housing collapse. 

What about welfare? 

Here is a chart of the national real average TANF benefit level per family of three from 2003 to 2011 (2012 data is unavailable) and SWB apprehensions:

 

Prior to mid-2006, TANF benefit levels fell while unauthorized immigration rose.  During the housing construction boom, unauthorized immigrants were attracted by jobs and not declining TANF benefits.  After mid-2006, when housing starts began falling dramatically, real TANF benefit levels and unauthorized immigration both fell at the same time.  If unauthorized immigration was primarily incentivized by the real value of welfare benefits, it would have fallen continuously since 2003.   

The above chart does not capture the full size of welfare benefits or how rapidly other welfare programs increased beginning in 2008.  As economist Casey Mulligan explained in his book The Redistribution Recession, unemployment insurance, food stamps (SNAP), and Medicaid benefits increased in value and duration beginning in mid-2008.  Including those would skew welfare benefits upward in 2008 and beyond, but unauthorized immigration inflows still fell during that time.

In conclusion, housing starts incentivize unauthorized immigration while TANF does not. 

The Sequestration Immigration Scare

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has released several hundred unauthorized immigrants from detention in Texas, Florida, Arizona, and Louisiana in preparation for budget cuts as part of the sequestration. The administration has noted that cuts would effectively reduce Border Patrol by about 5,000 agents—down to about 2007 levels of staffing if all of the cuts occur on the Southwest border. 

This reduction in Border Patrol will not unleash a tidal wave of unauthorized immigrants like many claim. Since 1989 the Border Patrol’s appropriations have increased by 750 percent and there are six times more staff today than in 1989. 

Apprehensions of unauthorized immigrants on the border are also near 40 year lows because fewer unauthorized immigrants are trying to enter illegally due to the poor economy. Decreasing the size of the Border Patrol will not do much to increase unauthorized immigration because many would-be immigrants are repelled by high unemployment rates.  

Unauthorized immigration has slowed dramatically because of a lack of economic opportunity in the United States, not because border patrol is larger or more effective. Cuts to Border Patrol, even those that would return its size to the 2007 levels, will not much affect unauthorized immigration.

American unemployment rates and demand for immigrant workers drive unauthorized immigration.  Look at this graph relating border apprehensions and the national unemployment rate:

Apprehensions and Unemployment Rate

The higher the rate of unemployment, the fewer unauthorized immigrants try to enter, and the fewer apprehensions are made.   

Perhaps if you had looked at this graph, you might have thought that the size of the Border Patrol could deter unauthorized immigration:

Apprehensions and Border Patrol Staff on Southwest Border

But if Border Patrol deterred unauthorized immigration, it would probably also deter other illegal activity—like cross border drug seizures. Consider this graph:

Border Patrol Staff and Marijuana Seizures 

Drug seizures have increased along with the size of the Border Patrol. Americans still demand marijuana so increased security results in more marijuana seizures (and more marijuana entering the black market). In contrast, unauthorized immigration is down because there is less American economic demand for their labor. Decreasing the size of the Border Patrol down to 2007 levels will not result in a flood of unauthorized immigration because not as many people want to come here as they did during the housing boom.