The increase of human smugglers transporting unauthorized immigrants to the United States is likely a consequence of more effective border enforcement. Although the Obama administration has de‐emphasized internal immigration enforcement after 2011, his administration has ramped up enforcement along the border – focusing on increasing the legal and economic costs imposed on unlawful immigrants apprehended while trying to enter the United States. Since border and internal enforcement are substitutes, the shift in resources and increase in penalties for unlawful crossers does not represent a decrease in total enforcement. Matt Graham from the Bipartisan Policy Center wrote an excellent breakdown of the reprioritization of immigration enforcement, the increase in penalties, and how it has deterred unauthorized immigration.
The price of smuggling is an indication of the effectiveness of immigration enforcement along the border. The first effect of increased enforcement is to decrease the supply of human smugglers. As the supply of human smugglers decreases, the price that remaining human smugglers can charge increases. Before border enforcement tightened in the early 1990s, migrants typically paid about $725 (2014 dollars). Currently, unauthorized migrants from Central America are paying around $7500.
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.