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Illegal immigration isn't just about economics, study says

July 31, 2013|By Emily Alpert

Mexican migrants deciding whether to cross the border illegally are driven not just by economics -- but also by their own beliefs about whether United States immigration laws are legitimate and fairly applied, a new study finds.

The study, published this month in the American Sociological Review, paints a complicated picture of why people choose to enter the U.S. illegally.

Some findings seem unsurprising: Mexican men are more likely to decide to cross into the United States illegally if they think there are few jobs in Mexico, the study shows. Men who think crossing illegally is very dangerous were less likely to say they intend to make the trip.

But economic troubles in Mexico don’t completely explain why some men cross and some don’t, said Emily Ryo, the Stanford Law School research fellow who was the author of the study. The way that would-be-migrants see the law is also important: Mexican men who believe that U.S. immigration rules are unfairly applied were more likely to plan on violating them, she found.

For instance, Mexican men who believe that Mexicans have a right to be in the United States without U.S. government permission were more than twice as likely to plan to cross illegally, the study showed. That belief was especially common among men who thought that Mexicans or immigrants with darker skin were not treated fairly by U.S. immigration enforcement.

When Ryo talked to people who were about to cross the border illegally, she found that many saw the decision as part of their responsibility to their families "to get through situations that were brought on through no fault of their own, such as a crop failure or an economic downturn."

If Mexican migrants also question the fairness of U.S. immigration laws, "it allows them to see this particular law as not worthy of obedience," Ryo said. They see violating the law as justified.

The study also found that people who have friends or family who have tried to cross illegally are much more likely to plan to do the same -- a sign that some communities may have developed a “culture of migration” that makes it a rite of passage for young men, Ryo suggested.

The new study comes as immigration reform legislation is up for debate, thrusting arguments about illegal border crossings back into the spotlight. The bill that has cleared the Senate includes an added $46 billion for border security.

Ryo said her findings suggest that cracking down on immigration enforcement alone may do little to dissuade people from making the trip. Worries about how likely they were to be arrested did not strongly sway Mexican migrants against crossing illegally, she found.

Devoting more resources to creating jobs in Mexican communities that send migrants, as well as countering perceptions that U.S. immigration laws are unfairly enforced, might be alternative strategies, Ryo said.

The study was based on surveys of more than 1,600 men interviewed in Mexican communities, gathered through the Mexican Migration Project. The survey included men ages 15 to 65 who were currently working in Mexico or planning to work in Mexico or the U.S. in the next year.

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