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Threat of punishment doesn’t dissuade illegal immigration, new study shows

The study, by Professor Emily Ryo, relied on data from the 2007 and 2008 Mexican Migration Project and Becoming Illegal Survey. (Photo/courtesy of USC Gould School of Law)

Neither the threat of arrest nor punishment may significantly deter Mexicans from trying to enter the United States illegally, according to a new USC Gould School of Law study that was published in the August issue of the American Sociological Review.

The study examined a variety of economic and noneconomic factors that may influence decisions to migrate illegally from Mexico to the United States. It found that people’s perceptions of the certainty of arrest and the severity of punishment are not significant determinants of their intentions to migrate illegally, once other relevant factors are taken into account.

“This suggests that perhaps there is very little that immigration enforcement alone might be able to do to affect changes in people’s intentions to migrate illegally,” said study author Emily Ryo, USC Gould professor and a research fellow at Stanford Law School’s Program in Law and Society.

Titled “Deciding to cross: norms and economics of unauthorized migration,” the study relied on data from the 2007 and 2008 Mexican Migration Project (MMP) and Becoming Illegal Survey (BIS).

MMP is a unique source of data that enables researchers to track patterns and processes of contemporary Mexican migration to the United States. Each year, a random sample of 150 to 200 households is drawn from a selected number of communities in Mexico and interviewed during the winter months. The BIS is an individual survey of 15- to 65-year-old men from these households who work or intend to work in Mexico or the United States in the next year. More than 1,600 men participated in the BIS.

“If you ask an average person, why are there so many unauthorized migrants in the U.S., the typical story that you might get is something like this: People are looking for better jobs, better economic opportunities — for themselves and their families — and our immigration enforcement just isn’t tough enough to stop them; so, here they are,” Ryo said. “But this conventional story misses a critical point because economic incentives alone typically do not induce otherwise law-abiding people to violate the law. And my study shows that unauthorized migrants are no different.”

Ryo found that while cost-benefit calculations, such as perceptions of job availability in Mexico and dangers of crossing the border, play a significant role in people’s decisions about whether to enter the United States illegally, noneconomic factors matter as well.

“For example, perceptions about the legitimacy of U.S. legal authority, the morality of violating U.S. immigration laws and social norms on illegal border crossings are significantly related to people’s intentions to migrate illegally,” she said.

According to the study, one of the strongest noneconomic determinants of intentions to migrate illegally is whether people have friends or family members who have tried to cross illegally into the United States.

“Communities with a long history and high prevalence of out-migration might have a culture of migration and, for many young men, migration can be seen as a rite of passage,” Ryo said.

She also found that the odds of intending to migrate illegally were more than doubled for individuals who believed that Mexicans have a right to be in the United States without the U.S. government’s permission.

Interestingly, the vast majority — 78 percent — of people said it is not okay to disobey the law when one disagreed with it. However, 55 percent said that disobeying the law is sometimes justified.

“This study offers insights into how unauthorized migrants justify their violation of U.S. immigration law, and how such justifications might make noncompliance with this particular law possible among otherwise law-abiding individuals,” Ryo said. “People generally see themselves as moral beings who want to do the right thing as they perceive it.”

In a companion project in which Ryo carried out group interviews with unauthorized migrants and migrants who were about to illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border, she found that the individuals viewed themselves as moral, law-abiding people who respected national borders, despite their violation of U.S. immigration laws.

“This is because they see their decision to cross illegally as an affirmation of their moral obligation 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 in their community,” Ryo said.

The American Sociological Review study, which comes at a pivotal moment for immigration — as the Obama administration has vowed change on the immigration front and the U.S. Senate recently passed an immigration reform bill — has important policy implications, Ryo said.

“My findings, for example, suggest that one way to reduce unauthorized migration, insofar as that is the desired goal, could be to reallocate some of our current enforcement resources to increasing our investment in employment-generating economic development of key sending communities, which might make staying at home both an economically viable as well as a morally acceptable option for prospective migrants,” she said.

Another policy implication relates to her findings on would-be unauthorized migrants’ perceptions of legitimacy, or lack thereof, of the U.S. immigration system.

“Again, insofar as greater compliance with the law is the goal, one way to achieve that goal in the long run might be through enhancing perceptions of legitimacy of the U.S. immigration system,” Ryo said.

There are a number of ways in which prospective unauthorized migrants view the U.S. immigration system as not operating fairly and neutrally and, thus, functioning illegitimately, she added. For example, one widespread perception is that there is racial bias.

“This is not surprising given that racial profiling in immigration enforcement under certain circumstances is a legally sanctioned practice under Fourth Amendment jurisprudence,” she said. “Countering these kinds of widespread perceptions of racial bias among prospective migrants would require, at a minimum, a careful reconsideration of these kinds of racial profiling practices.”

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Threat of punishment doesn’t dissuade illegal immigration, new study shows

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