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Why Border Police Don’t Deter Migrants


The Border Patrol apprehended twice as many unaccompanied minors trying to enter the United States this year as they did last year. In response to this surge in the apprehension of unaccompanied minors, President Obama is requesting $4 billion from Congress. These funds will be used on new Border Patrol agents, immigration judges, aerial surveillance, and new detention facilities – all designed to speed up deportations of people caught at the border.

Spending $4 billion more on enforcement will not alleviate the situation.

Pouring money into border enforcement has never been successful at deterring the flow of migrants. Professor Wayne Cornelius – who has studied this issue for decades – contends that “tightened border enforcement since 1993 has not stopped nor even discouraged unauthorized migrants from entering the United States.”

Speeding up deportations does nothing to address the root causes of this surge in the arrival of unaccompanied minors from Central America. These youth are fleeing violence and instability in their home countries. If we don’t address these issues, these youth will continue to come.

The United States government is already spending unprecedented amounts of money on immigration law enforcement: the total budget authority for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is $60 billion – one fifth of which goes to Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). Another $4 billion will not make CBP more effective unless there is a fundamental shift in policy.

More funding means more agents and more technology. DHS funds have been used to place increasing numbers of CBP agents along the border. There were over 18,000 CBP agents along the US-Mexico border in 2013, as compared to 2,500 in 1993. The number of agents has increased fairly consistently since 1993, even during those years when fewer migrants were attempting to enter the United States. This constant uptick in the number of CBP agents has made the agency more powerful, but has done little to stem the flow of migrants.

There is little correlation between the number of CBP agents along the border and the number of migrants apprehended. Instead, apprehensions are related to the number of people trying to enter. When a lot of migrants attempt to enter, CBP apprehends a lot of people. When fewer migrants attempt to enter, they capture fewer. These apprehensions also track well with economic changes – when unemployment is low, more people try to enter the United States. When there are no jobs, fewer migrants attempt to enter.

The economic recession in the United States and the accompanying high unemployment rates have meant that fewer people are trying to get into this country. This is evidenced by the fact that there were four times as many apprehensions in 2000 as there were last year. In fact, the 400,000 CBP apprehensions in the Southwest sector last year were the lowest they have been since 1974. With border apprehensions the lowest they have been in 40 years, why would anyone advocate for more CBP agents?

It is true that there are more unaccompanied Central American children crossing the border since 2011 than there have been in years past, yet overall border apprehensions are at a historic low. And, border enforcement spending must be understood in this larger context.

Central Americans have been migrating the United States in large numbers since the United States began meddling intensely in the affairs of their countries in the latter decades of the twentieth century.

Increases in the number of agents along the border does not deter migration. Instead, it makes the passage more difficult and dangerous for those migrants that are determined to enter. If we want to protect children, enhancing the number of CBP agents is a terrible idea.

Processing these 40,000 children requires special resources – both because they are children and because many of them are not from Mexico – where they can be more easily sent back. However, the solution is to develop new and better policies – not to throw more money at border enforcement. It seems hard to believe that an agency that apprehended 1.6 million people in 2000 with half the agents it has today needs additional funding in order to do its job.

There were 1.6 million CBP apprehensions along the US-Mexico border in 2000, when there were 8,5000 agents stationed along that border. Last year, we had 18,000 CBP agents along the border and there were 400,000 apprehensions – of which 40,000 were Central American children. In 2013, the average CBP agent apprehended 22 unauthorized migrants. This is compared to over 300 apprehensions per CBP agent in 1996. With these data, it is hard to make a case for more agents. Instead, it seems it is time to cut back.

A much more viable – and affordable – solution is to place the children in alternative-to-detention programs and provide them with a safe haven while the United States and Central American countries work together to develop solutions to the root causes of this rise in the emigration of children. President Obama could also grant refugee status to these children – a viable option under current laws.

The arrival of 40,000 unaccompanied children in the United States is not the crisis. The crisis is the decision to place these children behind bars, which is a clear violation of international human rights laws. The crisis is also the conditions that drove these children to leave their countries. These are the crises that demand our attention.

Tanya Golash-Boza is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. She is the author of: Race and Racisms: A Critical ApproachYo Soy Negro Blackness in PeruImmigration Nation: Raids, Detentions and Deportations in Post-9/11 Americaand Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States. She blogs at:

Tanya Golash-Boza is the author of: Yo Soy Negro Blackness in PeruImmigration Nation: Raids, Detentions and Deportations in Post-9/11 Americaand Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States. Her new book Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor, and Global Capitalism will be published by NYU Press in 2015.

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