Border wall won’t stop migrants but will increase use of smugglers

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump held a White House press briefing to make a case for his southern border wall with a statement from Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council. As a border patrol agent for 21 years, Mr. Judd told the press, “I can personally tell you … physical barriers … walls actually work.” In support of his assertion, he claimed that areas with physical barriers had exponential decreases in “illegal immigration.”

What Mr. Judd neglected to mention is that Customs and Border Protection measures undocumented migration through the proxy of apprehensions. This is problematic because most immigration scholars regard border apprehensions as a highly imperfect statistical proxy for the volume of undocumented migration. Basically, it isn’t a good measure.

{mosads}Despite Mr. Judd’s anecdotal beliefs, the reality is that the border wall will not stop undocumented migration. As an expert in human trafficking and smuggling, I know the evidence suggests it will simply increase the use and price of smugglers.

Prior to 2006, there were only 83 miles of existing fence or wall along the United States-Mexico border. By 2009, fencing and physical barriers increased to cover 580 miles of the southern border. That is an astounding 598 percent expansion in inanimate border barriers in a relatively short period of time. At present, there are 654 miles of border fencing.

Customs and Border Protection leaders such as Mr. Judd believe that the construction of the border wall has been successful in deterring undocumented migration because while border apprehensions fairly steadily increased from 1990 to 2000, after the border wall was expanded, border apprehensions reached a 10-year low in 2011 with only 327,577 apprehensions along the Southwest border.

Although some attribute the substantial decrease in apprehensions to deterrence from the increased border security and construction of massive border barriers, others contend that this same evidence suggests that, in the wake of increased border security, undocumented migrants may be evading detection through the increased use of smugglers.

The process of undocumented migration to the United States has changed since the 1990s as border enforcement was heightened. Increased border enforcement has been linked to the rising use and cost of smugglers by undocumented migrants.

However, this increase is not mirrored by the reported use of smugglers among the apprehended undocumented migrant population. This is because smuggled undocumented migrants are evading detection more often than non-smuggled undocumented migrants. In addition, as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) recently pointed out, since 2007 the majority of unauthorized immigrants enter the United States not through undocumented border crossings, but as visa overstays.

Along with the increase in demand for smugglers that has coincided with the contemporary tightening of our southern border, there has been an increase in cost. While smuggling costs in 1980-1981 ranged from $150 to $250 for a coyote, costs increased to $700 in 1996 and ranged from between $5,000 to $10,000 in 2000. According to the Department of Homeland Security ENFORCE data, the average annual growth of real smuggling costs was 5.3 percent from 2000-2006. The cost is much lower for apprehended undocumented migrants when compared to data on smuggler cost for not apprehended undocumented migrants. This suggests that those who are smuggled successfully pay larger sums than those who are not.

Data from the Mexican Migration Project suggest that undocumented migrants from Mexico are less likely to use a smuggler (23.2 percent) than undocumented migrants from other countries and on average pay less (mean $558). However, like other undocumented migrants, Mexican undocumented migrants who used a smuggler are less likely to be apprehended by Customs and Border Protection.

Constructing a border wall has not been empirically shown to deter undocumented migration; instead, it displaces crossing methods and increases the use and cost of smugglers. This is dangerous because smugglers have been known to physically and sexually abuse undocumented migrants and even engage in human trafficking.

Given the nexus between human smuggling and human trafficking, legislators should focus on reducing undocumented migrants’ reliance on human smugglers. International migration experts suggest this is an opportune time to shift from a policy of immigration suppression to one of immigration management. Facilitating legal migration would decrease the reliance on smugglers, and granting undocumented migrants legal status likely would increase the rates of return migration.

Ultimately, it is important for Americans to understand that border walls keep undocumented migrants in, not out, and increase the demand for smugglers and their associated criminal networks.

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in criminology, law and society from George Mason University, with expertise in human trafficking and immigration. She serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and is the author of “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium.” Follow her on Twitter @MehlmanOrozco.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Border enforcement Donald Trump Illegal immigration to the United States Mexico–United States border Smuggling

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

More Immigration News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video