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The fundamental flaw of ICE raids to deter immigration

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ICE raids are a show. For immigration hardliners, they are a reality TV version of “The Shield”; for immigrants and immigrant advocates, an “American Horror Story” come to life.  

The official line is that ICE raids are necessary as a deterrent. Would-be immigrants will see the coverage or hear about the raids and change their minds.

This does not work.  

The ICE raids-as-deterrent practice is fundamentally flawed. The reason ICE raids do not work, and why the larger immigration system is broken, is that the root causes of immigration to the United States are ignored. Human movement across borders boils down to push-and-pull factors.  

In the case of the Central American asylum seekers on which these raids are focused, consider the push factors that motivate them to migrate. The Northern Triangle, made up of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, ranks among the most violent countries in the world. The homicide rates in the Northern Triangle and in Venezuela are the highest in the Americas, as well as globally. Drug trafficking, gang violence and anemic state institutions combine to produce desperate situations for inhabitants of this region.

A study from Vanderbilt’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) looked at how insecurity shapes the daily lives of Central Americans. When asked what one’s level of fear of being a victim of homicide is, one-third of respondents replied, “A lot of fear.” Perhaps most telling, one out of three Guatemalans reported keeping their children home from school because of fear of crime.  

The violence of the Northern Triangle is a legacy of the civil wars of the region that saw non-state actors emerge. A lack of institutional infrastructure to act as a counter-balance in addition to a thriving drug trade makes for a powerful set of push factors. What Central American violence looks like on the ground is boys and young men given the choice to join a criminal gang or be killed, girls and women choosing between sexual violence and death, and the day-to-day dodging of extortion and violence. 

The Obama administration considered it in the United States’s best national security interest to address the push factors triggering mass migration from the Northern Triangle. In developing a U.S. Strategy for Engagement of Central America, funds were directed to strengthen governance and security. Over $2 billion were appropriated since the initiation of the program in 2016.  

President Trump has reversed course.  

In June the president made good on his threat of cutting hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to the Northern Triangle. The cutting of aid to these countries only increases the magnitude of the push factors. And the simultaneous hardening of the U.S. and Mexican borders perversely strengthens organized criminal gangs. As Duke University’s Sarah Bermeo notes in writing for Brookings, “With tougher border rules, people fleeing violence are more likely to use traffickers and to pay higher prices, thus providing more resources that strengthen organized criminal groups.”  

The push factors are just too strong, and getting stronger. Migrants are willing to risk the journey and deportation because not making the journey and attempting to get asylum is a death sentence for oneself, one’s spouse or one’s child.  

Then there are the pull factors.

Some would argue that U.S. asylum laws are a magnet. And that the current targets of ICE raids — families who have removal orders — are getting what they deserve. On the face of it, this seems reasonable. The problem is that the asylum process is one of the most broken-down pieces of the immigration policy machinery. Many of the removal orders are as a result of failing to appear in court. Failure to appear in court, however, is largely a result of the bureaucratic failings of asylum applicants not being notified of their court dates, getting the wrong dates, or the order not being sent to the correct address.

The asylum system is set up to provide safe refuge to individuals fleeing persecution. These are people who, all else being equal, except for the persecution piece would not migrate out.  

Are there some folks who may falsely claim to be fleeing persecution? Perhaps, but that is why there is a system in place where asylum seekers can present their case of fear of persecution.  

For those who are not fleeing persecution but seeking out economic opportunity — economic migrants — American employers represent a massive pull.  

The vast majority of immigrants from the mid-20th century to the eve of the Great Recession was that of single, Mexican adults. Here migrants could make more in one hour than they could working a whole day in Mexico.  

The economic calculus is easy for both American employers and immigrant workers. American employers have jobs they need filled and would-be immigrants have an economic need.  

The economic immigration pull is so strong because American employers can hire undocumented persons with impunity. Employer sanctions are the exception, rather than the rule, and American employers make use of informal networks to recruit workers for their orchards, dairy farms, construction sites or landscaping businesses.  

The last major immigration reform was the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).  Until IRCA, there was no mechanism to address the employment pull of immigration. A principal focus of IRCA was to control illegal immigration by curbing the employment pull. In fact, the bill starts with “Employment” in Part A. The theory behind IRCA’s employer sanctions was spot on — fine American employers who hire undocumented workers. Employers would be disincentivized to hired undocumented workers and the flow of workers would wane.  

But the policy output and outcome never matched up. There have been and continue to be some token employer sanctioning. But as an investigative report by the New York Times highlights, in the past year only 11 employers faced criminal charges for employing undocumented persons. During the Obama administration, there was a slight uptick in employer audits, but the resulting sanctions and criminal charges were no match to the deportation numbers of undocumented individuals.  

Employer sanctions are on the books but they are not enforced, at least not in any meaningful way. Beyond the lack of implementation is a lack of political will to mandate stringent workplace regulations that can more reliably ensure undocumented persons are not hired. The electronic verification of government documents (E-Verify) has yet to be adopted as a federal mandate.  

Tackling immigration is deceptively simple — address the root causes of why people come to the U.S., starting with push-pull forces.

The ICE Raid show is not a solution. And beyond not being a solution, these shows exact an exorbitantly high cost, for families, communities and federal resources. Our immigration policies should be about substance, not fear and flash.  

Victoria DeFrancesco Soto is director of civic engagement and a lecturer at The University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs, and faculty affiliate of the Department of Mexican-American and Latino Studies and the Center for Mexican American Studies. Her areas of expertise include immigration, women and politics, political psychology, and campaigns and elections. Follow her on Twitter @DrVMDS.

Tags Central America Donald Trump Human migration ICE Illegal immigration migrant workers

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