June 14, 2013 | By Dina Smeltz

Crossing the Line

By Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura

With a vote of 84-15, the Senate has voted to take up S.744 (Comprehensive Immigration Reform) for floor debate. One of the issues central to that debate is border security and the fate of the estimated eleven million unauthorized immigrants currently residing in the United States. While there is an ample amount of information about who unauthorized immigrants are in the demographic sense (for a broad overview, see this January piece from the Pew Hispanic Center), two recent studies from the University of Arizona focus on the effectiveness of current border controls based on interviews with recent deportees.

What makes these two surveys interesting—and valuable for policymakers—is what they tell us about the motivations of unauthorized immigrants. Rather than the stereotypical image of a young migrant worker with no attachments to the US, the surveys show that these unauthorized immigrants have strong ties of family and employment in the US.

Surveying the Unauthorized

The first study was published by the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, with funding from the Ford Foundation. From 2010-2012, a team of researchers from the United States and Mexico conducted interviews with 1,113 deportees about their experiences crossing the border, what ties they have to the US, and their experience with the deportation process. The interviews took place in Mexico at migrant shelters and at ports of entry immediately following deportation including Tijuana and Mexicali, Baja, California; Nogales, Sonora; Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua; Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas and Mexico City – in 2011, two-thirds of all repatriations to Mexico were in these six cities. The report states that the researchers used “a spatial sample to ensure external validity, and researchers did not ask for volunteers, but solicited participants individually at shelters and ports of entry. The report results are unweighted and therefore can only speak directly to the people surveyed.”

The second survey was conducted by researchers with the National Center for Border Security and Immigration (BORDERS) and supported by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Bilingual interviewers surveyed 1,000 detainees at the Tuscon Coordination Center with the assistance of the Border Patrol in August 2012; the survey and sampling plan was designed with input from the DHS Office of Immigration Statistics and the Border Patrol. Each interviewee was first read a statement explaining the interview process and assuring confidentiality of responses. They were also assured that the interviewers did not work for the Border Patrol, that survey results would not be shared with the Border Patrol, and “would not influence legal or administrative outcomes.”

Unexpected Demographics and Ties: Work and Family Are Main Migration Draws

The surveys cover a lot of ground, but there were a few striking findings. First, the surveys present a different picture of deportees than the commonly held view that they are mostly seasonal workers and young single men. The large majority are men; that assumption holds. But the average age in the CLAS study was 31 years old, with eight years of formal education and a median household income of $280/month before attempting to cross the border. In fact, more than half were employed before deciding to leave Mexico. The BORDERS survey found similar demographics, with average age of 29 and eight years of education.

Both studies demonstrate the degree to which migrants are tied to the US by work and family. The CLAS study found:

  • three-quarters (74%) of the respondents had previously lived or worked in the US;
  • half (51%) have at least one family member who is a US citizen;
  • one in four (22) has a child under the age of 18 with US citizenship; and
  • a quarter (28%) said they considered the US their home.

In the BORDERS survey, the top reasons for crossing the border included:

  • seeking work (65%);
  • returning to a job in the US (51%);
  • reuniting with family (24%) or friends (21%);
  • educational study (13%)

Many Say They Would Attempt to Cross Again

Despite their apprehension, many in both studies admitted it was likely they would try to cross again. The CLAS survey found that respondents typically had attempted to cross the border three times in their life and had been apprehended once previously. Three in four relied on a smuggler, known as “coyotes,” and paid a median of $2,500 for this service. The majority said they planned on crossing again in the future (56%); one in four (25%) said they planned on crossing again within the next week, casting some doubt on the effectiveness of deterrence in border enforcement policy.

The BORDERS study found that 43 percent of the interviewees planned to cross into the US again, motivated primarily by family and work. As the report noted, “many detainees indicated that being with their family was more important than any consequences they might experience if apprehended while crossing.”  Many had little knowledge of the legal options to migrate, according to the report, though attempting to cross the border legally is not really an option for many in this group. Although many of these respondents had a family member already living in the US with American citizenship which could allow for legal entry, it would take at least a decade for that visa application to be processed if they met the appropriate criteria (and many would not).

The United States Border Patrol has doubled in size in the past seven years, thanks to ever-increasing funding; the Migration Policy Institute details this and more in their encyclopedic study of US efforts on immigration enforcement. In this regard, the government has responded to public opinion: large majorities in several surveys support increasing border security and enforcement to prevent unauthorized immigration. But even with over 20,000 Border Patrol agents, many unauthorized immigrants would  risk getting caught again to reunite with their families or for work.  


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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