Downstream: Unintended Consequences in U.S. Immigration Policy

Rebecca Frost

28 July 2018

Rafael Alarcón, Douglas Massey, Jorge Durand, and Humberto Gonzalez, the original members of the Mexican Migration Project in 1982 .

Rafael Alarcón, Douglas Massey, Jorge Durand, and Humberto Gonzalez, the original members of the Mexican Migration Project in 1982 .


For decades, the southern border of the United States (U.S.)  has been a powerful force in American political life. Debates about illegal immigration tend to centre on specific actions taken by the U.S. government to crackdown on illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America.

These debates tend to have a strong focus on the impacts these policies have on U.S. soil. It is common to hear stories about conditions at border facilities, the impact of deportation on families living in the U.S., the integration of migrants into the U.S. economy, gang violence in cities like Los Angeles, and the popular appeal of tough immigration policies.  

While much of these conversations focus on how immigration plays out in the U.S., what the U.S. does about immigration has a long history of shaping conditions and incentives south of the border.

The Mexican Migration Project (MMP), a decades-long migration research collaboration between Mexican and American sociologists, describes immigration from Mexico to the U.S. prior to the 1980s as “overwhelmingly cyclical”. Young men from Mexico would go to the U.S. for brief stretches at a time; returning to Mexico between trips. Few people permanently settled in the United States.

In the 1970s, forces in the U.S. would being to disrupt this pattern. In 1973, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), came under the leadership of General Leonard Chapman. According to the reporting of journalist Malcolm Gladwell, Chapman became an instrumental force in vaulting concern about immigration to a prominent position in American political consciousness. He wrote for popular magazines, traveled the country giving speeches, and pushed for legislation that called for tougher measures to prevent people from coming over the border. The MMP describes Chapman’s efforts as succeeding in painting Mexican migration as both a threat to American jobs and taxpayers. According to Gladwell, General Chapman successfully convinced Americans that it had an illegal immigration problem.

The narrative of an invasion from the south had taken hold. Chapman’s agency received more funding from Congress; the politicians seized on the issue for decades to come. President Ronald Reagan in particular was a major contributor to the notion of an urgent posed by immigration. In 1985 he declared illegal immigration a threat to national security. Drastic increases in security measures along the southern border began in 1986 with the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).

As the border tightened, the pattern of Mexican migration changed profoundly. Policymakers hoped that as the cost of migration increased, net migration would decrease. That did not happen. The MMP’s data show that people were just as likely to be successful in entering the U.S. after the increases in spending. However, as the circular migration pattern became too risky for most people, many opted to stay in the U.S. permanently instead of returning home and risking another crossing. The MMP’s work indicates that increased border security increased net migration. It did the opposite of what it was intended to do.

The MMP is a thorough and respected source for sociological data on migration across the southern U.S. border. According to MMP co-founder Douglas Massey, the U.S. government uses their data for analysis because it is of better quality than its own. Despite their reputation of providing quality research and the pattern their data clearly establishes, Massey reports being to told to “take [his] lying statistics and get out here” by members of the U.S. Congress whenever he goes to Capitol Hill to Testify on the subject.

The experience of the Mexican Migration Project serves as an example of how ill-advised immigration policy can exacerbate the problem it set out to solve. It’s an important story because today’s immigration policy runs the risk of falling into the same pattern.

More recent U.S. immigration policy is having similarly unintended consequences. Recent policies around deportation have exacerbated conditions of violence in Central America that cause people to flee to the U.S. In 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The Act dictated that non-U.S, citizens convicted of a crime would be deported to their country of origin. This led to members of gangs that had formed in the United States being deported back to Central America. Most deportees were sent to the so-called “Northern Triangle”; Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. This led to a sharp rise in the intense gang violence that is driving the current rise in migration of Central Americans to the United States and Mexico.

U.S. Government’s termination the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) of 57 000 El Salvadorians and 195 000 Hondurans could make the conditions worse for many in Central America. As a result of this move, TPS recipients face deportation. When they arrive in Central America, they face limited employment opportunities and almost certain interaction with gangs as it is almost impossible to do business in many communities in Central America without interacting with gang members.

It is difficult to predict all of the downstream impacts of the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policies, but some impacts are already becoming apparent. Interviews with Hondurans by Jim Wyss of the Miami Herald indicate that the policy of family separation made some people with families hesitant to attempt the crossing into the United States. However, one of Wyss’ interviews indicated that some people without children still figure they have nothing to lose by attempting the journey to the U.S..

Increased fear of being apprehended at the border has also increased demand for smugglers. Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an expert on organized crime and immigration and professor at George Mason University told CNN in July 2018 that the price for passage from Central America to the United States has jumped from $6000-8000 a few years ago to about $12000 in 2018. She believes that the recent immigration crackdown has strengthened the organized crime network and smugglers that make the region so dangerous in the first place.

Oscar Martinez, an investigative journalist from El Salvador, told a U.S. audience in 2016 “ A lot of journalists used to make coverage of migration [based] on press conferences. I’ve never seen a migrant on a press conference... It's important to understand what governments think, but it's more important to go to the field”. While Maritez was talking more specifically about covering the realities faced by people migrating to the U.S., his point applies more broadly to current practices in U.S. immigration policy.

Both General Chapman’s rhetoric and President Reagan’s policies focused on the perceptions of Mexican Migration in U.S. political consciousness. The narrative that the U.S. was being invaded took hold, and policies reacted to that. Years later, when researchers present evidence that the U.S.’s policies are doing the opposite of what they were supposed to do, members of Congress tell them to “get out”. President Trump has taken drastic actions to curb immigration even though his policies risk exacerbating some of the underlying causes of migration.

These policies are reactions to American attitudes. The U.S. government has consistently failed to account for how its actions can alter conditions south of the border. These policies allow politicians to appeal to voters by saying they have been tough on immigration while entrenching the problems they set out to solve.

Until the U.S. Government legislates immigration by looking at the field and not the press conference, it will not be able to successfully manage immigration along its southern border.