In the US immigration reform debate, the “border security first” camp calls for ever harsher punishments for people who enter the United States illegally. But according to a new studyby the University of Southern California, the threat of arrest and even jail time doesn’t significantly deter undocumented Mexican immigrants from trying to cross the border. “This suggests that perhaps there is very little that immigration enforcement alone might be able to do to affect changes in people’s intentions to migrate illegally,” the study’s author, Emily Ryo, told USC News.
The study’s findings echo Human Rights Watch’s own research into prosecutions for illegal entry and reentry, which have skyrocketed over the past 10 years to become the most prosecuted of federal crimes. In researching our report, “Turning Migrants into Criminals,” we found that one of the biggest motivations for people entering the United States illegally was the desire to reunite with family members – a pull so strong that they were willing to take big risks. Over and over, people told me they would have preferred to rejoin their families legally, but felt they had no choice but to break the law, in some cases repeatedly. One mother of two young children, who had already tried and failed to enter three times, told me, “I have not lost the desire to try again.”
The United States needs to reform its immigration law so that it adequately protects the basic human right to family unity. That means creating a path to citizenship for the millions of unauthorized immigrants with strong ties to American families and communities, including those who have been deported. In the meantime, people will continue to risk everything to return to the US. As one man I met in the border city of Tijuana, Mexico, who had recently been deported away from his wife and five children in the United States, told me, “My heart is there. My body is here.”