Is Border Enforcement Effective? What We Know and What It Means

Edward Alden
Date of Publication: 
October, 2017
Source Organization: 

For the first time, evidence is now available to settle the ongoing debate between the "enforcers," i.e. people who believe that strengthened border enforcement can significantly reduce illegal immigration, and their critics, who believe that economic opportunity would continue to drive illegal migration despite the billions of dollars spent on border security. According to the author of this essay, the enforcers have won the argument. The author devotes much attention to a new methodology developed by the Institute for Defense Analysis under contract with Department for Homeland Security for measuring success on the border. Moving beyond the flawed metric of border apprehensions, the Institute was able to estimate the number of illegal entries - both on land and in the air - that were undetected by the border patrol. "Unauthorized migration across the southern border has plummeted, with successful illegal entries falling from roughly 1.8 million in 2000 to just 200,000 by 2015."  This sharp drop has less to do with any increase in the rate of apprehension and more with the power of deterrence, as penalties for illegal entry have grown more severe.  The author, however, believes that the enforcement strategy has reached a "point of diminishing returns," and questions the value of additional major investments, such as the construction of a wall on the southern border. He puts forth three arguments to support his point of view: first, most arrivals these days are not economic migrants from Mexico but Central American asylum seekers, a population that the U.S. must treat differently under international law; second, the majority of new additions to the undocumented population are coming from people overstaying their visas; and finally, among Mexican migrants, a growing percentage of repeat border crossers are parents seeking to unify with children in the United States, "a population that is far harder to deter than young economic migrants." (American Immigrant Policy Portal)

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Alden, E. (2017). Is Border Enforcement Effective? What We Know and What it Means. Journal on Migration and Human Security, 5(2), 481–490.