TRIGGERS FOR MIGRANTS TO ATTEMPT HAZARDOUS BORDER CROSSINGS: Evidence from the Mexico-US crossings

12 Apr 2021

Migrants with fewer years of education and/or from communities struck by adverse and permanent economic shocks are more likely to select hazardous crossing locations as long as the likelihood of evading border enforcement is higher there. That is among the findings of new research by Nancy Chau, Filiz Garip and Ariel Ortiz-Bobea.

Analysing data from 1980 to 2005, when undocumented migration between Mexico and the United States was at its peak, and the deserts of the Tucson sector became a popular crossing location, their study finds that Mexican-US migrants are not distance minimisers: rather, they travel hundreds of miles longer than the minimal distance required to reach their destinations. During this time, a pattern of border enforcement operations targeted safe and traditionally popular migration crossing locations (such as San Diego), effectively raising the relative rewards of crossing hazardous border like Tucson.

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Globally, over 41,000 cases of migrant deaths have been reported since 2014 according to the Missing Migrant Project of the International Organization of Migration. The Mexico-US border is one of the busiest and deadliest migrant crossing locations, where hazardous weather conditions, difficult terrains, and border crimes occur in predictable locations along the border.

To date, research on the determinants of crossing choices by undocumented migrants has been limited. Do crossing choices respond to permanent and idiosyncratic shocks in migrant origin communities, differences in individual circumstances and characteristics, or conditions along the border? Crucially, a better understanding about the pattern of migrant self-selection among crossing locations can be an integral part of border migrant death mitigation strategy.

These are the questions posed by the new study. Among its key findings, the study shows a pattern of border crossing behaviour consistent with negative self-selection at hazardous locations. Specifically, migrants with fewer years of education, and/or from communities struck by adverse and permanent economic shocks are more likely to select hazardous crossing locations as long as the likelihood of evading border enforcement is higher there.

This negative self-selection finding is nuanced, however. Highlighting the differential role played by long-term versus short-run economic prospects at migrant origins, migrants from communities that encounter idiosyncratic import penetration shocks in agriculture, or rainfall shocks that adversely affect agricultural productivity are less likely to select hazardous crossing locations even if their offer high likelihoods of evading border enforcement if migrants are credit-constrained.

The study leverages detailed individual migrant crossing histories available from the Mexican Migration Project (MMP). Using data from 1980 to 2005 when undocumented migration between Mexico and the United States was at its peak, and the deserts of the Tucson sector became a popular crossing location, the study makes three observations:

  • Mexican-US migrants are not distance minimisers. Rather, they travel hundreds of miles longer than the minimal distance required to reach their destinations.
  • A pattern of border enforcement operations (such as Operation Gatekeeper) during this time period targeted safe and traditionally popular migration crossing locations (such as San Diego sector), effectively raising the relative rewards of crossing via hazardous border crossings (such as Tucson).
  • During this period, Mexican households were bombarded with multiple momentous events that led to permanent changes in their income prospects at origin communities, such as multilateral (GATT) and preferential trade agreements (NAFTA, 1994), as well as other temporary shocks such as weather fluctuations, import exposure, and macro-economic crises (such as the Mexican Peso Crisis).

In this context, the study tests the negative selection prediction by feeding MMP crossing choices into alternative-specific conditional logit regressions. The findings confirm that negative permanent income shifts (such as post-NAFTA in communities where agriculture was the mainstay; fewer years of education) compel migrants to choose the Tucson sector over San Diego.

Consistent with the intent of the border enforcement operations at that time, migrants behaved as though they viewed the Tucson sector as a crossing location with a higher risk cum reward profile relative to the historically popular, and the more rigorously enforced border sector in San Diego. Interestingly, this pattern of negative selection disappeared after 2008, when the Secure Fence Act reinforced border enforcement in the Tucson sector.

As a central takeaway from this study, efforts to mitigate against migrant deaths should take note that adverse permanent economic shocks can indeed serve as precursors to hazardous crossing choices, but only when existing border enforcement intensities selectively target traditionally safe and popular crossing locations.

Nancy Chau, Filiz Garip and Ariel Oritiz-Bobea. 2021. ‘On the Triggers of Hazardous Border Crossing: Evidence from the Mexican-US Border.’ Cornell University.

Nancy Chau

hyc3@cornell.edu