- Confronting the Risks of Undocumented Migration on the U.S.-Mexico Border and Beyond
Immigrant stories well grounded in field research can greatly illuminate the multiple and unintended effects of U.S. border policies that intend to curb the flow of undocumented migrants from Mexico. At a time when debate on immigration is increasingly polarized, descriptive and objective studies focused on how migrants are affected by and react to border controls provide a perspective often missing in political discourse. Since 1993, when the U.S. government began to militarize the U.S.-Mexico border by implementing Operation Blockade in El Paso, Texas, scholars have paid increasing attention to the effects that tightened borders have had on the flow and routes of unauthorized migration, the human costs of the policy, and the strategies undocumented immigrants use in the effort to continue crossing into the United States. The dramatic escalation of migrant deaths on the U.S.-Mexico border, along with the violation of human rights because of harsh immigration policies on the border and in the interior of the United States, have renewed interest by both scholars and citizens in the human consequences of border enforcement.
Seventeen years after Operation Blockade was launched, creating a new model for border control, there is consensus among migration specialists on at least three consequences of tougher enforcement. First, new methods—including the deployment of high-tech sensors and unmanned [End Page 251] aircraft, the construction of a seven-hundred-mile fence, and a dramatic increase in the number of border-patrol officers—have not significantly deterred undocumented migrants, but they have increased the cost and risk of trying to cross the border, with a sharp rise in the number of people who die in the process. Second, migrants have become increasingly dependent on professional coyotes to cross the border, increasing the profits of human smugglers. Third, because of higher human risks and financial costs, migrants who succeed in crossing the border tend to lengthen their stay in the United States, thus increasing the population of undocumented Mexicans in the country. 1
The books by David Spener, Lynnaire Sheridan, and Judith Hellman reviewed here not only support this assessment with empirical evidence but also expand inquiry into the effects of border enforcement in new and original ways. First, they all examine risk-management strategies that undocumented migrants use to deal with border controls and to avoid detection after entering the United States. Where Spener provides a detailed account of the world of clandestine migrants and their coyotes, and the perils and strategies of crossing into South Texas, Sheridan documents how migrants assess similar risks when crossing the border in San Diego and Arizona, as well as the economic, social, and cultural resources they mobilize to confront those risks. Hellman's focus is somewhat broader: the economic and social benefits that, in the minds of rural and working-class urban Mexicans, outweigh the risks of migration. Together, all three studies build on the analysis of Massey, Durand, and Malone, who conceptualize migration as a risk-management strategy by which low-income families seek to diversify their livelihood. 2 Spener, Sheridan, and Hellman [End Page 252] add to this paradigm by revealing the decisions that undocumented migrants take to manage the perils of tough border enforcement, a matter with important implications for immigration policy.
The books under review also pay special attention to the cultural dimension of migration, namely the ideas, beliefs, traditions, and institutionalized social practices that commonly inform Mexicans' decisions to try to migrate to the United States. The economic and social factors that drive migration at individual, household, and community levels...