Save the Children. Open the Border

They call it “La Bestia” (“the beast”) or “el tren de los desconocidos” (“the train of the unknown”). Every year, an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 immigrants, as many as 1,500 per day, climb on top of trains and travel from their countries of origin—mostly Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador—and through Mexico in an effort to reach the United States.

The trip is dangerous. Not only are individuals put at risk for injuries from branches, falls, and other accidents while trying to stay on top of train moving at high rates of speed. They face other risks as well. Migrants on the trains are frequent targets for robbery (when one is illegally passing through a territory, one isn’t inclined to go to the authorities for help). Many passengers on this “train of the unknowns” are particularly vulnerable groups, poor women and, in many cases, unaccompanied children. Women are raped at an alarming rate. Drug cartels (and local police) have taken to kidnapping migrants and holding them for ransom, extorting as much as $2,500 from a victim’s family.

Last summer, the issue of immigration, particularly the problem of unaccompanied minors entering the United States, hit the front page of every popular media outlet in the country. In response to the some 70,000 children entering the U.S. illegally every year, the Obama Administration along with Customs and Border Patrol, started a pulbic-relations blitz in Latin America and worked with the Mexican government to seal the southern Mexican border. The message was clear: Don’t come to United States illegally; don’t send you children. The campaign highlighted the dangers of illegal crossing, and stated that offenders would not receive amnesty and ultimately would be deported.

Despite these messages and a more difficult passage into Mexico, the immigrants keep coming. People take the risk of being robbed, raped, and killed to try and get to the States. Moreover, individuals are willing to place their children, often alone, in very risky situations. The question for us to ask is: why?

Well, we don’t have to look very far. The individuals are often the poorest of the poor, those who cannot afford to pay a trafficker to set up their crossing (hence climbing on top of a speeding train). Not only are they poor, but they have little hope their situation will improve. In fact, Latin America accounts for one-third of global homicides, even though it contains only eight percent of the world’s population. San Pedro Sula, Honduras, for example, is the deadliest city on the planet. The city had 171.2 homicides per every 100,000 residents last year. As a means of comparison, Detroit, the deadliest city in America, had 44.87 homicides per 100,000 residents during the same period.

It’s not difficult to see why individuals facing these circumstances would want to leave — “legality” or “going through the process” be damned.

U.S. policies aren’t helping the issue in Latin and South America. In fact, they’re making the problem worse. Many illegal immigrants, when caught, are no longer simply being deported or granted some sort of visa status in the U.S. Instead, they’re being sent to jail for “illegal entry” or solely for illegally crossing the border. In fact, the number of unlawful entry convictions increased 28-fold between 1992 and 2012, from 690 convictions, to 19,463.

This decision to jail immigrants has serious consequences, one of which is to exacerbate the very problem it’s supposed to combat. As economist David Skarbek points out in his recent book, Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System, individuals in the prison system frequently join gangs as a means of protection in prison. Once an individual is in a gang, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to get out.

Once these individuals in jail are eventually deported and return to their home countries, the gang orders don’t magically disappear. Instead, human and narco-trafficking become established and expand in these countries with weak rule of law and limited resources. The result is poverty, murder, and entire populations of people clamoring to save themselves and their children from gangs. This, in turn, leads to more people entering illegally. The cycle perpetuates.


In an interview with Vice News, El Salvadorian immigrant Sonia Hernandez, who was being detained and faced deportation, captured this sentiment:

I want to take out my heart and tell the judge I didn’t come here… [to] break the laws of this country. I did it because I care about my children.

Hernandez’s 13-year-old daughter explained what she faced back in her homeland:

One of the gang members told me he was going to have sex with [rape] me.

Based on this established cyclical pattern, the current U.S. policies of jailing and deporting illegals not only fails to address the underlying problem, but makes the situation worse.

A solution with more promise? A more porous, more open border. Make it easier for immigrants to come. Rather than focusing on how to “keep people out,” focus on saving lives. Imposing caps on the number of individuals allowed to enter the United States as asylum seekers or refugees, and enforcing a difficult, if not impossible legal immigration process not only prompts individuals to enter illegally, but it puts countless lives in danger. As noted above, these policies generate consequences that not only fail to stop illegal immigration, but perpetuate it.

Other analysts have put forth additional arguments in favor of a more open immigration policy (see here, here, and here), which I won’t address in this post. But for those concerned with issues like human rights, combating poverty, and relieving human suffering (a project the U.S. government dedicates billions of dollars to every year), lifting immigration restrictions makes infinitely more sense than current policy. By allowing for more immigration, men won’t be put into jail for simply crossing an imaginary line. As a result, these men won’t join prison gangs. If they aren’t deported, violence will fall (or at least not increase as much) in their country of origin. This in turn would reduce the incentive for individuals to flee. For those who still feel that crossing the border is their only option, they would no longer need to worry as much about their children being raped or recruited into gangs.

Until immigration policies are seriously reformed, we can continue to expect a major influx of illegal immigrants. No wall, PR campaigns, or threat of jail time is going to stop it. As opposed to focusing on them, perhaps an internal focus is what’s needed.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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