Mexican Men More Likely to Cross Border if They Feel Immigration Law Is Unjust

As conservative lawmakers push for even harsher border security as part of immigration reform, a new study finds that immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border are motivated less by tough immigration laws and more by their perception that the laws are unjustly applied.


The study, authored by Stanford Law School research fellow Emily Ryo and published in this month’s issue of the American Sociological Review, reveals that Mexican men who violate immigration laws are partly motivated by a belief that the laws are unjust. “It allows them to see this particular law as not worthy of obedience,” she told the Los Angeles Times. The study’s results indicate that those who feel they are treated unfairly by immigration laws have less respect for legal authority. Many respondents believed that dark-skinned immigrants were treated more unfairly by immigration officials than light-skinned immigrants. Ryo also found that fears of arrest or capture do little to deter people from crossing the border.

Ryo concluded 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.” In fact, she surmised that a crackdown on border crossings may actually increase them because migrants may feel unfairly treated and regard U.S. immigration laws with less authority. As she wrote in the study, “continuing efforts by the U.S. government to selectively target and marginalize unauthorized Mexican migrants might thus have the unintended consequence of producing lesser, rather than greater, voluntary deference to U.S. immigration law, as increasing numbers of Mexicans come to question the legitimacy of U.S. legal authority.”

Ryo’s study squares with previous research finding that border security does little to keep people from more attempts to cross the border. Migrants are generally motivated more by jobs and ties to family and friends already within the U.S.

Migrants crossing the border endure numerous ordeals, from extreme heat to rape, abuse, and kidnappings.

Despite this, the government continues to pour resources into border enforcement and criminalize border crossings. In 2012, the Obama administration spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement, more than every other federal law enforcement agency combined. Nevertheless, Republicans continue to call for increased border security. The Senate immigration reform bill appropriates an additional $46 billion for border security, including $30 billion to add 20,000 border agents and the construction of 700 miles of border fence, which will cost $6.5 million per mile. 

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