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Mexico: Crimes at the Border

Wayne Cornelius

Wayne Cornelius

Wayne A. Cornelius founded the University of California at San Diego's Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies in 1979 and directed it from 1979 to1994 and again from 2001 to the present.

Described by The Nation magazine as “the nation’s foremost academic expert on Mexican migration,” Wayne A. Cornelius founded the University of California at San Diego's Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies in 1979 and directed it from 1979 to1994 and again from 2001 to the present. He is also the founding director of UCSD's Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, established in 1999, which conducts comparative research on international migration and refugee movements. Here, he talks with FRONTLINE/World producers about the new methods migrants are using to get into the country and the growth of human smuggling organizations, one of the unintended consequences of border fortification.

Q: In talks with the heads of U.S. border protection agencies, asking how many people are coming across the border illegally, they all say that they don’t know. What does your research indicate?

A: Well, what they really don’t know is how many people are coming across and not getting caught, not getting detected at all. Our research shows that fewer than half of those who come to this border are apprehended. And of those who are caught, all but about 3 percent eventually get through. They don’t just give up and go home. So if they don’t succeed on the first try, they almost certainly will succeed on the second or the third try. It's all those people who get through eventually that the border patrol really has no idea about.

Q: The Department of Homeland Security counts the number of apprehensions, and when we talk to them, they say, "Well, we’re being successful because we’re apprehending a lot more people now." Or, "We’re not apprehending that many people; therefore, fewer people are trying to get in." 

A: They don’t have any evidence of that. All they have evidence on is the people who are unlucky enough to be caught. And that’s the distinct minority. 

Q: So you’re saying that 97 percent of the people who come to the border and try to get through to the United States eventually do get through? 

A: That’s what our research shows. But they wouldn’t be trying to cross here in Tijuana. All the fortifications do in this area is to push the traffic elsewhere along the border; [immigrants] tend to avoid the Tijuana area because it's so heavily fortified. They, and the smugglers who guide them, seek out the weak points. They go around the physical fences. They go around the electronic observation towers. 

Q: But your research, as I understand it, also shows that about a fifth of them actually come through the port of entry?

A: Nearly one out of five these days is actually attempting to get through the legal ports of entry, either as a passenger in a vehicle, using false papers or no papers at all, or concealed in a vehicle. So this has become an increasingly popular mode of entry. It costs a lot more to be brought through that way, but it also reduces your physical risk of dying in the mountains or the deserts. That’s why a smuggler can charge anywhere from $3,500 to $5,000 to the client if he or she chooses to be brought through that way.

Q: We’ve been told by the FBI and others that the increasing fortification of the border makes the port of entry much more important to the smugglers, and that has resulted in more cash being available and more sexual favors being available for customs inspectors. Have you noticed that, or have people talked to you about that?

A: That’s an inevitable consequence, and migrants have told us in interviews that their smugglers, the people that they hire to assist them, increasingly make arrangements with border crossing agents to give them advance notice. This is a way, of course, of ensuring success if they know when that agent is going to be on the line. And the agent knows the vehicle that’s going to be crossing.

Q: Your research is based on interviewing migrants. Is that possibly the reason why you have more information about what’s happening in terms of migration than the Border Patrol and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and CBP (Customs and Border Protection)?

A: Well, the migrants themselves are definitely the best source of information; they don’t have any political axes to grind. If you approach them in the right way, they’re going to give you accurate information about their individual experiences in running the gauntlet at the border. And it's the most direct and most reliable information. 

Q: Are you interviewing these people here in the United States once they get through or in Mexico?

A: Both. We interview migrants after they have returned to their homes in Mexico. We interview their relatives if they’re still in the United States, and we also interview them on the U.S. side.             

Q: Can you give me some idea of the scale of your research? 

A: We’ve interviewed almost 3,000 migrants and their relatives during the past three years. It's the largest and best sample that anyone has, and it is particularly important because it includes migrants who have not been caught, and that’s the big missing component from all the official stats. 

Q: Why is that the biggest missing component?

A: If migrants are not apprehended, they don’t get into the government’s database. They’re completely invisible, and because the majority of migrants are not caught on any given trip to the border, that means that you’re missing over half of the picture.  

Q: When these officials tell us that they don’t know how many people actually get through the border, it's because …

A: They don’t. They really don’t know. The only way that they have of even estimating people who get through is what they call "sign cutting." They count the number of footprints on paths and on access roads near the border, and then they compare that with the number of people that they caught on the preceding shift. And comparing those two numbers, they come up with a gross estimate of those who were not apprehended on that shift. 

Q: And you’re saying at least half are not apprehended on any given day? 

A: More than half, based on our information. 

Q: So, for example, on the California border, that would mean tens of thousands of people are coming through a year? 

A: Yes. More in Arizona because that’s still where over 70 percent of the illegal entries are occurring. We’ve effectively diverted much of the flow from California and Texas toward Arizona and also up the coastlines. Since last August, more than 20 smugglers' boats have been intercepted or found abandoned on the beaches of San Diego. So it's clear that there is now a maritime traffic in undocumented migrants, and that’s also a direct consequence of the tightening of the land border between the legal ports of entry.

Q: In talks with smugglers, they say that business is good; prices are up.

A: And that’s thanks to the efforts of the United States government since 1993 and fortifying the border. What we have done with all of this spending is to turn what used to be a modestly profitable industry into an extremely lucrative industry, and we have made smugglers a necessity for a relatively safe and successful crossing. 

Q: So the unintended consequence of the crackdown, from your perspective and your research, is that it's created a booming industry in human smuggling?

A: Absolutely. The other main consequence is that we have bottled up undocumented migrants within the United States. They’re not even going home for short visits, because they know that when they come back to their jobs in the United States, they’re going to have to pay thousands of dollars to a smuggler and perhaps even risk their lives in the mountains or the deserts. So we have actually greatly expanded the resident population of undocumented migrants here. We’ve turned what used to be a two-way flow into a one-way flow, northbound. 

Q: Until I started to do some reporting on this, I always thought that somebody came to the border in Mexico with a bunch of cash and gave it to a smuggler and said, “Take me across.” But that’s not the way it works, right? 

A: No. It's more organized now, and most smugglers are actually hired before the migrant even leaves home. The referral is made through relatives living in the United States in most cases. People have used smugglers and have found that they give good service, they deliver their clients in good shape, and they are recommended to other potential clients.

And because it's the relatives in the United States that pay the bulk of the money to the smuggler, the arrangements are usually made before the migrant even leaves home. In most cases, only a small token payment is made before the migrant actually gets to the border. And the rest is cash on delivery in the United States.

Q: Therefore, you’re not conceding that, because it’s more difficult to cross, because there’s a wall and more surveillance going on, the government's actions are actually keeping people out?

A: The strategy simply is not effective in keeping people out of the United States. It is effective in running up smugglers' fees, and it is effective in keeping people in the United States but not in keeping them out.

Q: How do you fix this?

A: Well, you don’t fix it by throwing more money at border fortifications. You first have to fix the legal immigration system. We’ve got to get real about the supply of visas, both guest worker visas and permanent resident visas. If people have a legal way of coming here, they’re not going to be paying thousands of dollars to people smugglers. They’re not going to be risking their lives in the deserts. They will come legally.

Secondly, I would emphasize workplace enforcement over border enforcement. Stopping them at the border clearly is not working. Keeping them out of the workplace is the only way of effectively discouraging would-be migrants from attempting to come here. 

Q: So you’re in favor of cracking down on employers? 

A: It's not a magic bullet, but it's certainly a more human approach than trying to stop them at the border. And it's also much more likely to be effective in discouraging some migrants who would otherwise attempt to come. 

Q: The Border Patrol reports, I believe, that apprehensions have gone down from 1.2 million to approximately 800,000. And, to some extent, they say, "Well, that’s probably because of our improved enforcement. We’re deterring people from coming into the United States." Is it that, or is it the economy?

A: The economy is probably a much bigger part of the explanation. If migrants don’t have jobs waiting for them in the United States, they won’t even start the journey. But what we have seen in the last year or so tracks very well with what happened at the beginning of this decade, when we also had a significant recession. Apprehensions were down 25 percent, even more than they have been recently in two consecutive fiscal years. And that had mostly to do with the contraction of the U.S. economy. 

Q: So illegal immigration through our southwest border, in a sense, is a barometer of the economic well-being of the United States?

A: The economic well-being of both the United States and Mexico. Economics is fundamental; it's much more important than anything that the government does.