The Corner


What Family Separations Teach Us about Central American Migration

A U.S. border patrol agent rides past the U.S.-Mexico border wall on horseback near San Diego, California, May 7, 2018. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

The New York Times has published a harrowing account of a 25-year-old Guatemalan mother, who was separated from her eight-year-old son after she made an unlawful attempt to enter the U.S. with an eye towards reuniting with her boyfriend, a fellow Guatemalan who had managed to secure a construction job. Many thoughts occurred to me as I read the article. The first was deep sympathy for the woman in question and her plight. At the same time, I was struck by how much the story illustrates some of the larger issues raised by the recent uptick in Central American migration to the United States.

The Times tells us very little about exactly how this mother and son managed to make it to the Texas border. The only details offered are that they were part of a larger group that had rafted across the Rio Grande and that they had made it safely. Needless to say, it helps to have some experience when making such a treacherous journey. Many would-be migrants procure the services of smugglers who promise that they can help the migrants successfully evade U.S. authorities in exchange for fees, which fluctuate in response to demand, the duration of the journey, and the intensity of border enforcement. Last year, the Trump administration was claiming that human smugglers had sharply increased prices to as much as $8,000, and others claim numbers that are higher still. Given that incomes in Guatemala are extremely low, it can take a very long time to generate enough savings to pay these fees. That is where remittances sent by loved ones who already reside in the U.S. factor in.

The mother profiled in the Times was regularly receiving remittances from her boyfriend. According to the Times, the boyfriend was reluctant to share details about his own life out of fear of repercussions from federal authorities. It is not unreasonable to assume that he was working in the U.S. without authorization when he encouraged his girlfriend to join him with her son in tow. This reflects a larger pattern: Past migration has a snowballing effect. Earlier migrants gain experience that they can then use to help friends and relatives make their way north, and they can provide much-needed financial assistance. The presence of familiar faces lowers the psychic cost of the move. Over a long enough period of time, entire extended family networks can relocate, provided enforcement is lax and the would-be migrants can afford the journey.

One implication is that when there is a spike in violence, it is not just anyone who moves. Rather, it is those who belong to the social networks that provide them the resources and the information they need to to even make an attempt. Would-be migrants are thus sensitive to changes in the immigration-enforcement apparatus, and also to changes in the climate of opinion. They have strong incentives to learn about U.S. immigration enforcement and how to navigate it. There is a big difference between entering unlawfully and claiming asylum at an official port of entry, and whether you know the specific things to say to government officials and to sympathetic voices on the other side of the border or whether you don’t.

There have been many journalistic accounts of family separations at the border. Though I can’t claim to have read all of them, my impression is that the ones that reach the widest audiences are those that tug at the heartstrings, not necessarily those that provide the most context for what happens when risk-taking migrants meet an under-resourced and overwhelmed U.S. immigration system. For immigration advocates, these stories are invaluable insofar as they help make the case for more permissive immigration policies. But they hold lessons for restrictionists too. One is that many of the most tragic migration stories might never have come to pass if, for example, mandatory E-Verify made it much harder for unauthorized immigrants to earn money that they could then send back home, and that would eventually wind up in the hands of smugglers.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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