Migrants returned to Mexico by U.S. authorities are now more likely to be older, married, and heads of household since the Obama administration made deportations from American communities a major instrument of immigration policy, according to new data from the Border Survey of Mexican Migration.
In 2011 nearly half of all Mexicans repatriated from the United States had lived there for more than a year, and midway through 2012 the share was more than a third. As recently as 2008, those longer-term residents comprised only one-tenth of the repatriations, according to the survey, which captures data from both immigrants who are removed or deported after living in the United States and those returned after being apprehended trying to cross the border.
As noted elsewhere in this report, compared with the great weight of economic circumstances, the shift in enforcement emphasis has not had a notable impact on either the size of the Mexican-born population or the flow of new migrants into the United States. The forced removals of Mexicans who are longtime residents of U.S. communities has, however, had a distinct psychological effect in addition to the change in the characteristics of those being returned, according to the border survey. Even during the darkest days of the Great Recession, more than 80 percent of repatriated Mexican migrants said they intended to return to the United States. That figure now hovers around 70 percent as a degree of discouragement appears to have set in.
Operating since 1993, the Border Survey of Mexican Migration, or Encuesta sobre Migración en la Frontera Norte de México (EMIF), is the oldest continuous research program tracking original data on the number of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border legally or illegally. Click here for more information on the survey. The EMIF is conducted in selected border-crossing points and at airports in Mexico by El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF), a government-funded social science research institution whose main campus is in Tijuana. EMIF’s data collection is sponsored by COLEF and several ministries and agencies of the Mexican federal government.
This article draws on survey data based on interviews conducted with a random sample of Mexicans who have been delivered to the Mexican side of the border by U.S. authorities. In the survey, these Mexicans are categorized as having been “repatriated,” and the term has been selected to distinguish the survey findings from the terminology used to describe enforcement actions by U.S. authorities. Repatriated Mexicans in the EMIF have been forcibly returned to Mexico for a variety of reasons. They may have been caught by the Border Patrol hours earlier or they might have been apprehended in the interior of the United States, detained, and then deported. In addition to collecting demographic data and information on their stay in the United States, the survey asks respondents where they were taken into custody.
To provide a context for the EMIF data, this article draws on data published by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The department’s annual report, “Immigration Enforcement Actions,” includes data on the number of times an agent apprehended someone suspected of being in the country illegally and provides comparable data on apprehensions by the Border Patrol and by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that carries out enforcement actions within the interior of the country. These same individual can be apprehended multiple times.
The apprehensions data from DHS offer one measure of how the emphasis in U.S. enforcement actions has shifted in recent years. This article presents previously unpublished data from the EMIF showing that the enforcement shift coincides with changes in the characteristics of Mexican migrants being removed from the United States.
A separate article in this report examines enforcement policy in more detail, but a brief overview will help put the EMIF data in context. Starting in 1993, successive U.S. administrations invested heavily in Border Patrol personnel, electronic sensors, and physical barriers all aimed at intercepting illegal migrants as they tried to enter the country via the U.S.-Mexico border. In the years since the Great Recession, enforcement activity on the border has dropped off along with the northbound flow. Meanwhile, new federal enforcement efforts have gotten underway within the interior of the country. As a result, from 2009 to 2011 three-quarters of a million Mexicans were put in federal detention facilities for immigration violations.
Figure 1 shows a distinct change in one key characteristic of the Mexicans being removed from the United States: their longevity as migrants. From 2003 to 2007, between 5 and 7 percent of repatriated Mexicans had lived in the United States for more than a year. They were overwhelmingly new entrants who were caught at the border.
As the number of border apprehensions began to drop and interior enforcement increased (the trend displayed in Figure 2), this characteristic began to change. By 2011 nearly half of the repatriated Mexicans had lived in the United States for at least a year. The data available for the first half of 2012 show that about a third of the most recently repatriated were longer-term migrants.
Not surprisingly, the survey data reveal some important differences in the profiles of new entrants to the migrant stream compared with those who have already set up residence in the United States. Table 1 compiles data on selected characteristics of repatriated Mexicans from surveys conducted from 2009 to 2011.
Among the new arrivals, three-quarters were apprehended either while they were crossing the border or in the desert and mountain regions immediately to the north of the border. That is consistent with having been repatriated as a result of a Border Patrol apprehension. In contrast, about a third of the longer-term migrants were apprehended at home or at work and half were apprehended in traffic stops. Those shares are consistent with the effects of immigration enforcement conducted within the interior of the country.
The longer-term migrants who are most likely to be caught up in the new interior enforcement efforts are much more likely to be heads of households (72% vs. 48%) than the new migrants. They are also older (39% are 35 or older vs. 23% of the new migrants) and somewhat more likely to be a spouse or long-term partner (35% single vs. 46%).
Repatriated Mexicans are typically interviewed the same day they have been returned to Mexico by U.S. authorities, and the EMIF asks respondents whether they intend to return to the United States. Before the recession took hold, and when the great majority had just been apprehended as they were trying to enter the United States, as many as 90 percent of the repatriates said they planned to head back north (Figure 3). That share began to drop in 2009 and has continued to slide so that for three consecutive quarters since the last quarter of 2011 the intent to return is at about 70 percent or below.
Other evidence in this report suggests a degree of stabilization in Mexican migration in the years that have followed the recession. This indicator, however, has continued a trend that began during the recession and is potentially accelerating in the post-recession years. The increasing share of migrants who have given up on living in the United States could reflect some combination of several factors, including discouragement with a weak U.S. job market and the heightened interior enforcement. Meanwhile, it is important to note that a clear majority of Mexican migrants who are interviewed just after they have been forcibly removed from the United States declare their intent to return. This applies in equal measure to those who have just been caught trying to cross the border for the first time and those who have been removed from a home, job, and community.