News Center

Elsewhere Online twitter Facebook SLS Blogs YouTube SLS Channel Linked In SLSNavigator SLS on Flickr

Illegal Immigration Isn't Just About Economics, Study Says

Publication Date: 
July 31, 2013
Los Angeles Times
Emily Alpert

Emily Ryo, a fellow at the Stanford Program in Law & Society, spoke to Emily Alpert of the Los Angeles Times about her findings on what drives Mexican migrants to cross the border illegally and what these findings mean for immigration enforcement.

Mexican migrants deciding whether to cross the border illegally are driven not just by economics -- but also by their own beliefs about whether United States immigration laws are legitimate and fairly applied, a new study finds.

The study, published this month in the American Sociological Review, paints a complicated picture of why people choose to enter the U.S. illegally.


But economic troubles in Mexico don’t completely explain why some men cross and some don’t, said Emily Ryo, the Stanford Law School research fellow who was the author of the study. The way that would-be-migrants see the law is also important: Mexican men who believe that U.S. immigration rules are unfairly applied were more likely to plan on violating them, she found.


When Ryo talked to people who were about to cross the border illegally, she found that many saw the decision as part of their responsibility to their families "to get through situations that were brought on through no fault of their own, such as a crop failure or an economic downturn."

If Mexican migrants also question the fairness of U.S. immigration laws, "it allows them to see this particular law as not worthy of obedience," Ryo said. They see violating the law as justified.

The study also found that people who have friends or family who have tried to cross illegally are much more likely to plan to do the same -- a sign that some communities may have developed a “culture of migration” that makes it a rite of passage for young men, Ryo suggested.


Ryo said her findings suggest that cracking down on immigration enforcement alone may do little to dissuade people from making the trip. Worries about how likely they were to be arrested did not strongly sway Mexican migrants against crossing illegally, she found.

Devoting more resources to creating jobs in Mexican communities that send migrants, as well as countering perceptions that U.S. immigration laws are unfairly enforced, might be alternative strategies, Ryo said.