US Immigration Policy, Deportations, and the Migration Boomerang


By David Leblang, University of Virginia

Immigration—especially the demand for entry across the Southern Border of the United States—is perhaps the dominant political, economic, and cultural issue during Donald Trump’s presidency. While economic incentives to migration continue being an important factor, widespread violence in migrants’ countries of origin have played a critical role in explaining the surge in the demand for entry into the United States. For example, in surveys of migrants from the Central America’s Northern Triangle – Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – almost 40% cited attacks or threats to themselves or family as the reason for leaving home. Violence pushed many, including women and children, to join the Central American migrant caravans that crossed Mexico in autumn 2018 on its way to the United States.

This is hardly surprising as these three countries are among the most violent places in the world. In Honduras and El Salvador, homicide rates were at 64 (Honduras) and 109 (El Salvador) per 100 thousand in the year 2015 – compared to an average rate of 1.2 in high income OECD countries (UNODC). In parallel to increasing violence in these countries, the number of refugees and asylum seekers from the three Northern Triangle countries has increased ten-fold between 2011 and 2017, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Research by Michael Clemens finds that many of almost two hundred thousand unaccompanied minors from Central America apprehended in the US between 2011 and 2016 fled a sustained rise in homicide rates in their communities of origin.

In a set of papers, I, with my colleague Christian Ambrosius, explore the root causes of violence in the Northern Triangle and explore how that violence translates into the demand for entry into the United States.  We argue that violence in the Northern Triangle—and in other Western Hemisphere—result, in part, from the US’s policy of criminal deportation. Deportees unlike other returnees, it must be emphasized, are not returning home voluntarily.  Though, like other migrants who return home, they may bring home with them new ideas, norms, behaviors, and transnational connections. Some of these connections may be in the form of transnational criminal gangs which foster the movement of weapons, drugs, and the trafficking of human beings.    We demonstrate, using an identification strategy based on anti-immigration legislation in US states, that deportations of criminals increase homicides in the returnee’s home country. Critically, we also show that the deportation of non-criminals has no statistically significant impact on home-country violence.  

What is the effect of this home country violence?  We argue that deportations have what we are calling a “boomerang effect.” Deportations, because they generate violence in the home country, generate an increase in the number of individuals seeking entry into the United States.  What is worth emphasizing, however, is that we are not talking about entry through legal means.  Legal entry into the United States is regulated by the number of visas allocated for a particular purpose: family reunification, employment, diversity, etc.  And not everyone who is fleeing from gang-violence either qualifies for one of these visa categories or has the time and/or ability to go through normal channels.  We find that an increase in violence increases both apprehensions on at the US Southern Border and claims for asylum from Northern Triangle countries. Apprehensions, we note, is an imperfect measure for the demand for entry but it does provide a rough estimate, conditional on constant enforcement efforts, of the propensity for individuals to attempt to enter the United States.

This research bears important policy implications. First, the deportation of convicts has huge social, human and economic costs in migrants’ countries of origin, largely borne by innocent people. US deportation policies feed violence in countries who often lack adequate social and institutional mechanism to control the spread of violence. The deportation of convicts also falls on fertile grounds where deportees face strong social stigmas and limited economic opportunities. Depending on country contexts, the way how deported felons relate to criminal networks at home can take different forms. A danger they all share is that they nourish and eventually trans-nationalize criminal activities and networks. Second, these policies may easily turn into a boomerang that creates new migration cycles. Hence, as a policy intended to disincentive new migration, it is self-defeating.

Our findings are based on the US as a source of deportation as well as a main destination for migrants. Even so, the results should be read as a warning against the deportation of convicts (including those considered potential terrorist threats) in other countries and contexts. An application and test of these mechanisms in other contexts is left for future research.

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