Deciding To Cross: Why Illegal U.S./Mexico Border Crossing Is About More Than Simple Economics


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Why do people cross the border fence from Mexico to the United States? Image courtesy of the U.S. Border Patrol

Why do people cross the border fence from Mexico to the United States? Image courtesy of the U.S. Border Patrol

The U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 262,341 Mexican citizens attempting to illegally cross the southwestern border of the United States during the fiscal year 2012.

The border runs from the California coast to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, and contains 1,969 miles of border fencing. Approximately 20 thousand Border Patrol agents were assigned to cover the U.S. border in 2012, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Along with the official barriers to immigration, there are watchdog groups in the United States who consider themselves the eyes and ears of the thin-stretched U.S. Border Patrol. Groups such as the Minutemen Project and the Texas Border Volunteers are U.S. citizens that volunteer their time to stand guard at the U.S./Mexico border.

Under these circumstances, the prospect of illegally crossing the border seems like a losing proposition. So why do people attempt to cross the border from Mexico into the United States?

Mexico/U.S. Border: Why Do People Cross?

Despite the obstacles, there are currently an estimated 11 million unauthorized migrants living in the U.S. Approximately 6 million of these people were born in Mexico, and many come to the U.S. for opportunity. A 2009 Pew Global survey found that 57% of Mexicans believed they would have a better life if they came to the United States. The decision to cross the border is about more than simple economics, however. In “Deciding to Cross: Norms and Economics of Unauthorized Migration,” Dr. Emily Ryo points out that there are a variety of social factors that influence the decision to cross the border.

For this study, Dr. Ryo focused on Mexican males who were most likely to migrate to the U.S. without government approval. She intended to find out what would prompt an individual to undertake the risks associated with migrating and living in the U.S. illegally.

Dr. Ryo does not negate the perceived benefits of illegal migration as a major factor in the decision process, but suggests that it is a combination of economic incentive and an expression of personal values that influence the decision. These personal values include:

  1. General legal attitudes: What is the individual’s opinion of the legal system? Are there times when breaking the law is acceptable?
  2. Morality: What is an individual’s guiding view of the right thing to do in a given situation?
  3. Legitimacy:  Ryo defines this as, “the belief that legal authorities are entitled to be obeyed and that the individual ought to defer to their judgment.”
  4. Social norms: While these can vary greatly, the overall consideration is the social expectations of how a person should behave.

The Conflict: What An Illegal Immigrant Faces

According to Ryo’s findings, many of the individuals who intended to cross the border illegally were generally law-abiding members of society. She points out that “to many would-be migrants, as well as U.S. citizens, there is a lack of moral credibility to a law perceived as preventing individuals from working to support their families.” This may be the crux of the matter altogether, and one that hints at the underlying issues of power and control as divisive elements.

This sentiment of an individual’s right to provide for themselves is reminiscent of the beliefs that many of the volunteer border patrol units claim. The Texas Border Volunteers use thermal and night vision technology, stating a mission to do what they feel the U.S. government is unable or unwilling to do in protecting private property. In this manner, the volunteers on the border are providing for themselves and their families with similar motivations to many of the people they are tracking.

Illegal Immigration Studies

In correspondence with Decoded Science, Dr. Ryo pointed out that individuals who plan to migrate into the U.S. without authorization believe that finding a job in Mexico is difficult, and they are less likely to believe that crossing the border is very dangerous. In fact, however, according to the U.S. Border Patrol, there were 463 deaths along the southwest border in 2012, and over 1,300 rescues.

In her article, Dr. Ryo emphasized the perception of fairness as a major factor in an individual’s decision to cross the border illegally. When it comes down to making a choice to cross or not, many of those who decide to brave the border believe that what they consider to be an arbitrary line in the sand should not prevent them from being able to provide for themselves and their families.


Pew Research Center.  Unauthorized Immigrants: How Pew Research Counts Them and What We Know About Them(2013). Accessed September 26, 2013.

Pew Research Center. Immigration: Key Data Points from Pew Research(2013). Accessed September 26, 2013.

Ryo, Emily. Deciding to Cross: Norms and Economics of Unauthorized Migration(2013). American Sociological Review: SAGE publications. Accessed September 26, 2013.

Texas Border Volunteers. 6 Minute Intro to TBV Ops. (2009). Accessed September 26, 2013.

United States Border Patrol. Sector Profile – Fiscal Year 2012. (2012). Accessed September 26, 2013.

U. S. Customs and Border Patrol. Border Patrol Agent Staffing by Fiscal Year (Oct. 1st through Sept. 30th. (2013).

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