Who’s crossing the Mexico border? A new survey tries to find out.

June 2, 2013

Last year, the Border Patrol caught about 356,000 immigrants trying to cross illegally at the U.S.-Mexico border. That's thought to be about half of all attempts.


Undocumented Mexican immigrants walk through the Sonoran Desert after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. (John Moore/GETTY IMAGES)

It also isn't much of a deterrent. About 43 percent of those detained say they'll try to cross again in the near future — often because they're trying to get back to a job or family members waiting for them in the United States.

That's one upshot of a big new survey (pdf) from the National Center for Border Security and Immigration at the University of Arizona. The researchers interviewed more than 1,000 detainees at the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector in 2012.

The migrants were almost entirely male (about 94 percent, a bit higher than other surveys have found), and more than half were in their 20s. About 59 percent were low-skilled workers, mainly in agriculture and construction.

The researchers also found that many were very determined to get into the United States. About 7.4 percent said they were planning to cross the border again in the next seven days, while another 36 percent said they'd try again sometime in the future.

There were a variety of reasons for that: Those who planned to try again were more likely to have family or friends in the United States or had a job waiting for them. (About 51 percent of migrants said they had a job already lined up.) And 13 percent of border crossers said they considered the United States their home — so where else would they go?

Meanwhile, many migrants said they had noticed that the United States had bulked up its border security in recent years: "They perceived the laws as being more stringent," the survey notes, "and that there were more Border Patrol agents than in the past." But that also didn't sway them: "Regardless of the consequences and dangers of crossing, however, many detainees remarked that the need to come to the United States is greater than any deterrent."

These findings line up with a different survey earlier this year from the University of Arizona that found 56 percent of deportees planned to cross the Mexico border again in the near future. "There is nothing in Mexico," said one 18-year-old respondent known as Carlos. "I know it's not right [to cross again], but it's just very difficult [economically in Mexico]." Or here's 42-year-old Antonio: "I have no choice, my family is there. I need to go back to my children."

Illegal crossings at the Mexican border have dropped significantly in recent years — note that 1.5 million immigrants were detained at the border in 1999 compared with 356,000 in 2012. But a recent Council on Foreign Relations report suggested that only one-third of the recent drop was due to increased enforcement, while the rest was due to the struggling U.S. economy.

Further reading:

-- Here's the full survey of detainees in Tucson. And here's an earlier survey of deportees from the University of Arizona's Center for Latin American Studies. Both have somewhat different focuses, but they fit together well.

-- The United States stops about half of illegal border crossings from Mexico.

-- My colleague Nick Miroff has been doing some excellent reporting along the Mexico border. In this story, he notes that talk of immigration reform in Congress has given many border crossers a renewed sense of urgency about getting to the United States.

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