The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. policies like Title 42 make migrants more vulnerable to smugglers

Since the 1960s, border enforcement and deterrence policies have made migrants vulnerable to abuse and exploitation

A migrant child plays with a Captain America action figure last month while staying with his family by the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. (Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)
7 min

The Supreme Court recently kept in effect a policy that expels asylum seekers at the border under the Title 42 public health authority, as litigation on the matter continues. In response, the Department of Homeland Security said it would continue to expel asylum seekers at the border and work toward expanding the nationalities that can be turned away under the policy.

Because the pandemic-era Title 42 policy closes ports of entry to asylum seekers and enables quick expulsions without the opportunity for entrants to ask for asylum, migrants become easy targets for smugglers waiting on the other side of the border. DHS has warned that “people should not listen to the lies of smugglers who take advantage of vulnerable migrants, putting lives at risk.”

But the reason smugglers can endanger and exploit migrants in the first place is because of policies like this one, which increase — rather than decrease — border-crossers’ vulnerability. Restrictive immigration policies and long-standing immigration-deterrence strategies — which study after study show don’t actually deter anyone from migrating — funnel child and adult migrants into clandestine routes of entry that force migrants to turn to smugglers for aid. When poor migrants, especially unaccompanied children, cannot pay the high price tag of smugglers’ services, they sometimes get coerced into forced labor schemes to pay back their debts, just as they have in states like Alabama, Ohio and Illinois.

These human rights dilemmas are not aberrations or exceptions. They are the outcome of border enforcement schemes that, for decades, have eliminated safe and legal avenues for migration and intensified border policing, making migrants vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

After 1965, the U.S. government significantly militarized the U.S.-Mexico border and closed off several lawful routes to entry for Latin Americans. The termination of the decades-old guest worker Bracero Program, the imposition of numerical limits on Latin American immigration and the preferential treatment for refugees fleeing communist countries made unauthorized entry the only option for millions of Mexicans and Central Americans during and after the late 1960s.

A punitive approach to border enforcement pushed migrants into hidden routes of entry and led to an explosion of the human smuggling business between the 1960s and 1980s. By 1975, over 70 percent of migrants purchased the services of a smuggler to transport them across the increasingly hardened southwestern border. After being recruited in northern Mexican border cities and charging anywhere between $150 and $1,500, smugglers delivered undocumented people to rural farm fields in cramped buses, trailers, rental trucks and camper vans, without proper ventilation, heat or food.

Impoverished migrants who could not afford the growing costs of smuggling services had no choice but to consent to arrangements in which smugglers transported them directly to worksites inside the United States, predominantly on remote commercial farms where labor law enforcement was nearly nonexistent, so migrants could work off their debts. When unscrupulous people recruit vulnerable individuals for the purpose of labor exploitation by using fraud or coercion, the practice is considered labor trafficking. When it comes to noncitizens, labor trafficking is often carried out through debt bondage, in which desperate migrants are coaxed into taking on smuggling debts impossible to pay off and are silenced with the threat of deportation.

Those who survived their perilous journey in the 1970s and arrived to their worksites uninjured were forced to work from dawn to dusk. For these long hours, they received paychecks that ranged from $0 to $40 because their earnings were deducted to pay smuggling debts arbitrarily inflated after their arrival. Migrants also were denied food for days at a time, schooling and medical attention. When undocumented workers spoke out against their labor exploitation, they were intimidated into subservience with violence and threats of deportation. In 1980, estimates compiled by the Globe and Mail suggested that as many as 100,000 immigrants in the United States were victims of labor trafficking every year.

By making border crossing more perilous, U.S. policies created incentives for smuggling. And as smuggling costs rose, many migrants found themselves trapped in dire and exploitative work situations that amounted to labor trafficking.

In response, Border Patrol, state labor investigators and local police collaborated, especially in the 1970s, to “protect and rescue aliens” from their smugglers and employers by conducting workplace immigration raids. Law enforcement still calls their discovery and arrests of migrants forced into harm because of immigration deterrence policies “rescues.”

But after these “protective” raids, immigration officials withheld whatever wages migrants did receive and confined them in detention centers and county jails to serve as “material witnesses” in prosecution cases against their smugglers and traffickers. Though smuggling and trafficking are different acts, the federal government conflated the two in their quest to deflect blame for migrant exploitation.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service justified the incarceration of material witnesses of all ages, which at times resulted in minors’ prolonged separation from their parents, by claiming that the detention of migrants was “necessary for their own protection.” But the government was not concerned with justice or human rights. Instead, policymakers hoped to find someone to blame to mask their own responsibility for migrant harm behind a rhetoric of “protection.”

The injuries produced by draconian border enforcement only worsened in the 1990s when the Clinton administration formalized the Border Patrol’s “prevention through deterrence” strategy. The policy was deliberately designed to force migrants into perilous routes of entry, to use the desert as a “weapon” against border-crossers.

Although the possibility of death was supposed to function as a deterrent, unauthorized migration continued in the 1990s and the 2000s. This happened even as the United States invested heavily in border surveillance during and after the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, immigration laws in 1990 and 1996 dramatically expanded the list of offenses for which deportation and detention were required, and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks enabled the newly created DHS to link terrorism and immigration to acquire additional funding for border security.

According to historian Adam Goodman, “the ramping up of border and immigration enforcement did not stop unauthorized migration to the United States. It did, however, make migrating costlier, in both physical and financial terms.” Over 7,000 migrant deaths have been recorded at the border since the late 1990s, with fiscal year 2022 being the deadliest on record. The Trump years were particularly harmful for migrants, as journalists, advocates and researchers argued that human smugglers “thrived” under his immigration policies, especially his Title 42 order.

The lesson here is that the multibillion-dollar smuggling industry is enriched, not obstructed, by punitive border enforcement. Claims about wanting to hold smugglers accountable and regulate unauthorized migration merely serve to deflect from the government’s complicity in migrant exploitation and abuse, while painting politicians as heroes of a humanitarian dilemma entirely of their own making.

If the U.S. government really wanted to end human smuggling and eliminate migrants’ vulnerability for trafficking, it would disinvest from the flawed and deadly logic of immigration deterrence and open up pathways for safe and lawful entry that would make it unnecessary for people to turn to unscrupulous actors in the first place. Until then, U.S. policymakers and others will continue to be complicit in and responsible for the very harms they claim to be combating.