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Counting Unauthorized Migrants

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Wayne Cornelius is director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He joins us from San Diego.

Wayne Cornelius, we hear that people continue to come across the border from Mexico despite what we thought was an era of heightened border security. Have there actually been a lot of people who've been intercepted at the border trying to enter the United States?

Mr. WAYNE CORNELIUS (Director, Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, University of California, San Diego): Well, yes. In fact, we apprehended 741,000 individual migrants last year, but only about 8 percent of those who were apprehended, even multiple times, have actually given up and gone home. So there's not really much deterrence occurring at the border despite heightened border enforcement.

SIEGEL: But if we were to compare the numbers from the past couple of years with the 1990s, for example, while the number of people getting across the border is going up, is also the number of people who are being intercepted in a futile attempt to get across the border also going up?

Mr. CORNELIUS: No question about that. The probability of apprehension has gone up, but also the use of professional people smugglers to assist crossings. So that's working in the opposite direction. If you have professional help getting across, it's more likely that you will succeed.

SIEGEL: Could there be--if there really were a massive effort to police the border and prevent people from coming into the US, can you imagine such a successful pol--whether you would like it or not, can you imagine such a policy being effective?

Mr. CORNELIUS: It's very difficult to envision that kind of scenario. Migrants and the professional smugglers who assist them will find a way around whatever obstacle we place in their path. They will simply take larger risks and they will pay smugglers a lot more money. Many more of them will die in the act of illegal entry. But it's highly unlikely that even quadrupling the amount of money that we're spending on border enforcement would actually purchase that much deterrence.

SIEGEL: According to the Pew numbers, there are nearly six million Mexicans and another almost four million people from elsewhere around the world who are living here not legally; they don't have legal papers to be in the US. What does it mean to have a large population of people who are part of our economic life but not part of our civic life?

Mr. CORNELIUS: Well, it certainly illustrates the need for a fairly broad, fairly generous legalization program. It's in no one's interests--certainly not the migrants, but not of society as a whole--to have these large numbers of people living in irregular status, particularly because such a high proportion of them have children born in the United States who are US citizens and who have rights to all kinds of services.

SIEGEL: How could the US construct an immigration policy that would somehow address the situation of so many Mexicans coming into the country, as you would like to see it, and also address the problem of an Eritrean, let's say, who's in East Africa and will wait 14 years to get proper papers to move to the United States and join members of his family?

Mr. CORNELIUS: Well, the situation on the ground is that there are millions of undocumented Mexicans living in the country with their US-born offspring. It's much more of a social problem than we have with countries that have not contributed many migrants to the flow. It's really in our self-interest to address the largest portion of the problem, which is Mexican nationals.

SIEGEL: Wayne Cornelius, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. CORNELIUS: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: Wayne Cornelius spoke to us from San Diego. He is the director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): A summary of the Pew Hispanic Center's findings on unauthorized migrants and the full report are at our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.
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