The Trump administration’s stated purpose of “zero tolerance” of illegal immigration on US borders is to lower crime rates, but research shows that the net effect may be the opposite.
The policy is to prosecute all those who cross the border illegally and the Trump administration has taken the unprecedented step of separating children from their parents in order to deter families from making the journey. (Soon after this story was published, President Trump signed an Executive Order taking steps to keep families together while in detention. “It is…the policy of this Administration to maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources,” the order read.)
The so-called zero tolerance approach is supposed to act as a deterrent. Administration officials have also doubled-down on the strategy by shutting off individual’s access to request asylum (at least until after they have been prosecuted for crossing into the country illegally), and by blaming parents for putting their children in danger by taking the risky journey through places like Mexico where they are routinely victimized by criminal organizations and officials alike.
The Trump administration’s policy, however, is shortsighted, in part because research shows that it may, in the long run, strengthen criminal groups.
Here are five ways that happens:
1. It Pushes People Into the Illegal Market
As the United States and other countries around the world have worked to stiffen border enforcement, organized crime groups that thrive from it have gotten stronger. Human smuggling — once the purview of small-time, mostly family run organizations — has become one of the most lucrative businesses in the underworld at an estimated $35 billion per year in earnings. Its criminal derivative, human trafficking, is also hugely lucrative, with a market value of $32 billion, according to the United Nations.
In Mexico, large, sophisticated criminal groups like the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel have made it a core revenue stream. It can also move in the other direction: several prominent Central American drug trafficking groups had their origins in human smuggling and then transitioned into trafficking other illicit goods because they already had the infrastructure, contacts and control over the routes. More powerful criminal groups means more corruption, more instability and, contrary to the Trump administration’s wishes, more migration.
Guadelupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at George Washington and the author of a recent book on the Zetas, says stricter borders “help” groups like the Zetas. “It’s just going to magnify what we have already seen,” she told InSight Crime, referring to the steady growth of these criminal groups.
This criminal activity is not limited to places south of the US border. In the United States, people are also victimized by criminal groups who have a clear understanding that going to the authorities is not an option. From the street vender who is extorted by gangs in Long Island to the California day laborer who thought he was going to do some landscaping only to find himself offloading marijuana on the coast, criminal groups take advantage of enforced anonymity.
2. It Raises the Price for Criminal Services
Part of the reason these criminal groups move into markets like human smuggling is that zero tolerance doesn’t just raise the number of clients organized crime groups have, it raises the prices for their criminal services. More enforcement equals more risk, as well as more sophistication and resources needed to succeed in any criminal venture.
Estimates along the Mexico border illustrate this tendency. In a study published by the US Department of Homeland Security in 2010, researchers using four different data sources found that prices for human smuggling rose as enforcement increased.
3. It Sets the Table for Future Criminal Activity
Numerous academic and news responses to the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from parents at the border stated that it leads to trauma, as well as physical and cognitive effects. Researchers in other parts of the world have shown that it could also lead to criminal activity.
Gang researchers on this side of the ocean, such as James Vigil, who wrote the seminal book on Latino gangs in Los Angeles, have also surmised that this is one of a number of factors that often leads to criminal activity. Vigil calls his theory multiple marginality, and it includes other factors inherent in the Trump administration’s policies approach towards migrant communities.
This is something we also noticed while doing our three-year study on the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) in the region. We talked to dozen of past and current gang members. Family upheaval was always part of a gang member’s personal story.
What’s more, deportations along the border also push many into the criminal ranks, says Angelica Durán-Martínez, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and the author of a recent book on the politics of drug violence in Colombia and Mexico.
“While not all deportees end up engaging in criminal activities, a portion of them do, given that they are often released into border areas where OC (organized crime) has a strong presence, and where they have little social networks or possibilities for legal employment,” she told InSight Crime in an email exchange.
4. It Destroys Trust Between Authorities and Migrant Communities Where Organized Crime and Gangs are Prevalent
There are two ways to measure this. The first is anecdotal. In this case, police chiefs in the United States working on the front lines to lower gang violence and crime rates say that vilifying migrant communities cuts off important channels of intelligence, as well as lowers chances that witnesses and potential collaborators will assist investigations.
The second is via proxy data. For example, there has been a drop in complaints about domestic abuse coming from Latino communities since President Donald Trump came into office. Domestic abuse complaints are relatively static.
5. It Reduces Remittances, Which Could Increase Crime Rates
Trump’s overall strategy — which includes ending measures such as Temporary Protected Status for Hondurans and El Salvador — could greatly reduce the number of undocumented migrants in the United States. These migrants send money back to their countries. Reduce their numbers, and you reduce these remittances.
Remittances are, as this World Bank study notes, a mixed bag. They can help to reduce poverty and inequality, but they can deplete the local labor supply and “income-generating capacity” of the migrant households.
But a recent Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) study also concluded that remittances “reduce homicide rates.” This, the authors argue, is partly the result of reducing poverty, increasing family investment in education, and creating jobs.
In the end, if the Trump administration’s goal is to lower crime, they might want to rethink the zero tolerance strategy.