Illegal immigration has been a steady presence in policy and public discussions for decades now and is often the subject of heated, emotional discussion and a wide breadth of important social research. What creates great tension is that there are two strong opinions about the subject. On the one hand, there are U.S. citizens who feel their jobs or society is at stake due to the ongoing influx of non-citizens, and on the other, there are those who understand the complex reasons that drive people, often to desperate lengths, to enter the country.

While the main goal of the following discussion about illegal immigration is concerned with revealing the ways illegal immigrants enter the United States, the underlying concern rests also with the notion that there are thousands who put their lives at risk to come to the United States. Those who are desperate enough to try to come into the United States illegally obviously have compelling reasons to do so and in order to best explore such causes, motivating factors will be given considered. Finally, a conclusive element to the following discussion about illegal immigration will touch on policy and the future of immigration in the United States and will reflect on the issues of risk, reasons driving migration, and how the United States is prepared to handle this issue as it continues.

One of the first thoughts that come to mind when someone mentions the topic of illegal immigration into the United States is the entry through the U.S. and Mexico border. This most prominent relationship many make to illegal immigrations exists because the vast majority of illegal immigrants already in the country are those of Mexican nationality. According to data from 2008, “an estimated 600,000 illegal immigrants enter the United States each year, the vast majority along the border with Mexico" (Gathmann 1927). Undocumented workers and residents who are here illegally come from many other countries and find entry into the United States in much different ways. In addition to crossing the border by being smuggled in or otherwise sneaking across the border, there are a few less dangerous modes of entrance into the United States, at least physically. The majority of other illegal immigrants remain in the country after the legal period for their stay has passed—something that happens most frequently with foreign students (Edmonston 21) and another way is by visiting the country as a tourist but never leaving or attempting to gain official citizenship. While these processes of illegal entrance into the United States all come with risks of deportation, the most pressing issue surrounding many contemporary debates about illegal immigration concerns those who are willing to risk their lives to get into the United States and who come at great peril.

The U.S. and Mexico border is one of the most dangerous and risky crossing zones in the United States due to the harsh conditions of the dry desert and the long fence that seals it off from the border of the United States. Estimates concerning the number of deaths that occur due the extreme heat of the day in this region are quite inconsistent and difficult to find with any regularity in the projected numbers (Edmonston 107). Still, it is known that many Mexicans succumb to the heat and lack of water during their trip and that at night, the temperatures can drop below freezing in the very same area. Mexican citizens with enough money and who are female, have children along with them, or are otherwise unwilling or unable to make the dangerous trek across the desert often hire smugglers at great cost to get them through border security and in the United States. These smugglers pack as many immigrants into one small space as possible at one time to make their risk worth it and this is also a leading cause of death among illegal immigrants crossing the border. There are many things that can go wrong when being smuggled and there have been reports throughout the years of car crashes in which immigrants were found dead in mangled vans and other reports of smuggled immigrants suffocating due to a lack of oxygen in their containers. This is indeed one of the riskiest journeys, but is not the only dangerous physical border crossing.

In addition to the border with Mexico and the high risks involved with illegal border crossing there, other countries contribute vastly to the population of illegal immigrants in the United States. “Two Caribbean countries, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, today stand as among the top ten countries of origin of foreign-born residents of the United States. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) estimates that 105,000 Haitians, 75,000 Dominicans, and 50,000 Jamaicans reside in the United States without legal authorization" (Haines 273). While Haines and other scholars note that of illegal immigrants from non-European nations, those from Caribbean nations are more likely to have stayed over working Visas, there are still a large number who cross into port cities such as Miami, Florida on small and dangerous boats, some of which are handmade and not seaworthy. “In one case, forty Dominicans died as their vessel was flooded and captains familiar with illegal immigration routes talk of human bones littering the shoals and inlets between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and the United States" (Haines 350).
While those illegal immigrants who overstay their Visas or continue to live in the country after their legal ability to do so has expired face possible short jail time and oftentimes certain deportation, this is a much less risky form of illegal immigration. The most deadly and personally risky efforts to enter the United States illegally involve physical attempts to cross into borders. “Subsequent to U.S. Border Patrol efforts to control illegal immigration throughout the 1990s, concern arose over an apparent increase in deaths of illegal migrants as they began to take more treacherous routes to enter the United States" (Guerette 245). These deaths continue, especially now as immigration, particularly as it exists in Texas, Arizona, California, and other border states grows even more strict.

In all of the policy-making and large amounts of funding that goes into erecting physical border markers and deterrents that prevent illegal immigration, the one element is ignored is the reasoning behind such great personal risks simply to move to another country. It has been suggested that “The numerous deaths of immigrants are ostensibly by-products of the inability of administrators to understand the complexity of economic destabilization that forces people to migrate across barren deserts" (Bejarano 269). As it stands, economic reasons are one of the main reasons cited by most scholars for why those, especially from Latin American nations, risk their lives. They are often coming to the United States to work in unskilled labor positions for minimum (or under) wage. This is because the economy of Mexico is so disproportionate to that of its northern neighbor that for one Mexican illegal immigrant to make it, get a job, and work for week—the same amount of money for the same amount work could take almost six months to generate in Mexico (Bejarano 271). In short, the main motivator is simple economic need. While social and political freedoms are also a reason cited by illegal immigrants who enter because they are oppressed in their home country and are seeking relative freedom from polical or social persecution, this is not the majority of reasons cited, although is certainly worth noting.

Some whom have argued against current policies in the United States suggest that the only way to prevent deaths incurred during illegal crossing is “through liberalization of immigration policy and relaxing of border security" (Guerette 246) but that this is becoming more impossible because of still-heightened concerns following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2006. There needs to be more agreement on a balanced solution that integrates notions of national security with basic human compassion but with two sides that are so diametrically opposed to one another, this seems impossible. Until greater awareness of how risk and reason are related and drive so many to undergo perilous journeys for reasons most Americans have a difficult time relating to, the current situation of thousands dying in boats or in deserts will continue just as others will be deported.

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Bejarano, Cynthia L. “Senseless deaths and holding the line. Criminology 6.2 (2007), 267-274.

Edmonston, Barry, and National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on National Statistics, National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Population. Statistics on U.S. Immigration: An Assessment of Data Needs for Future Research. Washington D.C.: National Academies Press, 1996.

Gathmann, Christina. “Effects of enforcement on illegal markets: Evidence from migrant smuggling along the southwestern border.” Journal of Public Economics 92.10-11 (2008), 1926-1941

Guerette, Rob T. “Immigration policy, border security, and migrant deaths: an impact evaluation of life-saving efforts under the border safety initiative. Criminology & Public Policy [No Volume/Issue] (2007), 245-266.

Haines, David, and Karen Elaine Rosenblum. Illegal Immigration in the United States. New York: Greenwood Publishing, 2005.