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Irregular migration: The worst business in the world

The current migration model is based on the misuse of economic and human resources without any benefits for the parties involved. But it is possible to change this ruinous blueprint

Migración irregular
Demonstration on Oct. 20, 2023, in Tapachula (Mexico) to demand humanitarian solutions during the migration summit held in Mexico.Juan Manuel Blanco (EFE)

During a time of economic, social and geopolitical change, more than a few sayings and idioms start to become less relevant. “Love is blind” is one of those expressions that seem outdated; never before has it mattered so much for those seeking a partner that the other person shares political views similar to their own. For instance, according to a 2020 sociological study, only 21% of American marriages are between people who have different political views; of those, less than 4% are between avowed Democrats and Republicans.

The gap between the Right and Left, between progressives and conservatives, is widening in the United States and in other countries. The divide reaches everyone. That is why it is so valuable to find common ground where people of different political persuasions can share diagnoses of problems and, if possible, agree on the actions to solve them. For instance, they might find common ground in the enormous value that conservatives and progressives alike place on the rational management of resources, albeit with some differences.

Leftist positions emphasize that the planet’s resources are finite, that they are being depleted at an accelerated pace, and that if we want to avoid collapse we must reduce consumption in the public and private spheres. The Right believes in the principle that nothing is free, that everything has a cost, so governments and households must prioritize the efficient management of resources. This shared common sense should make it easy for both sides to agree in describing tens of thousands of people’s anecdotes about the migratory experience as absurd.

Let’s crunch the numbers. For a young person from a rural community in Guatemala, who has not completed their secondary education (a situation in which 80% of all young people between the ages of 25 and 35 find themselves) and earns an average salary of less than $10 (€9) a day, migrating to the U.S. may seem like a clear option for improvement. Other family members who have already emigrated encourage them on social media to do the same and argue that their average income is 10 times higher than what they received in their communities of origin. In addition to these incentives, there is advertising on billboards and radio spots paid for by coyotes (migrant smugglers) who offer their “migration services” and encourage emigration as a way out of poverty. Prices (and risks) vary when hiring them, as do the payment guarantees through which homes, plots of land and businesses will become the coyote’s property if the migrant fails to repay the stipulated amount within a certain period of time.

A young Guatemalan’s need to work and the desire to emigrate is not only fed by his or her acquaintances’ social media posts in the North and the coyotes’ advertising campaigns; it is also aligned with the largest number of job vacancies in recent U.S. history.

In this context, the irregular emigration of Central American citizens through intermediaries forms a market that continues to grow; some authors estimate that market to be worth $2.3 billion. The individual cost of emigrating this way can range from $5,000 to $19,000, depending on the service contracted and the dangers that must be avoided along the chosen route. The migrant considers this to be an investment, but they also assume that the transaction, like any commercial business, can go wrong… maybe very wrong. In 2022, about 2.5 million migrants were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, 10% of whom came from Guatemala.

For these detainees, that was the furthest north their “venture” took them. After that, they can only try again or go back to where they came from, that is, the place where all the factors that pushed them to emigrate remain in place, but to which they now return with a debt that is equivalent to the full economic income of three to five years of work in Guatemala. But there are also those who don’t just lose their money but also their lives in the attempt, like the nearly 700 migrants who died trying to reach the United States in 2022.

In the end, an undetermined number of migrants manage to irregularly cross the border each day and start a new life. An estimated 1.7 million Guatemalans live in the U.S., half of whom have informal status. On average, it takes 13.6 years for a migrant in this situation to return to his or her country of origin; migrants face the high cost of uprooting their lives by breaking family ties. Irregular residence and work also means living with the permanent risk of being detained and deported. In 2022 alone, 40,633 Guatemalan migrants were deported from the U.S. by air. The deportees experience this as an economic and personal failure. In addition to the enormous individual cost, there is also the expense that governments incur in the return process; in the case of the United States, that could be around $10,000 per person.

In short, the cycle that begins with a Guatemalan migrant borrowing $10,000 to pay a coyote, followed by an uncertain border crossing, their detention after some time of settling in and the internment, legal process and deportation to the country from which they left involves another additional expense of $10,000, in this case paid for by the U.S. government and its taxpayers. This roundtrip has the same effect — and makes as little economic sense — as setting $20,000 on fire. It is ruinous business for anyone — conservative or progressive — who contemplates it.

Internationally, through the United Nations, states have already reached a broad consensus on promoting safe, orderly and regular migration through the Global Compact for Migration. In practice, all governments — whether they are conservative or progressive, located in the Global North or the Global South — are constrained when it comes to promoting adequate legal migration channels that guarantee the rights of all parties. The rational management of resources is on their side, as is the available evidence on the substantial benefits of regular migration.

In addition to the available data, these governments’ decisionmakers could bear in mind the metaphorical image of the huge bonfire fueled both by the wasted savings of thousands of turned-back migrants and public budget items that least benefit the common good. If inertia leads them to persist in adding fuel to the fire of the worst business in the world, it would at least give meaning and validate the more complete Latin American version of the saying that began this article: “Love is blind and madness always accompanies it.”

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