Bryan Caplan  

Human Smuggling and Border Crossings by Gabriella Sanchez

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To write Human Smuggling and Border Crossings (Routledge 2015), Gabriella Sanchez interviewed a large sample of human smugglers in Arizona.  The result is a fascinating ethnography.  Smugglers often have a Huemerian - not Kingian - take on civil disobedience:
When Zulema Martinez was questioned about her involvement in smuggling, she stated she "honestly believed" she was doing no wrong.  For several years, she had worked assisting an unknown number of immigrants and their families by putting them in contact with a group of drivers who in turn provided border crossings and transportation services.  She also remarked during her in-court interrogation that many of those she had assisted were her friends and relatives.  "I paid so that I could bring some of them over.  I paid so that my relatives could come.  I don't think I did anything wrong by doing that."

... Hardly any smuggling facilitator explained his or her involvement in extralegal crossings only in terms of financial profit.  Their narratives instead reveal a more complex process, characterized by an honest concern for the wellbeing of others, in part a result of their own experiences as irregular immigrants, the challenges in seeking to provide for their families and their attempts to rejoin their families after being the target of enforcement...
Most respondents did not consider any part of their involvement in smuggling to be deviant or criminal.  They perceived the provision of these services as benevolent acts conducted on behalf of friends and family.  In a letter to the court, the sister of a man accused of driving a car full of irregular migrants in transit similarly attempted to contextualize her brother's involvement in smuggling, while condemning the court's decision to convict him:
He has two young children ([aged] 4 and 8) and his wife who are waiting for him here with us.  We know you found him guilty.  But guilty of what?  Of looking out for his children because there are no jobs here?  Guilty of taking the responsibility to drive the van so that he could use the money to support his children?  It is not fair that my brother has to pay, but only you know what his sentence should be because we cannot go to the Other Side where you are.  He is desperate to [see] his kids and wife and how can he if he is in [detention] for no reason.
Smuggling is surprisingly mom-and-pop:
[I]ndividuals involved in smuggling were not able to save money consistently... The relatively small returns smuggling generates were destined to cover rent, car repairs, food, medical bills, previously acquired debt, etc.  In one case, a US$200 payment was used to cover the graduation expenses of a child graduating from high school... Most smuggling activities surveyed in this sample generated returns in the range of US$50 to US$200 to those who performed them.  Considering smuggling activities are not characterized by their continuity or stability, participants cannot count on this income as regular, and so they are forced to rely on additional forms of employment.

While returns may be low, participation in the transit of undocumented immigrants is seen within migrant communities as a benign, valuable service provided on behalf of the facilitator's own ethic group, and those who deliver with efficiency and promptitude are most likely rewarded with continuous requests for additional transit services with grateful, discrete and - most importantly - paying customers.
Meet Cynthia, the beauty salon entrepreneur and black market effective altruist:
As I wait for my haircut in the crowded waiting area of Bellos and Bellas on a Saturday morning, I overhear Cynthia's conversation on the phone.  Ramiro, one of her friends, has been arrested for smuggling.  His wife does not speak English, and so she has relied on Cynthia to help her secure legal counsel for her husband... The woman herself breaks down and cries.  "Things will be alright," Cynthia says...

Cynthia spends a significant portion of her day connecting people through her job at the salon - she meets with the family members of potential border crossers to provide referrals, identifies drivers, talks to guides along the border, asks her own clients if they would like to make some money working for a few days as cooks or cleaning a house.  Most of the work she performs - despite the time it in involves - goes unpaid.  Why does she do it?


Cynthia has over the years found an effective way to maintain her main source of income [her salons] by connecting it to the provision of smuggling referrals, and assisting facilitators and their clients and families when they need other forms of help - she has lived in Phoenix long enough to know doctors, nurses, school teachers, priests and police officers; used car dealers, apartment complex managers; the locations of thrift stores and food banks; churches and car shops; the owners of small restaurants and cleaning services.  She is right: everybody knows her.
Anyone interested in immigration, black markets, and philosophy of law should read the book.

P.S. You will likely be able to meet Gabriella at my Open Borders Meetup next month.

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Emily writes:

It's a rare person who is going to be willing say to a researcher "In order to maximize how much money I make, I pack them in so closely they have trouble breathing. I allow my employees to rape the women. And I would leave them all to die if I thought were advantageous to myself." But these, too, are some of the stories of human smuggling. I don't know how common these are, of course. But what people self-report regarding their motivations and behavior in this area is not necessarily a great guide to that.

G Sanchez writes:

Hi Emily!

I am not surprised by your reaction, since those are the images everybody sees via FB, Twitter, and the media. It is usually only when tragedies hit that we hear about smugglers, or about the things they do... so sure, if that is the narrative that one wants to hear, and the only one, of course, by all means you can hold on to it!! I just got tired of being fed one and witnessing another; I just got tired of taking calls from families, from cops, from Hollywood --- Hollywood loves my work because they can then come up with the stupidest stories you can imagine. The book is my way of saying "listen to other voices! Come to the desert! See us for who I am!!" Yes, violence exists --but does this mean that you are only interested in smuggling's bloody, gory stories? Because that is what sometimes angers me about people. I could tell you stories that would make you throw up. I have seen the violence. I have witnessed it. But that does not mean I have to discount the voices of others. That I will not do.

Thanks, G Sanchez

swami writes:

"Hardly any smuggling facilitator explained his or her involvement in extralegal crossings only in terms of financial profit."

Funny that is the same thing you find when talking to people who bomb abortion clinics. Hmmm?

Emily writes:

Thank you for your response.

It sounds like what you're saying was that you had a particular narrative that you wanted to tell going into this and you told that narrative.

That's consistent with what I was saying, which was not "the only story of human smuggling is a terrible one," but rather "this particular methodology is necessarily going to yield a rosier picture relative to the actual picture."

That doesn't mean these stories aren't worth telling. It means I would take them with several large grains of salt, particularly the parts where people talk about their motivations. I'm not saying I have any better research methods ideas: getting people who are engaged in criminal behavior, some of it perhaps violent, to talk honestly about that behavior is a field I am glad not to be in.

John Hamilton writes:

Don't 40% of illegal immigrants just overstay their visas? By the way BC, in case you didn't know: the going rate for paying a woman to marry you in the US for immigration papers is ~$35,000. I know plenty of Serbians who have gone this route in the Chicagoland area...

jon writes:

Interesting post. I have talked to a lot of people on the other side of this issue, and the stories seem to be the same.

In fact, any of these quotes would be a fitting description of their motivations:

"the challenges in seeking to provide for their families"

"benevolent acts conducted on behalf of friends and family"

"an honest concern for the wellbeing of others"

Most of the immigration restriction crowd seems to be concerned with (i) their own economic struggles, (ii) a concern for the impact that immigration will have on family members, particularly their children, and (iii) the overall social impact of large-scale immigration (social cohesion, changing of majority-held values, etc.).

To quote Jeb, immigration restriction is mostly "an act of love."

jon writes:
participation in the transit of undocumented immigrants is seen within migrant communities as a benign, valuable service provided on behalf of the facilitator's own ethic group

Or as Jorge Ramos put it in The Latino Wave:

But while no fighting is taking place on the military or legal fronts, there is fighting going on culturally. It’s the Reconquest. Latinos are culturally reconquering lands that once were part of the Spanish empire…
ThomasH writes:

Seems like there is enough border crossing for there to be plenty of room for smuggle-altruists, smuggler-bandits, and smuggle-honest-buck-capitalists. Why does there need to be a single "narrative?" As they say south of the border, "Hay de todo en la viña del Señor.

John writes:

A tax cheat would offer a similar rationale, I suspect.
But, beyond their motives, how does their finished service ameliorate the life of a citizen or his/her grandchild?
"Give me your tired, poor and eaters?"

Vipul Naik writes:

I expect that the degree to which a smuggling operation is mom-and-pop versus organized will vary significantly with the complexity of the underlying task. Smuggling people across a land border is a relatively easier task that can be done by reasonably informed small operators; smuggling people from China to the United States requires a more complex operation. So we should expect the smuggling networks from China to United States to involve more sophisticated players and larger networks; this is indeed what we see, as I wrote in my blog post about snakeheads.

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