Experts cite a variety of reasons - a lack of an existing population of undocumented immigrants, few low-skill jobs that don’t require English and control of the state’s border by drug cartels - as reasons for this discrepancy.
The Pew Research Center estimated in 2012 that 70,000 people living in New Mexico were undocumented immigrants. This is a decrease of 20,000 from estimates of 2011. In total, Pew estimated that 3.4 percent of New Mexicans are undocumented immigrants, the lowest share of any of the other Southwestern states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Texas – but still the 16th highest share in the nation.
UNM journalism professor Richard Schaefer said the biggest factor influencing undocumented immigration is “chain migration,” where people follow friends and family who have already reached the United States to wherever they have migrated.
University of Texas-El Paso professor Josiah Heyman, director of the school’s Center for Interamerican and Border Studies, said the proportion of undocumented immigrants is lower in New Mexico than in surrounding states mainly because of the economy in southern New Mexico.
For the most part, Heyman said, undocumented immigrants are economically motivated and responsive, and move to “booming economies” with jobs available in the service sector or in agriculture.
“The basic pattern is, at the individual level, people go to where they have friends and family members,” he said. “But in turn, where those people are is shaped by available jobs.”
Manny Sanchez came to the United States in 1999 with his family when he was 15 years old, and he now works as the head chef at a local restaurant. Originally from Puebla, Mexico, he said his family hired someone to take them on foot across the southern border.
While Sanchez has found work in Albuquerque, Schaefer said overall New Mexico lacks jobs suited for undocumented immigrants, who generally look for “low-skill” jobs that don’t require much use of English such as construction, agriculture or manufacturing.
Schaefer said undocumented immigrants used to find work in agriculture in southern New Mexico, but because of the buildup in Border Patrol in the southern part of the state, “southern New Mexico agriculture has had to change its tune.”
Chile, which is grown mostly in the southernmost 100 miles of New Mexico, has been “decimated” by the buildup in Border Patrol agents, he said.
“Border Patrol is the biggest industry for the southern (New Mexico) border,” he said.
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According to information published by the U.S. Border Patrol, as of 2004 about 18,000 agents staff the Southwest border, while 3,555 people staffed it in 1992.
The length of the New Mexico-Mexico border is 225 miles. California’s southern border is shorter, at only 150 miles.
“We have a lot of people crossing in the El Paso area because it’s so easy to blend in,” said U.S. Border Patrol spokesperson Marcela Benson.
Benson said the Sinaloa and Zeta drug cartels control the southern New Mexico border.
“For the most part, they don’t want people working in their area,” she said.
Shaefer said, although the border in New Mexico is better for lucrative contraband, it reflects the low population of residential, undocumented immigrants
By the numbers
Apprehensions at the southern border topped one million between 1983 and 2006, reaching a peak of 1.6 million in 2000. Since then, the number of people apprehended has fallen.
In fiscal year 2014, the U.S. Border Patrol reported 12,339 apprehensions in the El Paso sector out of a total 479,371 along the southwest border.
A construction boom in the 1990s created demand for unskilled workers, fueling the high numbers of undocumented immigrants moving to the United States during that time.
Heyman noted that while the majority of undocumented immigrants in the United States arrive via the southern border, it is only a slight majority. He said sixty percent arrive by illegally crossing the border while forty percent become unauthorized immigrants by overstaying a visa or violating the terms of their visa.
“Arrest numbers give a distorted view of who’s coming into the country,” Heyman said. “It’s more of a reflection of our enforcement priorities.”
Heyman said researching undocumented immigrant populations is difficult because they are not easy to identify and because undocumented immigrants may be wary of talking with researchers.
However, he said the various research methods used by different organizations all seem to output similar results, giving researchers confidence in their methods. “All the methods are converging,” he said.
A 2007 paper by the Congressional Budget Office, which reviewed 15 years of reports attempting to determine the “impact of unauthorized immigrants on the budgets of state and local governments,” reported that most studies conclude that while undocumented immigrants pay state, local and sales taxes, the sum of these fees do not offset the public funds spent to provide undocumented immigrants with services like education, health care and law enforcement.
A 2006 report from the New Mexico Fiscal Policy Project estimated that, assuming an undocumented immigrant population in New Mexico of 55,000, the total sales, property and income taxes paid by undocumented immigrants totaled nearly $65 million (or $69 million if assuming that most of the undocumented immigrant population has been in the United States for less than 10 years).
The report estimated that state and local governments spent $67.5 million on K-12 education for undocumented students in 2004, but it does not attempt to estimate health care costs or law enforcement costs. The Congressional Budget Office paper notes that undocumented immigrants are less likely than U.S. citizens or legal residents to have health insurance and therefore “rely on emergency facilities or public hospitals for treatment of non emergency illnesses and other health-related problems.”
A 2000 report by a research team of professors from several southwestern universities, including former New Mexico State University professor Nadia Rubaii-Barrett, estimated Doña Ana, Luna and Hidalgo counties combined spent $5 million on law enforcement and medical care for undocumented immigrants.
Casey Purcella is a student in the Communication and Journalism Department. This story was written for the Daily Lobo as part of UNM New Mexico News Port project.