It’s the time of year for Christmas shopping and trips to see family. Most of us have the good fortune of being able to hop in a car or catch a flight, visit our loved ones and return to our lives and our jobs a few days later.
Going home for Christmas isn’t so simple if you’re an undocumented immigrant. I was reminded of this yesterday when a woman who works in my neighborhood—an undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. earlier this year to support the baby daughter she left in the care of her parents back home in Mexico—asked me about my holiday plans. After telling her about the vacation I’m taking in a couple days, I asked if she had plans to visit family for the holidays. She replied that she’s staying put in New York–her first of what are likely to be many Christmases away from home.
Many undocumented immigrants, in fact, go five, ten, or twenty years or more without visiting home or seeing their families. The reason isn’t for lack of desire. Rather, undocumented immigrants understand that if they go home for Christmas, they will have to relive the horrors of crossing the border once the time comes to return to work in the United States. They will again have to pay a human smuggler $2000-$5000 to sneak them in the country. They will run the risk of being raped, beat up, or robbed by bandits in the Arizona desert, or even by the very human smugglers they hire. They will have to walk through the desert for 2-5 days, risking dehydration, deportation, or death.
The costs and risks of again making the brutal passage through the Arizona desert are too high—one time is enough for anybody—so they remain in the U.S. until they feel like they’ve saved enough money to return home for good. Many hope that day will come next Christmas, but usually it doesn’t.
Things haven’t always been this way. My colleague Douglas Massey of Princeton University wrote a fantastic piece for The New York Times a few years ago called “The Wall That Keeps Illegal Workers In.” Here he explains why increased border enforcement has paradoxically contributed to higher rates of permanent settlement among undocumented immigrants—many of whom would much rather be home celebrating Christmas with their families.