Illustration of three immigrants and government forms
Illustrations by Alex Nabaum

Economics professor Tara Watson’s new book examines the financial and human toll of undocumented immigrants.


Crises at the U.S. border with Mexico have gotten a tremendous amount of attention recently during what economist Tara Watson and journalist Kalee Thompson say is a “wave of national obsession with illegal immigration.” Yet what are the costs of interior enforcement—that is, the policies, people and programs aimed at removing undocumented immigrants already living here? It’s a question Watson and Thompson explore in great detail in their new book, The Border Within: The Economics of Immigration in an Age of Fear.

At Williams since 2004, Watson long has woven her research in labor and health economics and U.S. social policy into courses such as The Economics of Immigration and Your Money or Your Life: Health Disparities in the U.S. In 2013 and 2014, she published two papers examining the impacts of local enforcement on immigrants’ mobility and their willingness to enroll in health insurance. In each case, she wrote, the policies didn’t necessarily prompt undocumented people to leave an area or stop the rate of immigration. Instead, they created an environment of fear and uncertainty, deterring families from, say, enrolling their eligible citizen children in public health insurance.

The Border Within expands upon that research, interweaving history, policy and data with the stories of six families—four with one or more family members born in Mexico, one family originally from Guatemala and one from South Korea. Each family has at least one undocumented member. Watson and Thompson connected with them through immigrant groups or via friends, met with the families in person at least once and remained in touch by phone over the course of several years. The individuals’ names have been changed along with some identifying details. “It’s easy for readers to get lost in the statistics,” Watson and Thompson write in the prologue. “Our hope is that sharing these stories will help to elucidate how sometimes-abstract policy decisions play out on the ground.”

An excerpt of their book follows.

NEVADA, 2005

When Jorge Ramirez left for the United States border in 2005, he’d never been outside his small town in the northeast part of Mexico State. When he was growing up his father worked in masonry and his mother sold food in the local street markets. He was the only one of four brothers to graduate from high school, but without money or connections, attending university was out of the question, he says. Through his early 20s, Jorge worked as a door-todoor salesman, peddling everything from books to knives to mirrors to watches. He was 24 when he decided to leave home and head north.

Jorge knew just one person in the U.S., a friend who was living and working near Las Vegas, Nevada. In Mexico, Jorge was living at home with his parents and worrying about their medical bills. “All my family, they are self-employed, everybody live day by day,” he says. “My parents are getting old, and I know that they cannot support their life, so that’s why I had to try to come to U.S. and try to support my family.”

He paid $1,500 to a coyote—a guide who makes an illicit business of orchestrating illegal border crossings— and came over the border with a group of five men near Sonora, Arizona. He brought nothing with him but clothes and water. “I figured out it’s kind of like a chain,” Jorge says of the system of coyotes and lesser “gias” (guides) that shuttle migrants across vast expanses of borderland desert, often sheltering them in a series of safe houses. “You talk to the first person, and you are blind after that. You don’t know what’s going on, you just have to follow.” Jorge’s crossing took close to two weeks. “I don’t know how I can explain this,” he says, sitting in the comfortable living room of his own home in Washington State nine years later. “I know it’s not good. I know I did bad, but it’s just that I have to do it for my family.”

Jorge made it to Las Vegas and moved in with his friend, who helped him to buy a fake social security card and then to get a job at his own workplace, a local Wendy’s fast-food restaurant. They started Jorge on the fries, making $5.75 an hour. He generally worked 40 to 50 hours a week, sometimes on 12-hour shifts that ended at 2:00 in the morning. Despite his low salary, the money was significant to Jorge’s family. Every week he would go to Western Union and wire most of his paycheck back to Mexico. “That was a huge, huge difference for my family,” Jorge says. “I can really support and pay for medical bills that I couldn’t [pay for] in Mexico.”

Within a couple of months, Jorge was moved to burger preparation, then to cashier.

The store manager told him he could easily rise to manager if he improved his English. All but a couple of the employees at the restaurant were Latino, Jorge says, and though it was never discussed openly, Jorge assumed that many of the others were undocumented as well. “To be honest, I think they know. The managers, they know, but nobody wants to take those jobs,” he says. “It’s hard to find people who want to work for that money.” Jorge was a standout employee. Within a couple months he got a raise—to $6 an hour. The manager didn’t tell him in advance, he just waited until Jorge opened the first paycheck reflecting the tiny bump.

“Hey! Did you see your check?” he asked Jorge.
“I gave you a raise! You’re a good worker.”
“Right. Thank you!” Jorge said.
“I mean, it’s not really a lot of money, but that made me feel good,” he recalls.


The labor market is central to the debate about immigration in America. Are immigrants good or bad for the U.S. economy? How do immigrants impact the job prospects of native workers? How do they affect the prices of goods and services? These questions lie at the crux of many disagreements about the ideal level of immigration and the best approach to enforcement.

Most immigrants come to the United States to work. There’s a reason that migration tends to go from poor countries to rich ones. Simply put, migrants want to earn more than they can at home. Yes, some immigrants are motivated to come to the United States to take advantage of health care and social supports or to give their children the opportunity to go to better schools in America. Others come to flee violence or persecution or to live with a spouse or child. But the consensus among economists is that the primary motivator for migration is jobs. Ironically, as a 2006 review piece by Gordon Hanson at the University of California, San Diego, notes, the higher wages in the United States are such an obvious driver of migration that there are relatively few studies on the topic.

Perhaps the best evidence that jobs are a primary motivator for migration is that immigrants’ actions are strongly influenced by employment opportunities. For instance, one 1999 study found that when Mexican wages decreased by 10%, apprehensions at the U.S. border—a measure of attempts at unauthorized migration— increased 6% to 8% over the next few months. It’s also true that U.S. employment opportunities matter: Following the recent Great Recession, for example, the unauthorized population dropped from an estimated 12.2 million to 10.5 million.

Illustration of a laborer carrying a stack of woodOne recent study shows that individual-level economic prospects matter as well. Matching U.S. census and administrative records, researchers Randall Akee of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Maggie R. Jones of the U.S. Census Bureau follow a cohort of immigrants who arrived in the United States between 2005 and 2007. (Because of the researchers’ reliance on administrative earnings records, the sample is employed in the formal sector and skews toward documented immigrants.) When immigrants first arrive, their earnings are 30% to 40% below that of similarly aged U.S.-born workers in the state. Their wages gradually increase over time. The average earnings of immigrants who stay in the United States (or, at least, of those who stayed until the study concluded in 2015) converge to those of the native born by 2012. By contrast, those immigrants who eventually leave the country experience relative wage declines in the year or two just before they leave the United States. Though this pattern isn’t definitive, especially since the researchers can’t rule out that some immigrants absent from the administrative data still live in the United States, it certainly suggests that immigrants stick around for good wages and leave when opportunities dry up.

Once in the U.S., immigrants move to where the jobs are. Less-educated U.S.-born men don’t move much in response to a local economic downturn, but Mexican-born men are very responsive to such downturns, leaving areas that are struggling and finding areas of growth within the United States. Internal migration within the U.S. is further support for the notion that immigrants tend to be driven by work opportunities.

We also know that low-income immigrants are less likely to qualify for and take advantage of social services than low-income Americans. Most programs exclude undocumented immigrants, and many require five years of legal residency before documented immigrants are eligible. But even among eligible immigrants, participation rates are lower than those for comparable native-born Americans. Most immigrants arrive knowing they will need to work to support themselves, and labor-force participation rates of foreign-born men (especially undocumented men) well exceed those of the native born. Immigrants are also less likely to commit crime than the U.S. born.

All of these facts point to the same conclusion: The primary motivator for migration to the United States is the work opportunities. While there are some immigrants who move mainly to flee violence, to join loved ones or to take advantage of the safety net, they are in the minority. This means that policy efforts to reduce access to public programs or to raise the fear of deportation are unlikely to have a major impact on the number of immigrants living in the United States. Immigrants, including unauthorized immigrants, will continue to live and work in the United States as long as there are good work opportunities available.


Jorge Ramirez had been working at the Nevada Wendy’s for seven months when he heard about a construction job in Washington State. A contractor who had been hired to do the stucco work on a new outdoor shopping mall was looking for laborers. Jorge had been doing some stuccoing work on the side in Nevada, and soon several Mexican guys he knew from the area decided to head north together.

The company arranged the lodging, which by Jorge’s standards was incredibly expensive: $300 a week for a hotel room. The first month the work went smoothly, but then the contractor ran out of money. “When he realize he doesn’t have enough money to finish the job he just left,” Jorge says. The workers were stiffed out of their second month’s pay. Lena Graber, an immigration attorney in California who has volunteered at workers’ rights clinics, says this scenario is shockingly common: “It will blow your mind how much people work and don’t get paid.” Under-the-table work, particularly, she notes, leaves undocumented workers with “total vulnerability to discrimination and poor treatment by employers—as well as just insecurity and lower wages.”

Despite the way the job ended, Jorge had realized he liked the plastering work. He started just walking around to construction sites, going up to the man who seemed to be in charge, and asking for work. “I met a very good guy,” Jorge says. “He gave me an opportunity for one week and after one week he say that I should stay with him.” Jorge ended up working for the man, a small-business owner who was himself an immigrant from Eastern Europe, for almost four years and learning every side of the stucco business. He enjoyed the work, but eventually the businessman, too, encountered financial problems. Once again, Jorge wasn’t paid for his last couple months of work. Since he was working illegally, going to the authorities didn’t occur to him as an option. But he doesn’t hold a grudge against his old boss. “I got experience from him, and I am very grateful because he was a great boss,” Jorge says. “I learned a lot from him. I know he didn’t pay me but he wasn’t a bad person.”

Jorge had been able to get a driver’s license soon after he arrived in Washington. The state was one of the first to allow undocumented immigrants to get licenses, a policy that gained public support in part because of the argument that it would be impossible to harvest the state’s large apple crop if undocumented immigrants were unable to drive to and in the orchards. Jorge had been driving in Nevada, too—there was no other way to get to and from his fast-food job. But he did so illegally. The practice was common, he says, and the cops weren’t that strict. During the time he lived in Nevada in 2005 and 2006, he never heard of a person being arrested after a traffic stop simply for not having a license. The one time he got pulled over it was for making an illegal turn. “They ask me for my license and insurance,” he says. “And so I have insurance. I didn’t have a license.” The cop handed him a ticket for $250. “That kind of hit me hard. But I don’t want to get in any trouble so I paid right away.”

Reprinted with permission from The Border Within: The Economics of Immigration in an Age of Fear by Tara Watson and Kalee Thompson, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2021 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.