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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Meet the Human Smugglers

And their surprisingly altruist motives

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:

Individuals 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.

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

First posted at Econlog.

  • Bryan Caplan is a professor of economics at George Mason University, research fellow at the Mercatus Center, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and blogger for EconLog. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.