Which Mexican immigrants in the U.S. without legal authorization get deported most frequently? Are there social or demographic characteristics that tend to predict removal? UCLA social demographer Anne Pebley, who studies immigration from Mexico and Central America, addresses these questions in a study published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Pebley, a distinguished professor of community health sciences and sociology and a fellow at UCLA’s California Center for Population Research, teamed up with professors from Emory and Princeton universities and a UCLA graduate student to analyze sociodemographic trends among Mexican immigrants who were deported or voluntarily returned to Mexico over a nearly 20-year period spanning the presidential administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

She spoke to Newsroom about the study’s findings. 

What spurred your research on this topic?

Despite frequent assertions about undocumented and deported immigrants, we know very little about the characteristics of Mexican deportees and whether these characteristics were different for deportees during the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations. For example, the Obama administration sought to deport recently arrived immigrants and those convicted of crimes in the U.S., while the Trump administration aimed to deport all undocumented immigrants, regardless of background. But how successful were they?

This was the first time that data were combined on deportees and voluntary returnees from sources on both sides of the border — the Mexican government’s Migration Survey on the Borders of Mexico–North and the Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.

What were the study’s main findings?

We found that despite differences in presidential policy and rhetoric between 2001 and 2019, one group of undocumented Mexican immigrants continuously had a higher risk of deportation than others: young, single and less-educated men.

Fewer immigrants were deported annually during the Trump administration than under either Obama or Bush, and the number of deportations was highest during the Bush era. During Obama’s first term, there was an increase in deportations of Mexican immigrants with criminal convictions, but that percentage decreased in the last two years of his presidency.

The study also found little evidence that voluntary “self-deportation” changed during the Trump era, despite the political climate and promises of crackdowns. Rather, voluntary return migration to Mexico was a trend that began early in the Obama administration, after the Great Recession of 2007­–09, due to the existence of better economic opportunities in Mexico.

The number of immigrants coming from Mexico has fallen in recent years, while the number of those who have voluntarily returned to Mexico has increased. Why is that?

Although increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric and legislation over the past 20 years may have played a role, greater economic stability in Mexico and poorer employment opportunities in the U.S. since the Great Recession appear to have been the main motivation for immigrants to voluntarily return to Mexico. During this same period, the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants coming to the U.S. declined to very low levels for similar reasons.

Does the study address immigrant children in U.S. border detention centers and their forced to return to Mexico?

The youngest age group in this study is 18 to 31. Immigrant children now coming to the southern U.S. border — with their parents or alone — are generally from Central America, not Mexico, and are seeking asylum in the U.S. because of fears of violence. It’s a very serious humanitarian problem, but not one we were able to examine in this study.

Why is this research important?

Policymakers and the public need to understand the consequences of the immigration policies — whether they work or not. While the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies had many negative effects on immigrants and Americans in general, they did not do what they were intended to in terms of deporting a larger and more diverse group of undocumented immigrants.

Pebley’s co-authors on the study, “Deportations and Departures: Undocumented Mexican Immigrants’ Return Migration During Three Presidential Administrations,” are Heeju Sohn, an assistant professor of sociology at Emory University who conducted the research as a postdoctoral scholar at UCLA; Amanda Landrian Gonzalez, a UCLA graduate student in community health sciences; and Noreen Goldman, a professor of demography at Princeton University.

► Read Emory University’s press release on the study.