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Immigration System Complexity at US-Mexico Border

The immigration system at the U.S.-Mexico border has been known for its complexity and reliance on restriction and inflexibility. With its catch and release policies, the “prevention through deterrence” program, and the border’s increasing militarization, the system at the southern border has started to function as a labyrinth (Chambers et al., 2021, p. 1). Sociological theories can shed light on the system’s functioning and purposes.

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From the perspective of the critical race theory, white supremacy permeates the operation of diverse institutions, including immigration law, and can result in the racialization of immigrants despite laws that are formally colorblind. In the presence of any barriers to legal immigration from Mexico, Hispanic and Latino individuals take increasingly complex and long routes of travel, such as the Ajo migration corridor (Chambers et al., 2021). Such barriers include having no spouses/blood relatives in the U.S., poverty, no employer sponsorship, and other issues dealing with unequal distribution of opportunity. Hispanic families often face stricter consequences than white illegal immigrants for the same offense. Some examples are the forced separation of Hispanic families that cross the border illegally in search of a better life and jobs and the taking of illegal immigrants’ children from parents, sometimes with little chance of reunion (Fitzgerald et al., 2019). All of this might point at structural racism as one of the immigration system’s informing principles.

Finally, functionalism seeks to understand society by introducing the notion of functional unity or the interdependence of diverse norms and institutions that possess internal consistency and cooperate to support society’s stability. From this viewpoint, the mentioned emphasis on restriction and deterrence at the U.S.-Mexico border is a component of a larger multi-institutional system supporting the early detection and punishment of those demonstrating non-compliance with the law at any level. The immigration system makes those who cannot cross the border legally take high-risk unauthorized migration routes, which results in physical exhaustion, heat stress, and death from dehydration and heat stroke (Chambers et al., 2021). This form of punishment for non-compliance makes the immigration system similar to law enforcement institutions at other levels that make crime costly.


Chambers, S. N., Boyce, G. A., & Jacobs, W. J. (2021). Constructing a desert labyrinth: The psychological and emotional geographies of deterrence strategy on the US/Mexico border. Emotion, Space and Society, 38, 1-9. Web.

Fitzgerald, D., Mcclean, A. Y., & Lopez, G. (2019). Mexicans in U.S. routinely confront legal abuse, racial profiling, ICE targeting, and other civil rights violations. USC Dornsife. Web.

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