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What is La Migra?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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La Migra is a Spanish slang term used to refer to employees of the United States Government who are responsible for immigration enforcement and border patrols. Agencies such as United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol are both referred to as La Migra. The term does not merely apply to law enforcement at the border; it is also used to refer to immigration officers who make inspections of businesses in the course of searching for illegal immigrants.

The term is derived from migración, a Spanish word which means “migration” in English. It is widely understood in the larger community in parts of the United States which have a large Hispanic population, such as states located along the Mexican border.

When entering into the United States legally, dealing with La Migra at the border can still be an unsettling experience. ICE officers have the authority to search vehicles and confiscate passports while they are inspected. Due to a proliferation of “watch lists,” legal immigrants with suspicious names may find themselves detained by ICE officers until they can prove their identity. While living or working in the United States, immigrants from any country are subject to inspection, and they may be asked for papers to prove their legal residence.

For illegal immigrants, of course, La Migra represents the end of the line. At the border, ICE officers strive to prevent illegal entry into the country. This is accomplished by patrolling the border and heavily controlling access points. ICE also works within the United States to track down and deport illegal immigrants. Unfortunately, because documentation for legal immigrants can sometimes be incomplete, they have occasionally been caught up in ICE raids as well.

Because of the large proportion of illegal immigrants from Central and South America, Hispanic immigrants are oftentimes more closely inspected than immigrants from other nations. Some feel that they are subject to discrimination, because La Migra appears to inspect restaurants and businesses with a heavy percentage of Hispanic staff more frequently. A cry of “La Migra!” in a crowded kitchen can cause most of the staff, legal or not, to vanish until the coast is clear.

There have been reported cases of employers using fear of La Migra to control their employees. In some industries, illegal immigrants are viewed almost as a disposable resource, especially in border states. If field workers are rounded up and deported, a new batch can usually be quickly found, as many people seek their fortunes in the United States. Fear of La Migra can put an immigrant into an uncomfortable position, as unscrupulous employers have been known to use it as blackmail. Even legal immigrants are not exempt from this fear, as ICE raids in the early 2000s proved.

Concerns about immigration policy in the United States have existed since the country was founded. At the turn of the twentieth century, immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and other impoverished European nations were maligned. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the focus had turned to immigrants from Central and South America. Immigration reformers would like to ensure that everyone in the United States, legal or not, is given basic human rights and respect. Some of these reformers are outspoken critics of the practices used by La Migra, especially when innocents are caught up in the tide of an immigration raid.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon972018 — On Oct 01, 2014

Someone posted that they were surprised to learn this term was appearing in pop culture? Have you ever seen a Cheech and Chong movie?

By anon972017 — On Oct 01, 2014

Saw an entire bus station which was very busy empty in less than a minute when La Migra showed up.

By anon336958 — On Jun 01, 2013

In response to a comment above: We did in fact play a neighborhood game called "La Migra" as children. It's like a reversal of hide and seek with two people who are it being 'La Migra' and all the others are the 'pollos' who have to tag the base (sneak into the States) before they are tagged. If they get the base, it means they have successfully penetrated the USA. If they are tagged then they become La Migra in the next round.

It seems it is a game that Mexican kids in border towns because I've talked to friends of mine who are also Mexican from L.A. or Orange County and asked if they played it as kids too and they have no idea what I'm talking about. They just look at me with a confused and yet condescending look as if to say, "Wow, you're all kinds of ghetto, aren't you?" But it is a very fun game!

By Penzance356 — On May 15, 2011

When I visited friends in California I heard about La Migra game, which involves some people hiding while others chase them down in their cars! I expect young kids play something similar in their yards and neighborhoods.

By Potterspop — On May 12, 2011

@angelBraids - Without wanting to diminish the seriousness of your point I think we have to remember one thing. Authority figures have always been subject to suspicion and hostility.

It's something that I think is always going to be with us, regardless of how laws and social attitudes may change. Think about tax inspectors, airport gatekeepers, traffic cops and so on.

Having said that, perhaps some situations are worse than others. I have several Hispanic friends who become wary and fearful around officials of any kind. They are all second or third generation Americans, but even the mention of La Migra in a passing comment changes the atmosphere instantly.

By angelBraids — On May 10, 2011

Having a strong interest in equal rights I feel quite sorry for people who are simply trying to make a living for themselves and their families, but have to live in fear of officials harassing them.

It strikes me that the relationship between La Migra and Mexican immigrants, (legal or not) has created a whole lot of stereotypes for both sides.

There's a wonderful poem called 'La Migra' by Pat Mora that highlights exactly what I mean. If you have the chance to read it please do. I'd be interested to hear what you think.

By chivebasil — On May 09, 2011

I was just studying about this in my intro class! I was really surprised to learn that "La Migra" is even making appearances in pop culture.

Apparently La Migra make appearances in everything from Latino television to hip hop songs to popular movies. They are frequently portrayed as bumbling cops whose stupidity is matched only by their clumsiness.

I guess they're king of like the Keystone Kops or more modern incarnations like Super Troopers or Reno 911.

Interesting, no?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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