It costs 35 cents to walk across the Paso del Norte bridge from Juárez, Mexico, into Texas; 50 cents to return. Still, 85 cents makes it a cheap commute, and some 14,000 people cross the bridge on foot each day to work, shop, visit family, or go to school in the United States.
There can be a two-hour wait to cross during the morning rush hour, and even at midday, a line of Mexicans stretches back across the bridge, almost all of them holding laminated border-crossing cards issued by the U.S. State Department.
Just a few dozen miles away, however, there is no toll at all to drive across the two-lane Fabens-Caseta bridge, and no northbound traffic, either. Acres of pecan orchards line the farm-to-market roads on the U.S. side, but what would otherwise be an inspiring view of the Juarez mountains on the western horizon is broken by a 15-foot-high, rust-colored chain-link fence. Fields for a hundred yards or so on both sides of the fence are kept plowed and unplanted, to make it easier to spot anyone trying to sneak across.
Hardly anyone is trying to sneak across the Mexican border these days, although you might not know that by watching the news, trolling the blogosphere, or following the political debates. For a certain brand of self-styled patriot, “Secure the border!” has become a rallying cry on the order of “Remember the Maine!” but border enforcement has reached record levels by any metric one wants to use. Twenty years ago, there was no fence along the Mexican border, but there are now more than 850 miles of fence (in several, unconnected sections) between Brownsville, Texas, and San Diego, Calif. The budget for border control — about $11.8 billion this year — is 13 times larger than it was in 1990, and last year the Immigration and Naturalization Service deported more than 400,000 people who had been living in the United States illegally, a record.
Much of what Americans think they know about illegal immigration is wrong, and that makes Douglas Massey *78 angry. Massey is the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs and director of Princeton’s Office of Population Research. He also founded, and for the last 30 years has run, the Mexican Migration Project (MMP), which has compiled a unique database of ethnographic information about border crossing: who migrates, where they come from, where they go, and how that has changed over time.
The MMP’s reports are freely available to anyone through its website, http://mmp.opr.princeton.edu. But statistics can be sterile things. Get Massey going, and one gets an earful about the true state of affairs along the border. To wit:
Mull over that last point for a minute. If Congress had done nothing to secure the border over the last two decades — if it had just left the border alone — there might be as many as 2 million fewer Mexicans living in the United States today, Massey believes.
“If the United States had set out to design a dysfunctional immigration policy,” he wrote in 2007, “it could hardly have done a better job than it did.”