Current Issue

Apr. 25, 2012

Vol. 112, No. 11


Crisis Contrived

Professor Douglas Massey *78 says that most of what we think about Mexican immigration is wrong

By Mark F. Bernstein ’83
Published in the April 25, 2012, issue

Douglas Massey *78
Douglas Massey *78

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, 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:

  • We are not being flooded with illegal Mexican migrants. The total number of migrants from Mexico has varied very little since the 1950s. The massive influx many have written about never happened. 
  • Net illegal migration has stopped almost ­completely. 
  • Illegal migration has not stopped because of stricter border enforcement, which Massey characterizes as a waste of money at best and counterproductive at worst.
  • There are indeed more undocumented Mexicans living in the United States than there were 20 years ago, but that is because fewer migrants are returning home — not because more are sneaking into the country. 
  • And the reason that fewer Mexican citizens are returning home is because we have stepped up border enforcement so dramatically. 

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.” 

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17 Responses to Crisis Contrived

Andrew D. Fortney *90 Says:

2012-04-23 15:48:51

As one who lives at the epicenter of central California agribusiness and sees firsthand the effects of U.S. immigration policy on a daily basis, Professor Massey speaks the truth. Another unintended, but very real, consequence of U.S. immigration policy has been the rise of gangs and gang culture. It would be interesting if someone could study that connection. If the facts support it, showing that U.S. immigration policy is a cause of the prevalence and increasing influence of gangs (Hispanic and other) should get the attention of the conservative community. (For the record, I am a registered Republican and a conservative in the nonpolitical sense of the word.)

Andre Hollis '88 Says:

2012-04-23 15:57:50

I read with some interest and great respect the comments and assumptions behind the conclusions expressed by Professor Massey. I understand and appreciate his singular focus on the issue of immigration and Mexico. Sadly, though, I believe that his assumptions that, inter alia, border security only derives from the issue of cross-border movement are limited. From 2001 to 2003 I served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counternarcotics. The Defense Department plays a very limited (by law and policy) role in support of federal, state, and local law-enforcement efforts on the Southwest Border (SWB). DoD primarily assists with training, language translation, transportation, and information analysis. Coming into the job, though, with little experience and the horror of 9/11 (my office was destroyed), I spent a great deal of time, effort, and resources on understanding the border issues from the perspective of national security -- particularly as it related to non-Mexican issues. Second, let me state clearly that I agree with the professor on several points. I found that, on numerous 2 a.m. patrols with our law-enforcement colleagues in inaccessible areas of the border, that most of the Mexican- and other-Americans crossing the border were, for the most part, trying to provide a better life for their families. Illegal? Absolutely. But as a father and husband, I could (and do) understand. The problem lies with what, however, we could not see 250 meters away with night-vision goggles. Do their bags contain their life's belongings? Drugs? Something worse? I also agree with the professor that walls are a waste of money. I so testified (to the consternation of many) that a police officer or soldier every 15 feet along the border would still leave it a sieve. Walls are a testament to the failure, not success, of government (e.g., Great Wall of China, Maginot Line, Berlin Wall, to name a few). Given the limited, necessary resources, we nontrained civilians can sneak into any country of the world. Worrisome (and, again, outside the professor's purview or apparent interest), though, is the significant number of non-Mexican, non-Latino individuals (that we know of -- likely only 5 to 10 percent of the true number) who seek access -- across the U.S.-Mexican border. The number of apprehended Pakistani, Afghan, Iranian, Yemeni, and Somalian individuals caught attempting to enter the U.S. through the SWB in 2003 caused great shock and concern in law enforcement, DoD, and in the Congress. Law enforcement apprehended over 200 "OTMs" (Other Than Mexicans) in 2003 alone. Were they intent on some nefarious activity? Can any political leader ignore the chance that they are? I think not. Thus, while the professor's belief that the South West border is simply an issue of Mexican immigration that cannot be answered with security (I'm sympathetic), he exists in an academic bubble that lacks access to information on the greater threat. Let me finish with this important caveat. No country can or will have a true "secure" border. The only countries that lack problems with illegal entry are ones that seek to keep their people inside. Fences, more technology and other symbols truly do ignore the greater issue of economic imbalance. Having said that, no US political leader can morally ignore the potential risk that open borders present to the country -- the thorny issue of illegal migration is a subset within a multi-jurisidictional problem. I hope that the Professor will acknowledge this reality.

James T. Dodds '62 Says:

2012-04-23 15:59:07

Would "Sixty Minutes" consider doing a segment on this?

Daniel Erdman '73 Says:

2012-04-23 17:26:29

This analysis rings very true, from what I know of the lives and families in my community, where I serve a church made up primarily of Latino/Latina immigrants. It is they who suffer when a "crisis" is exploited for political gain.

Thomas J. Karr '71 Says:

2012-04-23 19:00:22

So Professor Douglas Massey's policy recommendations are "evidence-based policy," but contrary recommendations are just the rallying cries of "self-styled patriots." People who don't accept his policy conclusions are "ignoring data and logic and things that are scientifically accepted." Hmm. The professor extrapolates his interview data into national trends that are inconsistent with other data (like official Census figures), then draws policy conclusions that are at best only weakly supported by his data and in some cases are contradicted by it. His policies also ignore the Law of Unintended Consequences and the idea of moral hazard (turning a blind eye to bad behavior encourages more of it). Perhaps we have not been "flooded" (his word) with illegal Mexican immigrants since 1960, but we have had an increase in the total number of residents from Latin America (Mexico, Central and South America) that far outstrips the number of legal immigrants from that region. This big increase did not come from people who "settled down and had families" here. The children of people who formed families here in the U.S. are U.S. citizens, are not in need of the DREAM act favored by Professor Massey, and their parents can legally stay in the U.S. The people he has interviewed may be migrating in the same numbers today as they were 50 years ago, but the total number of migrants from Latin America has soared since 1960. Official figures are that 6.6 million illegal immigrants from Mexico live in the U.S. Does Massey claim there were 6.6 million Mexican immigrants cycling through the U.S. in 1960, and most of them in California, Texas, and Illinois? I grew up in Illinois in the '60s, and there were not a million Mexican migrants coming and going through Illinois (which had about 10 million total residents then). In 1960, Latin Americans with limited English skills were a small minority of workers in construction, landscaping, food services, and hotel services; today they are the majority. Perhaps Professor Massey did not notice this, and perhaps his interview subjects did not point it out, but U.S. legal residents who try to run a business in those industries or work in them have noticed. Fifty years ago the phenomenon of pregnant women from Latin America with no U.S. visa coming to hospital emergency rooms just to give birth to a U.S. citizen child was so rare that it was reported in the newspaper. Today it is so common that some hospitals in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas have been overwhelmed by illegal immigrants who do not pay for child delivery, and consequently some hospitals there have shut down entirely. Yes indeed, "fewer migrants are returning home." They have no reason to return, since now (as opposed to 50 years ago) they live here quite openly, in large Latin American urban enclaves, access most public and commercial services, and are legally protected from inquiries into their immigration status by schools, hospitals, business, and even local police. Public schools in our border states have recorded a large increase in students who have Spanish as their only language. Most or all of them were not born in the U.S. but come from a Latin American country, and their numbers far exceed the number of legal immigrant children from Latin America. Where does Professor Massey explain all these illegal residents were 50 years ago? Professor Massey collects his data by interviewing Mexicans and other Latin Americans in their communities abroad and here in the U.S., and from the interviews he infers immigration numbers and patterns. What independent corroboration does he have for the inferred migration numbers? Has Professor Massey cross-compared his interview data with some objective data that does not rely on the veracity of the interviewee? Has he compared it with U.S. Census data? Has he compared it with Labor Department data? Has he compared it with the record number of school students or ER patients in the U.S. who speak only Spanish (and are likely to be immigrants)? Has he compared his data with the demographics of illegal Latin American immigrants picked up by the INS? The only explanation he offers for the large increase in the size of Latin American immigrant communities in the U.S. (much larger than legal immigration) is that formerly "cyclical" migrants "simply chose to stay in the United States." Yes they did stay and do stay, that is undeniable. The question is why they stay. Professor Massey asserts that they stayed because "it became too risky and too expensive to migrate seasonally." What in his data (other than interviewee statements) demonstrates that is the reason the migrants stayed? Could it be that many stayed because of the positive attractions to them here in the U.S. -- wages, schooling, health care, social benefits -- far outweigh the minimal risk of expulsion? Professor Massey simultaneously draws two contradictory conclusions: Border control deters people from re-entering illegally, and "increased border enforcement did not curtail illegal migration." He mentions the UCSD study that "92 to 98 percent of those who try to cross the border eventually succeed" and claims that fences don't stop people from entering the U.S. illegally, so he seems to think our increased border control has not added much risk to entering the U.S. illegally. Yet he also claims that migrants do not return home because it would "risky" for them to get back into the U.S. Which is it: easy to get into the U.S., or risky? Professor Massey claims "the militarization of the border not a success." If illegal immigrants perceive it is risky to enter the U.S. now, and this perception deters them from returning home, then the perception of risk should also deter others from trying to enter the U.S. illegally in the first place, thereby reducing the inflow of illegal immigrants. Does ! Massey have some evidence that the risk doesn't deter illegal newcomers, but only deters illegal immigrants already here and familiar with our lax internal immigration enforcement? The U.S. economic contraction in 2008 and 2009, followed by the slump in industries (like construction) favored by low-skilled immigrants, has been a deterrent to more illegal immigration and has encouraged some illegal residents to leave the U.S. Stepped-up border enforcement has stopped or deterred some from entering who otherwise would have. When our economy returns to robust growth again (I hope that is soon), illegal migrants will be more attracted to enter, some to return to the jobs and living standard they had in the U.S. and others to come here for the first time. Massey suggests "improvements in the standard of living in Mexico ... will deter immigration" to the U.S. Why? The standard of living in the U.S. will still be much higher than in Mexico, especially for low-skilled Mexican workers who displace U.S. citizens from blue-collar jobs by taking lower wages. Whatever the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. will be, effective border control will reduce the flow even lower. I agree with Massey that it would be good if employers were penalized for hiring illegal immigrants. How does Massey propose that law enforcement find the employers hiring illegal immigrants? Fake green cards are easy to obtain; Social Security numbers are easy to steal; employers cannot "profile" Hispanic employees for heightened scrutiny; schools, hospitals, local and state government cannot inquire about immigration status; and only in the narrowest of circumstances can local/state law enforcement investigate someone's immigration status. Employers who question the authenticity of fake documents (like bogus green cards) from job-seekers are not thanked by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Instead, they are investigated for violating the job-seekers' civil rights. Temporary visas for "temporary" or "seasonal" workers sound like a good idea, but how could we ensure that temporary legal immigrants actually leave the U.S. when their visa expires without the "draconian" measures Massey dislikes? We already issue many "temporary" visas, and temporary residents who overstay their visa are a large component of our illegal resident population. Immigration policy needs to be more than just "evidence-based" -- it also needs to be good policy. Massey proposes that the government increase the number of permanent-resident visas available to immigrants from Mexico. What in the professor's evidence suggests this is a good idea? Let's have more permanent residents with high skills, wherever they come from. But why should we make it easier for Mexican low-wage workers to displace US workers? What "evidence" shows this to be good social policy? Good for whom? This is not good social policy for the U.S. in the long term -- and we are already living in the long term of a very permissive immigration policy. Massey proposes a "pathway to legalization" for illegal immigrants. We had one in 1986, a complete amnesty to an estimated four million illegal residents, but did nothing about border control and little about finding illegal immigrants after they got past the border. After the amnesty the illegal immigrants just kept coming. Now we have an estimated 10 million illegal residents, most of whom came into the U.S. after the 1986 amnesty. Massey does not say what would be the objective of his "evidence-based policy and immigration reform." Is the objective to eventually reduce illegal immigration to a trickle? That is what most people here legally, both citizens and permanent legal residents, want. If the objective of "legalization" is to stop or reduce illegal immigration without "the militarization of the border," then how would it accomplish this? The likely result of his "pathway to legalization" would be what happened after 1986 -- a large influx of new illegal immigrants. It would create the moral hazard of rewarding illegal immigrants with permanent legal residency ahead of millions of people abroad who are patiently waiting for visas, and thereby would encourage more people to attempt to enter here illegally. Does Massey have some evidence that his "pathway" will discourage others from entering the U.S. illegally? Is that one of his "things that have been scientifically accepted," that now we all must agree with or risk being labeled as illogical obscurantists? Massey opposes the "draconian" statutes that Arizona and Alabama adopted in order to reduce the number of illegal residents in their States. Then for consistency he must oppose current federal law as "draconian" too, since those state laws mostly direct local and state government to help enforce the federal immigration laws -- something the Department of Homeland Security does not do very well inside the U.S. -- by identifying illegal residents and turning them over to ICE. Most countries have much more "draconian" laws against illegal immigrants (ironically, Mexico has some of the most severe enforcement against illegal residents). Even if we accept Massey's contradictory conclusions about tougher border control -- that it is unsuccessful at stopping illegal entry, and yet it deters illegal residents from leaving because it's too risky to return here -- how does enforcing federal immigration law inside the U.S. make more people stay here illegally? Massey's opposition to these states' laws seems more like pure political opinion than a scientific conclusion. Professor Massey might be doing good demographic research. But please stick to research, professor, and don't tell us that your policy views are compelled by "data and logic and things that have been scientifically accepted."

Richard Hong '81 Says:

2012-04-25 14:53:18

I read this article yesterday, and just returned from lunch with a Latina member of my congregation. I told her about this fascinating article I read that said "the number of illegal immigrants is on the rise due to border security ..." and she completed my sentence for me: "because they can't go home." One anecdote doesn't prove a thesis, but it doesn't hurt.

Gaetano Cipriano '78 Says:

2012-04-25 15:35:31

Congress has enacted laws to define and enforce immigration. We are a nation of laws. If the professor doesn't like the laws as they are currently, then he can petition his congressman and senators to have them changed. In the meantime, the laws should be enforced. Period. The president took and oath to protect and defend the Constitution, and enforcing ALL the laws is part of his job. It appears that our president either has a case of amnesia, or he lied when he took the oath of office. You can't pick and choose which laws to enforce when you are elected president of the United States.

Andrew Wilcox '73 Says:

2012-04-26 10:04:59

The Bernstein article on Professor Massey makes good and enlightening points. What it didn't contain, though, was reference to violent crime along the Mexican border related to drug cartel activity, which I believe has increased dramatically in recent years, costing many more lives - mostly Mexican, but also American. This would seem to argue for "stricter border enforcement" from a different perspective than simple immigration control.

Houghton Hutcheson '68 Says:

2012-04-30 10:00:41

Professor Massey's work largely ignores the biggest challenge presented to the border states by illegal immigration, which is the fact that these people still require social and other services whether they are citizens are not. A compassionate society would not deny anyone access to basic health-care services or an education based on immigration status, but somebody has to pay for these things. The federal government expects Texas to fund much of its Medicaid program and virtually all education costs from state and local resources. Perhaps the good people of New Jersey would like to help us with that.

Phillip H. Santamaria '62 Says:

2012-05-01 16:16:41

This article blew me away with its common-sense observations that have resulted from years of data gathering and interpretation. It gives me background on why we are continuing to see a decline in Latino immigrant clients at the food pantry here in Houston where I volunteer and in the charity organization, The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, where I am also involved. My Spanish-speaking cohort from the Society only yesterday said his client phone calls are down from 20 a week to only three a week. The bullet point about migration through Arizona today versus Texas and California in prior years is something this alumnus had never thought about. Duh! And to think, I almost did not read the article!

John Eckel '58 Says:

2012-05-07 11:05:57

The Bernstein article sheds real light on a misunderstood problem. Thomas Wolfe's title, "You Can't Go Home Again," takes on new meaning. Living in Texas, and having a home in Mexico, I know our policies have stranded Mexicans here who live in a half-world. Unable to gain legal status, they live in the shadows. Their children often grow up without a firm grip of the better elements of the culture of either country. The article stated that in 2010 some 516,000 Mexican citizens entered the U.S. with legal visas, and also that Mexico is subject to the 20,000-per-country visa cap. The larger number may be the total of all Mexican with visas, but it isn't clear.

Peter Schmalz '89 Says:

2012-05-07 13:40:09

As an alum working for the U.S. government in the immigration arena, it is good to see PAW shedding some light on the complexity of the system. One correction to note -- the INS no longer exists. That agency was disbanded under the Homeland Security Act and its functions removed from DOJ. Immigration functions are now handled under three separate agencies within DHS. These are Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS -- where I work). Alumni will also be interested to know that a Princetonian, Wen Cheng (Class of '91, I believe) was recently named the chief counsel for the ICE New York district office -- one of the largest districts in DHS.

Don Peoples Says:

2012-06-04 12:44:06

I must take exception to the "Crisis Contrived" article. The third paragraph begins, and I quote, "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". I currently live in Mission, Texas, about two miles from the Rio Grande River. I haven't done the extensive research as these scholars; I just see what happens in our local area (about 15 miles of border). According to the Border Patrol in our area, during a "typical" weekend (Friday evening to Monday morning), 450 to 500 illegals are apprehended. A high percentage of those people are from South America and Asia. WESLACO, TX., March 26, 2012: More than 50 people are in custody and an unknown number of others escaped after fleeing from a home in Weslaco on Monday morning. EDINBURG, TX., April 10, 2012: The minivan driver whose rollover wreck Monday killed one of his 18 passengers and hospitalized the rest remained behind bars Tuesday. MC ALLEN, TX., April 11, 2012: In the wake of the rollover accident that killed nine illegal immigrants, U.S. authorities are working alongside the Mexican consulate to notify relatives and return the bodyies home. Late Tuesday, a van carrying 18 people rolled over on the eastbound Expressway 83 frontage road in Palmview, TX. More than 100 illegal immigrants were rescued Wednesday morning, May 2, 2012, from a stash house in the 2800 block of East University Drive in Edinburg, TX. Authorities said the immigrants hailed from Mexico and Central and South America. ALTON, TX., May 22, 2012: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are working to arrest a human-trafficking group that had 131 illegal immigrants stuffed inside a house Tuesday afternoon. A survey of one week of human smuggling cases - from April 6 to April 13 - reveals a variety of methods and circumstances, mostly involving people from Mexico and Central America paying thousands of dollars for a shot at making it past the Valley. Court records show women were caught attempting to smuggle children across international borders in Brownsville and Hidalgo. Stash houses were busted in Havana, Palmview, La Grulla, and twice in Edinburg, netting another 178 illegal immigrants. Another 14 people were caught in two incidents in and around Falfurrias. -- Don Peoples, retired senior staff, 1961-2004

Taren Robin Says:

2012-08-10 09:43:49

I respect the research that has been done. However, in central Kentucky we have over- crowding in kindergarten classes with children who are of Hispanic descent who cannot speak English. They are placed on a school bus and come to us with no ability to communicate with teachers or peers. Come to Kentucky and walk the streets of rural communities of 10,000 to 20,000 and see how many legal citizens are found on a Saturday night on Main Street USA. They hide on horse farms, working during the day, and sleep on the side of roads near race tracks in their cars at night. They place their children on school buses alone with no skills to communicate. The kids end up in classrooms, and what should we do with them? They have moved into the heart of our country and away from border states. They come here to work the farms illegally. Farm owners hire them, because they work hard. I don't mind that they are here, but immigration to the USA should require, as it did from the beginning of our existence in America, that those who come here do so in a manner that adheres to the law of our land.

Kali Pliego Says:

2012-08-10 09:46:33

In response to the question of how Mexican migration and gangs are connected: Research and experience have taught me that the gang culture of the U.S. has affected the migrant youth and not the other way around. Sociologically, this makes sense because the groups of young people share a common experience of being outsiders, feeling the pressures of economic and physical oppression of the cities and neighborhoods they live in, speaking a common language, etc. Quickly, they create a type of "brotherhood" that fulfills emotional needs of belonging and value validation, and the physical need of security. Remember, Mexicans and Latin Americans are not the only people in gangs. Yet due to the violent way of life of the countries they have come from (especially LA countries), the Latin gangs tend to be more ruthless and extreme in their violence. After several policy changes that took place during the gang heyday of the '80s and '90s, many of these migrant gang-bangers were deported to their home countries. It was at that point that that the gangs were actually introduced to LA soil.

Mary Mowdy Says:

2012-08-11 17:00:20

I appreciate very much the work that Douglas Massey and his institute are doing. There is a time when the government officials need to drop what they are doing and return to the world of science to get a fresh, enlightened perspective. A return to what the academic world can tell us is imperative for those who are charged with creating policy. It is foolish for them to continue to lean on speculation and suspicion when truth is readily available. I learned of this article via the people who have created the documentary Panic Nation and who posted its link on Facebook. I am grateful to learn about Massey's work and hope he and his group will be heard and their work embraced.

T.V. Krishnamurthy Says:

2012-08-17 15:49:01

Basic human instinct is to live in a familiar neighborhood. The forced international economic laws/treaties that deny some people a livelihood leads to migration. In the pre-slavery era, there were no immigration laws. The modern immigration laws are themselves a product of the colonial era and need to be scrapped. If you examine the colonial era, the Europeans migrated out.
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