Massey is no polemicist. He is a respected social scientist who has spent more than a generation studying this issue. The MMP is not the only organization that studies Mexican migration patterns; research groups including the Pew Hispanic Center have reached similar conclusions. But no one has examined it in so many places, in such detail or as long as the MMP. The project has “changed the way we think about migration as a social process,” says Marta Tienda, the Maurice P. During Professor in Demographic Studies and director of Princeton’s Program in Latino Studies. It has had “profound effects on our knowledge” about the issue of illegal immigration, adds Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, a senior lecturer in sociology at Princeton.
The MMP occupies two small rooms on the second floor of Wallace Hall: One is Massey’s office, and the other is shared by Karen Pren, the longtime project manager, and the MMP’s small staff of graduate and postdoctoral students. It is a collaborative project affiliated with the University of Guadalajara, where Jorge Durand, a professor of social anthropology and the MMP’s co-director, works. The Princeton team communicates actively with its Mexican counterparts.
Massey says he was attracted to demography as a young graduate student “because it combined the rigor of psychology with the relevance of anthropology, while offering some hope of intellectual advance.” In 1978, after earning his doctorate in sociology, he met Joshua Reichert *79, a Ph.D. anthropology student who just had returned from studying a small town in Mexico with a large migrant population. Massey was impressed by the amount of information that anthropologists could collect in the field and wrote his first grant proposal to conduct his own study. He and Reichert — who today is managing director of the Pew Environmental Group — later wrote several papers together.
Two years later, when he was an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Massey obtained a grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct a broader study of Mexican migration. From this, in 1982, the MMP was born. Although the MMP has received some foundation grants over the years, the NIH has remained its principal source of funding, through the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
The MMP conducts its surveys — which cover both legal and illegal migration — following a familiar pattern. Each December and January, teams of field researchers recruited in Mexico visit a rural area, a small town, a mid-sized city, and a more populated neighborhood in a larger city, selecting different locations each year. Advance work is important. Field workers talk with local officials ahead of time to obtain letters vouching for their bona fides, which they can show to wary interview subjects. In the villages, Pren says, a more effective technique is to approach the local priest and ask him to announce their visit at Mass. On a designated morning, the team meets in a central location and then disperses to knock on doors and ask their questions.
Those questions, which provide the basis of their studies, resemble what a particularly inquisitive census taker might ask. How many people are in the household? What are their ages and education levels? Has anyone ever migrated to the United States? Where, when, and for how long? How many trips has each person made? How much did each earn? Did anyone use any social services? Do any relatives currently live in the United States? Where?
Convincing Mexicans to answer those questions has gotten harder, says Gabriela Sanchez-Soto, a postdoctoral research associate who has been on two MMP field trips. People are more nervous about talking to nosy strangers, in part because they fear that the information might be used against relatives living illegally in the United States, and in part because they do not want to advertise that they have relatives who might be sending them cash. Still, researchers say they ultimately can convince people to disclose whether they have relatives in the United States.
Contrary to what one might think, very few Mexican migrants come from the border area. Historically, 60 to 70 percent of Mexican migration to the United States has come from the west-central part of the country, centered around Guadalajara, but by the early 2000s more and more migrants began to come from the central and southeastern areas, even as far away as the Yucatan. This has forced the MMP to broaden the range of its field research. “Migration has gone everywhere, so we have to go everywhere,” says Pren, who has worked with the MMP since 2001, when she was a doctoral student at Penn.
In July and August, those same field workers also track Mexican migrants living in the United States, targeting about four communities each year. Once clustered in the Southwest, migrants now can be found around the country — picking the Vidalia onion crop in Georgia, cleaning shellfish in North Carolina, working in Maryland poultry plants and Iowa meat-packing plants, and (until the recession) doing construction work in Arizona, Nevada, and Florida.
Once field work is complete, it can take up to 15 months for the data to be entered at the University of Guadalajara and processed in Princeton before the information is released to the public. The MMP has more than 2,000 registered subscribers, and over 30 years it has assembled an impressive database. Field workers have visited 128 Mexican communities, interviewed people in more than 20,000 Mexican households and nearly 1,000 U.S. households, and compiled migration data on nearly 140,000 individuals. Its work has been peer-reviewed in dozens of books and hundreds of scholarly journals and dissertations. The MMP also publishes migrants’ oral histories and collections of folk art called retablos.
The MMP has been so successful that in 1998 Massey and Durand launched another project, the Latin American Migration Project, which has conducted similar ethnographic surveys of U.S. migration in nine Central and South American countries. Massey notes that the MMP’s findings differ from the broader Latin American findings in several respects. Migration patterns from places other than Mexico are much less tied to economic conditions in the United States, for example, and many more Latin Americans, particularly South Americans, migrate to Europe.