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

Douglas Massey *78
Douglas Massey *78
PHOTO: RICARDO BARROS

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:

  • 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.” 

U.S.-Mexico border fence in Nogales, Mexico: a view from the Mexican side.
U.S.-Mexico border fence in Nogales, Mexico: a view from the Mexican side.
PHOTO: PIOTR REDLINSKI/CORBIS/AP IMAGES

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.   

Massey at the U.S.-Mexico border in 1988, six years after the MMP was created.
Massey at the U.S.-Mexico border in 1988, six years after the MMP was created.
PHOTO: COURTESY MEXICAN MIGRATION PROJECT

Massey characterizes the U.S. attitude toward Mexi­can trade and migration as “schizophrenic.” Within a two-year period in the early 1990s, for example, Congress ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which set out to create a completely integrated market among the United States, Mexico, and Canada in all respects except one: labor. Just as it was encouraging goods, services, and capital to flow freely across the border, the United States also began to beef up border security and built the first border fences.

Increased border enforcement did not curtail illegal migration, Massey insists, which was driven by the law of supply and demand. U.S. employers wanted workers. Mexican workers wanted jobs and were willing to work for low wages. A fence was not going to keep the two groups apart.

What heightened border enforcement did, Massey says, was shift the problem. Unable to cross where they traditionally had — into California and Texas — Mexican migrants instead found new places to cross, particularly making the dangerous Sonoran Desert crossing into Arizona. If they ­succeeded, they then moved on to other states. Arizonans who complained during the 1990s and early 2000s about a surge in illegal migration were not imagining things. But it was the American government, Massey says, that unwittingly had channeled the flow of migrants into their ­backyard.

Mexicans had been crossing the Rio Grande ever since it was a border, but migration traditionally was seasonal and cyclical. Young men would head to El Norte in search of agricultural or construction work, earn money, and then return home. But when it became too risky and too expensive to migrate seasonally, migrants simply chose to stay in the United States. Because they no longer were returning home regularly, they could look for work farther from the border. They also settled down and had families, which made them even less likely to leave.

“Not only was the militarization of the border not a success,” Massey argues, “it backfired in the sense that it transformed what had been a circular migration of male workers to three states [California, Texas, and Illinois] into a much larger, settled population of families living in 50 states.”

Nor, Massey adds, has the fence been a success on its own terms. When she was governor of Arizona, Janet Napolitano — now secretary of homeland security — once disparaged the effectiveness of a border barrier by saying, “You show me a 50-foot wall, and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder.” And research seems to have proven her right: According to a 2008 study done at the University of California, San Diego, 92 to 98 percent of those who try to cross the border eventually succeed. Tienda points out that efforts to curb illegal migration have focused more on militarizing the border and less on what might be a more effective technique: penalizing employers, who continue to rely on low-wage, nonunionized, undocumented workers. 

The economic collapse that began in 2008 dramatically changed the migratory pattern, primarily because the American job market dried up, particularly in construction and agriculture. As a result, net illegal migration to the United States essentially stopped for the first time in 50 years. In 2009, Massey says, there was actually a net out-migration — in other words, more illegal workers were leaving the United States than were coming in — and the net rate of illegal migration has remained close to zero ever since. (The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported last year that the total number of unauthorized immigrants living in the country dropped by about 8 percent between 2007 and 2009, to 10.8 million.) 

Although the Border Patrol employs ever-more sophisticated detection equipment, including drone aircraft, patrol agents have less to do. Apprehensions along the border have fallen by more than 70 percent since 2000, mostly because there are fewer people to apprehend. And increasing evidence suggests that illegal migration will not surge even as the U.S. economy improves, Massey argues. Research suggests that improvements in the standard of living in Mexico and a falling birth rate, among other things, will deter immigration. 

But something else has also happened, Massey says, which has been overlooked by most of those who report on the migration issue. As illegal migration from Mexico has stopped, legal migration has surged. The State Department, with Congress’ acquiescence, has increased the number of temporary work and student visas it issues. According to the The New York Times, Mexican workers can obtain H-2A visas — agricultural visas — the same day they apply for them. Employers also have made greater use of temporary visas ­created under NAFTA that enable them to bring in more skilled workers. In 2010, the most recent year for which ­statistics are available, a record 516,000 Mexican citizens entered the United States with legal visas.

“When I’ve told people this,” Massey says, “even people from Congress, they don’t believe me.” 

Still, about 6.64 million undocumented Mexican immigrants remain in this country — largely, Massey says, people who have strong ties to the United States. What to do about them? Massey proposes that the government increase the number of permanent-residence visas available to immigrants from Mexico and Canada, which would be consistent with NAFTA’s goal of creating an integrated North American market. Under current law, those visas are capped at 20,000 per country per year, which means that Mexico receives the same allocation as Botswana, a country that sent 66 immigrants to the United States in 2010. He also proposes that Congress grant amnesty to the approximately 3 million undocumented Mexicans who were brought into the United States as children. 

“They didn’t do anything wrong,” he says. “They’ve grown up here, they speak English, they graduated from high school. They’re Americans. Let them get on with their lives.” 

Massey further proposes that Congress set out a pathway to legalization for undocumented adults who meet certain conditions, such as holding a job, paying taxes, and not having a criminal record. Crossing the border illegally, he points out, is not a crime, but is a civil infraction on the order of getting a traffic ticket.

He criticizes the Obama administration’s “halfhearted” attempt to pass the DREAM Act, which would have provided permanent residency to some of those who entered the United States as minors, and for increasing the number of deportations. But he is even more critical of states such as Arizona and Alabama that have adopted draconian statutes aimed at denying illegal immigrants access to education and other public services while empowering police to check immigration status.

“We haven’t learned anything,” Massey says. “Our only response is more enforcement, more repression.”

Most of all, he wishes that more people would study the evidence. Tienda cites the old adage that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. As Fernandez-Kelly acknowledges, “We would all like to have more influence over public officials.” 

Massey says that he often advised former Democratic senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Edward Kennedy on immigration matters. Both Moynihan and Kennedy are dead, of course, and with a few exceptions in the current Congress, “new champions of evidence-based policy and immigration reform have not come forward, at least to me.” Although some Hill staffers have confided to him that they believe in his results and analysis, they also concede, Massey says, that they are “afraid of the politics on the issue.” 

Mostly, Massey seems weary. “It’s frustrating, and it worries me as an American,” he says about ill-informed and often counterfactual immigration debate. “When you start ignoring data and logic and things that have been scientifically accepted — well, the real world, which is governed by the laws of science, is going to have its way.” Ignoring evidence, he says, is “a formula for national decline.” 

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.