Immigration

What the Data Actually Say About Illegal Immigration

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Mark Bernstein profiles Douglas Massey, the founder and co-director of Princeton's Mexican Migration Project—"a unique database," Bernstein writes, "of ethnographic information about border crossing: who migrates, where they come from, where they go, and how that has changed over time." From that data, Massey concludes that

Yeah, but what percentage of the migrants are RIFF RAFF? Answer THAT, Mr. Fancy Pants Professor.

• 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.

Here's why:

How nice of the U.S. government to provide me with an obstacle course.

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.

While the recession has essentially ended net illegal immigration into the United States, legal migration has picked up: "In 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, a record 516,000 Mexican citizens entered the United States with legal visas." I'm glad to hear that the feds are granting visas to more people. I'd be gladder if the same government weren't simultaneously engaged in a harsh and pointless crackdown on border-crossers.

Elsewhere in Reason: Massey is cited frequently in our pages.

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  1. Every major political party needs some boogeyman to keep the sheep frightened. Team red has terrorists and illegals. Team blue has fat cats who don’t pay their fair share and crazed libertarians who will take food off the poor childins table.

    1. a friend of mine golfs with an FBI guy who, when he retires, plans to move out west (and away from any major city). doesn’t want to be around when one of the +1,500 illegals/terrorists that are currently on the watch list opens their can of jihadi whoop-ass

      1. Would that be the 1500 illegal terrorists who have Ron Paul bumper stickers on their cars? Or the ones that have more than 7 days worth of canned lima beans in their house?

        1. Sams Club and Costco…1 year prep per kit, 2700. NO shit. It is on sale actually. I love the free market.

          1. Welcome to Costco, I love you.

    2. It might seem a little less boogeymanish if you lived in, say, south Texas.

      1. Ha, I live in Maryland and in my sleepy little community, half of the residents or more only speak Korean or some form of Hindi. I don’t know how many of them are legal, but they don’t seem to be particurarly menacing and I could really care less that they are taking all of the cashier jobs at the local Walmart.

        1. They do not speak English but work as cashiers at Wal-Mart?

          1. Wal-Mart cash registers are basically just picture menus at this point.

          2. Yes. Maybe a few words, like hi and thank you. But nothing on a real conversational level.

        2. Yes, a lot of Koreans wander over across the Bering Straights before ambling over to Maryland.

          1. I thought they came on a plane, but what do I know.

      2. Living in AZ I am constantly waking up in the middle of the night checking our home for Mexicans. They really are boogeymen.

        1. MWG|4.30.12 @ 12:47PM|#
          Living in AZ I am constantly waking up in the middle of the night checking our home for Mexicans

          This is one of the funnier sentences I’ve read all year.

          Maybe you should just adopt one, and quit losing sleep?

          1. Or you could rent the space under your bed to some illegals.

            They subdue the monsters Americans won’t subdue.

          2. That wouldn’t be fair to hard working’ Americans looking to be adopted.

      3. I’m sure all those farmers are frightened of all the illegal aliens picking their crops…

  2. I live in New Mexico and have seen what the article is saying in real time. My neighbor had a handyman/gardener fellow whose family is split between here and Mexico. He is a US Citizen and travels back and forth a lot. Used to be that some of his extended family would come here seasonally for work and then go back. This had been going on back to when New Mexico was still in Mexico. With the increase in border security more of the family decided to just stay put once here while others stopped coming as much.

    I have no problem with Mexicans wanting to come here to work.

  3. The economy seems to have done what the Border Patrol couldn’t/wouldn’t – stop illegal immigration.

    1. This of course can be generalized…

      The market seems to have done want the government can’t — match supply and demand.

  4. Reason #26 for a Guest Worker program in the style of the old Bracero system.

    NOT open borders.

    1. EO, please leave the borders open so that I can get the FUCK OUT!

  5. 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.

    Not sure how he divines either of these bullet points from any imaginable data he has access to. Has he corrected for the fact that Mexico has become a violent hellhole in the past decade? I can see a lot of immigrants staying and bringing their families because they are afraid to go back.

    1. Has he corrected for the fact that part of Mexico has become a violent hellhole in the past decade?

      Fixed.

      The country as a whole is doing pretty well, and the smart money is in strong growth as China’s labor costs continue to rise and Mexico’s proximity makes its labor more desirable.

      1. part of Mexico has become a violent hellhole in the past decade

        Thanks to our wonderful WOD.

        1. I agree. But the fact we’re responsible for it doesn’t make it ignorable.

      2. Nice dodge.

        The answer is that whole or part, he hasn’t. Or if he has he’s keeping it secret.

  6. Michael Barone has an article from 2 weeks ago to this effect. Scanning the comments, I see lots of denial, anger and grief. Next stage is acceptance. For example:

    So from now on, everyone who claims that illegal immigration is a problem are wrong, they are not informed, isn’t that right? The elite know-it-alls now say that there isn’t any and they’ve got the data to prove it. So, those who claim to see a problem need to just shut up about it because they’re trying to create a problem that isn’t there, according to their data. Amazing.
    See how this game works?

    Indeed. The “game” of collecting facts and using those facts to test hypotheses rather than allowing mass hysteria and anecdotal evidence to drive the debate.

    1. Bull. There’s no gorram statistical hypothesis testing being done, it’s Massey’s say-so. There’s no imaginable database analysis of which can lead to those conclusions, barring a secret mind-reading device.

      1. You know, there is this obscure technique that approximates the effect of “mind reading.” It’s called a survey. The way it works is that you talk to people, ask them questions and then, as if by magic, you gain access to what would otherwise be secret information stored in their heads.

        So, for example, let’s say you wondered whether or not “the reason that fewer Mexican citizens are returning home is because we have stepped up border enforcement so dramatically.” You might ask people about their motivations and see if the empirical evidence matched the story suggested by the survey results. That sort of thing.

  7. 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.

    That is what I’ve been saying for the last, I don’t know: 5 years now? That most Mexican workers do not really want to stay in the U.S. because they can’t stand someone sprinkling YELLOW cheese over their enchiladas – yuck! However, thanks to the politics of paranoia and mercantilism, most have been driven towards not only staying but also bringing their families over. This so-called “problem” is entirely the governmen’s own doing.

  8. “I’d be gladder if the same government weren’t simultaneously engaged in a harsh and pointless crackdown on border-crossers.”

    So according to Liberal crazies, America (U.S.A.) is the Only Nation that has NO Rights to Enforce their Borders Against ILLEGAL Invaders…??!!!–And by that same Warped rationale even though We allow More (1 million Every Year) Legal immigrants onto our shores We must (according to this Liberal SLOP) Force ALL American Taxpayers to Foot the Bill for 3rd World Cast-Off’s from South America…!!!—Does Any Liberal even Know what Common Sense is, Let alone Possess Any….??!!!

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