Why now, why Arizona? Misconceptions about Mexican migration

Immigration Enforcement

Protesters rally at the Arizona Capitol on Sunday, April, 25, 2010. Photo: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Douglas Massey is the Henry G. Bryant professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University and the co-director of the Mexican Migration Project, one of the largest sources of data on documented and undocumented migration from Mexico to the United States. Need to Know producer Shoshana Guy spoke to him about the causes and consequences of Arizona’s new immigration law.

Shoshana Guy: There are more than 6 million undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. When did this surge of migration really begin?

Douglas Massey: Well, there are really two surges in undocumented migration since the ’40s. The first one begins right after 1965. In 1965 all of a sudden amendments are passed to the Immigration Nationality Act, which for the first time in U.S. history caps immigration for the western hemisphere, and we abandon completely the guest worker program. And then in 1986 the U.S. passes the Immigration Reform and Control Act. First, it criminalizes illegal hiring and, second, begins what would prove to be a tw0- or three-decade-long militarization of the U.S.-Mexican border. A lot of undocumented migration was circular, and when you made crossing the border much more dangerous and much more difficult and much more costly, people minimized border crossing by hunkering down and staying once they got across the border. So basically from the late 1950s until the early 1990s the inflow of migrants hadn’t changed. What had changed was the legal status under which they were being admitted.

Guy: As you know, Arizona just passed what is being called one of the toughest immigration laws in a decade. Immigration is a national problem. Why are they being so contentious?

Massey: Well, because the world has changed quite a bit in Arizona. Twenty thousand Mexicans arriving every week in Tijuana and crossing over the border into San Diego doesn’t make an impression on people. San Diego is three million people — about 40 percent Mexican. But 20,000 people a week arriving in Douglas, Ariz., makes a big impression, 20,000 people arriving a week and crossing through open ranchland makes a big impression. So this attracted the media, and the narrative became: There is this brand new invasion going on. People locally were understandably quite up in arms about it, but what had changed was the place of border crossing and not anything else about the flow.

Guy: It might come as some surprise to people to learn that from January 2008 to January 2009 the number of undocumented Mexicans in Arizona dropped by 100,000. Where did they go?

Massey: Because Arizona became a rather unpleasant place for Latinos, some of them moved on to other places in the U.S. But because job opportunities were few and far between, and really, although Arizona is rather extreme, there is anti-immigrant hostility all over the United States at this point, and I think a lot of them just went back to their home communities.

Guy: Do you think this new law in Arizona will deter migrants from coming from Mexico?

Massey: In the current economic environment, yes, because there are no strong labor demands, so people aren’t going to come up and expose themselves to these police actions and harassment unless there is a good reason to do so. Whether it persists as a deterrent in the face of labor shortages and strong labor demand in the United States remains to be seen, but for the moment we have reached a kind of equilibrium where there is no new migration from Mexico to the United States.

Guy: But people are still coming. You’re telling me that people aren’t coming anymore?

Massey: Not from Mexico. There are always people coming back and forth across the border, but when you subtract entrances from exits the exits prevail so the net flow is negative.

Guy: OK, but there was an article in the New York Times today saying that people are still attempting to get in illegally.

Massey: Yes, but the numbers are way down. The entries are way down. Even by border patrol statistics, the number of apprehensions have fallen quite a bit.

Guy: Do you think the general American public understands that Mexicans just aren’t coming to the U.S. in the numbers they once were?

Massey: No, that is not the impression you get from the media. Americans are terribly misinformed about the whole process. Many think that the border suddenly went out of control when in fact the border really didn’t go out of control. We just changed our laws unilaterally. If we had done nothing at all — spent not an additional dime, not changed anything — we would have at least half as many undocumented migrants in the United States as we’ve got now. Most of the predicament is a function of our own policies.

Guy: Do you think we will see a trend of undocumented workers leaving Arizona for other states in the interior of the U.S. as a result of the immigration law?

Massey: Well, that is what we observed partly in California after Prop 187. There was a large shift of Mexican immigrants moving within the Unites States getting away from California and moving to other parts of the country.

Guy: The state of Georgia has had the biggest jump in Mexican migration since 2000. Why are Mexicans going to Georgia?

Massey: Georgia was an area of rapid growth and they were working heavily in construction, heavily in low-end services and they are basically the backbone of the agricultural workforce.

Guy: What do most Americans not understand about Mexican migration?

Massey: Well, I think that one of the biggest misconceptions is that it’s got something to do with the war on terror and American security. It has become a mantra in Washington said by everyone from the most liberal person to the most conservative person — that the front line on terror is the U.S.-Mexican border. But in point of fact there are no Islamic populations in Mexico, there are no terrorists cells in Mexico. There has never been an attempt by an Islamic terrorist trying to cross into the United States from Mexico.

Guy: What do you think people would be surprised to know about Mexican migration?

Massey: Most Mexicans when they begin migrating don’t intend to stay here and they really don’t want to stay here. They are migrating to earn money here to solve a problem at home. Now, inevitably in the course of migrating some people change their minds, and some people acquire ties that lead them to want to stay, but left to their own devices more people would go back than settle. That is exactly what we observed among undocumented migrants from ’65 to ’85 — the vast majorities were offset by departures, and we really had a very small net in flow. The harder we clamped down on the border the more it backfired.

 
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Comments

  • L. D. Benedict

    Mr. Massey says that there are no Islamic terrorist cells in Mexico. I’m not aware that that is seen as the problem. But he mentions nothing about the drug cartel “terrorists” that evidently do exist in Mexico and control many areas in the country, and that the Mexican government is complicit/corrupt. And that this is a big factor, currently, in Mexican immigrants coming into the United States illegally. Does he see this as true and a growing problem?

  • missingxtension

    First of Mr. or Mrs. Benedict, the cartels are not categorized anywhere as terrorist.
    Second, If i am selling weed, and I cant sell because nobody wants to buy it.
    Then I simply stop and go somewhere else. That simple, the law of economics work for drugs.
    Businesses learn that really fast, when they go bankrupt.
    Then you can also look at history and see some choices made by America.
    There is a very good movie by the name of “Blow”, based on a real life trafficker.
    George Jung was arrested for smuggling, fled on bond, then arrested again.
    He then testifies and is set free again, put in a witness protection program.
    After all that, the guy cant stay clean and is caught with marijuana only to get 15 years.
    If you really want to stop drugs, there should be no compromises.
    Third narcos are not a big factor in migrating to America, there is no hard proof of that anywhere yet. The violence is a new thing since the war on drugs, It was not that bad in 70 or 90.
    The Mexican government took upon a real war on drugs, unlike the faux war that has been ongoing in the US. Thats what happens when you declare war, and follow through. If I was Calderon, I would let America rot in their own appetite for drugs. Its also no surprise that NAFTA killed Mexicos agriculture, my family was directly affected NAFTA. Corn is so heavily subsidized in America that it goes into everything , from cola to muscle cars.
    You are right on one regard, it is a true problem, if only we could have an honest look at the situation.

  • missingxtension

    Sorry about the double post, but i forgot to address the corruption issue.
    The only democracy that could not have been corrupt was the original democracy.
    They would have a lottery each day to see who would be appointed.
    There are plenty of examples in the last decade of a corruption in America and many more in history.
    Why was Nixon pardoned? Heck by that action you can assume both Nixon and Ford were corrupt.
    Why was it that Andrew Jackson ignored a Supreme court ruling?
    Government is inherently corrupt.
    corrupt as seen in the merriam-webster.
    “1 a : to change from good to bad in morals, manners, or actions; also : bribe b : to degrade with unsound principles or moral values”
    That basically describes a lot of senators and presidents.
    The difference in Mexico and the US is that Mexico has a free press and covers all political misfortunes.
    Franklin Delano Roosevelt was crippled the whole time he was president, yet the whole time the press conspired with the government to not portray him as weak.

    sources
    http://www.pbs.org/previews/athens/

  • Stacey Higgins

    Why does the press repeatedly refer to the Arizona law as an “immigration law”? It’s hardly an immigration law. It might be a “law enforcement” law, or perhaps a border protection law. But “immigration law” it is not. Please start referring to the law more accurately.

    Secondly, Mr. Massey asserts, without possibly having any knowledge, that there have not been any border crossing attempts by an Islamic terrorist. He can’t possibly know what is unknowable. With so many undocumented border crossings, we are at extreme risk that any one of these, or groups of these, can be extemist terrorists, wishing to do us harm. If fact, I would think Mr. Massey should be asking “why wouldn’t an Islamic terrorist use the most porus border of the US to cross into this country?”

  • Matt Parker

    Stacey, I believe Massey means that there are no known instances of a terrorist crossing the border and successfully executing an attack or even attempting one. He can’t be sure that some extremist hasn’t recently crossed the border and is now plotting an attack, but he never made such a claim.

  • Ken Nightingale

    Missingxtension has a point when he says, “If you really want to stop drugs, there should be no compromises.” Politicians are seldom capable of such a stance; both political effectiveness and re-election depend on shrewd pleasing of the monied and powerful while avoiding severely offending them. Compromise is a political way of life, misapplied to drug policy. The poor and powerless get a welfare program of sorts, bread, laws and circuses proportional to their lack of money and personal power. There are no political action groups funded by addicts, abused family members or victims with the notable exception of MADD. The very idea is almost (but not quite) ridiculous. We need a very active and large grass-roots movement intolerant of drug-fueled misbehavior and hostile to drug distribution and sales. I say “misbehavior” instead of “criminality” quite deliberately. Criminals use drugs as part of a criminal lifestyle, and we already have fairlly strict laws concerning criminality. Addicts typically become criminals because their many misbehaviors are tolerated until their downward spiral leads them to frankly intolerable detected criminal behavior. The community members themselves must organize and lead. Politicians will have little choice except to follow. Most media serve an entertainment function; they only show up when someone is actually doing something frightening. Integration and civil rights in the US did not come from governmental leadership or media proselytizing; it came from determined organization and action of little people who were fed up with lynchings, personal disrespect and public Jim Crow laws. That is where uncompromising drug policy must come from, and it isn’t going to happen until enough straight people are mad enough to act.

  • Amelia Wasserman

    What an enlightening interview. It seems many of the arguments as to why people are dead set against illegal immigration from Mexico to the U.S. hold little value. What is the problem if Islamic terror suspects aren’t entering the U.S. through Mexico, nor are Mexicans necessarily taking jobs away from American citizens? Government policies are so laughable. History has proven that the more the U.S. clamps down on migration, the more migration they will have. Yet like a child or a schizophrenic they do the same thing time and time again expecting different results.

  • Jorge Perez