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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.