On April 18, 2013, Douglas S. Massey (Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University) and Jorge Castañeda (Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University and former Foreign Minister of Mexico) described the current state of U.S. immigration policy. The discussion served as the Academy’s 1996th Stated Meeting. The presentations and the introduction given by Mary C. Waters (M. E. Zukerman Professor of Sociology at Harvard University) follow.
The topic of our discussion tonight, and also of the Summer 2013 issue of Dædalus, is immigration. Although it has been a news topic for decades, immigration has received a lot of attention recently, and we may be about to see some real movement on the issue. Many of us who study immigration are busy digesting the 800-page legislative proposal that has been put forth by the so-called Gang of Eight senators, who have been trying to fix our immigration policy.
Almost everyone agrees that our current policy is broken, but there is disagreement about how it is broken and how to fix it. Americans are ambivalent about immigration. They have always been warm toward immigrants when they think about their own parents and grandparents or their friends and neighbors. But when they think about immigrants as people different from themselves, they get quite worried.
Right now that ambivalence is targeted toward our southern border. Throughout America we are seeing a virulent new nativism that disparages immigrants from Latin America – most especially those from Mexico.
We now have 11 million undocumented people in the United States. That is about equal to the number of African Americans who lived under Jim Crow in the South prior to the civil rights movement. The undocumented have virtually no rights, they live in the shadows, yet they are very much a part of our society.
Among them, the most poignant group is the so-called Dreamers. These are people who came to the United States as children and are now highly assimilated Americans. But they face a cliff when they graduate from high school and realize they cannot find employment, cannot get a driver’s license, and they cannot be a full adult in the only society they have ever known.
Most people do not know that under the Obama administration there has been an alarming rise in deportations. Four hundred thousand people have been deported yearly, taken from their families. Some are sent back to a country whose language they do not speak.
If we want to understand immigration policy, how it got to its present position and where it is going in the future, we could not ask for anyone better than the two experts who will speak with us tonight.
Douglas Massey is a sociologist who has studied racial segregation and immigration in American cities, and he has been the director of the Mexican Migration Project, which is one of the main ways we know about what is actually happening with Mexican migration in the United States. He is the past president of the American Sociological Association and the Population Association of America, and is the current president of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. He is the author, most recently, of Brokered Boundaries: Constructing Immigration Identity in Anti-immigrant Times and Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System. He is also the guest editor of the Summer 2013 issue of Dædalus on “Immigration & the Future of America.”
Jorge Castañeda is the Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. He is a political scientist, a public intellectual, and a prolific author who has written about Mexican society. He was the Foreign Minister of Mexico from 2000 to 2003. In that position, he focused on diverse issues in U.S.-Mexican relations. He is the author, most recently, of the book Ex-Mex: From Migrants to Immigrants, and he is a regular columnist for a number of publications, including the Mexican daily Reforma and Newsweek International.
How did we get into this mess? Before 1965, the United States had no numerical limits on immigration from any country in the Western Hemisphere, and we had a sizable guest worker program with Mexico. Thanks to the Bracero Program – a binational, bilateral agreement reached with Mexico in 1942 – we had, by the late 1950s, around 450,000 Mexicans coming in every year on guest worker permits. Also at this time, some 50,000 permanent resident aliens were entering from Mexico.
So, roughly a half-million Mexicans were entering the United States every year in the late 1950s. Ninety percent of these individuals were circulating in and out on temporary work visas, and about 10 percent were entering with permanent visas. But even among that 10 percent, many were circulating back and forth. The flow was substantially circular.
Then, starting in the 1960s, the U.S. Congress began to ratchet down the number of guest worker visas and in 1965, for laudable reasons as part of a civil rights initiative, decided to purge the U.S. immigration system of its racist heritage.
Congress eliminated discriminatory national-origin quotas, replacing them with a system that allocated roughly 20,000 visas per year to each country. The visas were to be distributed according to family and labor market criteria.
That is all well and good, but Congress, in its inﬁnite wisdom, also imposed the first ever limitations on immigration from the Western Hemisphere. No thought was given to what this might mean for Mexico, what effect it might have on an ongoing immigration system. I doubt that the members of Congress even knew there was an ongoing immigration system. If you listen to the testimony from 1965, you will hear little commentary about what might happen in the Western Hemisphere. Congress was worried about Asians, about blacks, about Italians coming in. Nobody was thinking about Latin America.
Nonetheless, in 1965, Congress imposed a 120,000-person-per-year cap on the hemisphere. Over the subsequent decade, the cap was ratcheted down until, by 1976, the Western Hemisphere was brought under the 20,000-per-country-per-year cap. At the same time, in 1964–1965, Congress unilaterally cancelled the guest worker program. In the context of the civil rights movement, the program was seen as an exploitive labor program, something akin to Southern sharecropping–which, of course, it was.
But what Congress set in motion was a new future: mass undocumented migration. By the mid-1960s, the flows from Mexico to the United States were well-established. The Mexicans knew their employers, and the employers knew their migrants. Well-developed migrant networks linked communities in Mexico to worksites and neighborhoods throughout the western United States and Chicago.
When the opportunities for legal migration and legal entry were suddenly eliminated, the flows did not stop. The conditions on the ground had not changed: there was still a demand for workers. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were connected to employers in the United States. And so, over the next five to ten years, the flow simply resumed – only now it was undocumented. By 1977, roughly 500,000 Mexicans were again entering the United States every year. Now, however, 80 percent of them were undocumented.
The rise of undocumented migration created a chain reaction of migration policies in response. We put more and more restrictions on immigration, more and more emphasis on border control, more and more emphasis on enforcement, and all of the efforts simply backfired, producing the worst of all possible worlds.
As undocumented migration rose, political entrepreneurs and ambitious bureaucrats were able to frame migration as a threat to the United States. Because these people were illegal, they were, by definition, a threat. They were criminals, lawbreakers. This is the motif you see throughout the media today, but it began in the 1960s and came to a peak around 1979, about the time that apprehensions in the United States reached a peak as well.
The flow of undocumented migrants actually stabilized after the mid-1970s. But, because of the trope of illegality, more resources are thrown at border enforcement. The Border Patrol’s budget goes up, and more Border Patrol officers are hired. What happens when more patrol officers with bigger budgets are looking for immigrants crossing the border? Apprehensions rise.
Rising apprehensions were taken as proof that the invasion was continuing. We needed more border enforcement. The cycle became self-feeding: throwing money at the Border Patrol produced more apprehension, and increased apprehensions justified more funds for the Border Patrol.
Even though the number of attempted undocumented crossings had stabilized in the late 1970s, apprehensions shot up exponentially from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, when Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which granted legal status to about three million undocumented immigrants.
The IRCA also began a two-decade process of border militarization, a massive expansion of our enforcement capacity that was unconnected to the underlying realities at the border. The number of people coming in had not changed; they were just coming in with a different status.
The massive militarization of the Mexico-U.S. border had significant effects on migrants’ behavior. Migrants, being reasonable people, looked for ways to minimize the increasing costs and risk associated with crossing the border. They did so not by staying home but by hunkering down once they had come into the United States. They did not want to repeatedly bear the risks and costs of crossing the border without authorization. So, the net effect of our militarization of the border was not to deter people from coming, but to stop them from going home.
What changed from 1985 to 2005 was not the inflow, but rather the outflow. In demography, we have a simple equation called the balance equation: net migration equals in-migration minus out-migration. If in-migration stays more or less the same but out-migration plummets, net migration increases. We have been spending $3–4 billion a year militarizing the border only to double the net rate of undocumented migration in the United States.
Initial border enforcement efforts were heavily concentrated in California, making that border almost impermeable. So what happened? The migrants crossed somewhere else. As flows were diverted through Arizona, that state, which had been a backwater, suddenly became a hotbed of migration. Arizona had not seen significant Mexican immigration since the 1920s, but now, after the 1990s, a majority of Mexicans were coming through the state, giving Sheriff Arpaio his big moment in the sun.
Within ten years, what had once been a circular flow of male workers going to three states – California, Texas, and Illinois – became a national population of settled families. We doubled the net rate of undocumented population growth and created a settled population.
This is the origin of today’s 11 million undocumented people. Basically, we trapped Mexican workers who before had been circulating back and forth across the border on the U.S. side of the line. As they stayed longer, they brought their families. As they brought their wives, they had kids. They were not coming across to have anchor babies. They were coming across to reunite, and people in their twenties end up having kids. Things ballooned out of control, leading to our current predicament.
I believe we are nearing a crossroads and are at a hinge point in American history, especially with respect to immigration.
The current status quo is that undocumented immigration has dropped to a net of zero, or at least to very low levels; it might have picked up a bit in the past year, but we do not yet have the statistics to say for sure. We do know that from 2008 to 2009, according to all of the estimates, the number of undocumented dropped from 12 million to 11 million, where it has held steady, which means that net inflow must be zero. This is consistent with data I have collected in the Mexican Migration Project, which show a plummeting probability of first migration among Mexican males.
For the moment, at least, the pressure is off at the border. The traffic going back and forth is minimal, and the border is now so controlled, it is the most controlled border anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of the Korean DMZ.
However, the first pillar of immigration reform is always “get control of the border.” That is the focus, even though more money and increased border enforcement are a complete and total waste of taxpayer money. Although absolutely insane, it may be the price we will have to pay if we are going to solve the problem of the 11 million undocumented people living in the United States without social, economic, or civil rights.
Among these 11 million, about 3 million are people who entered the country as minors and without documents. Probably another million or 1.5 million entered as refugees from Central America, lived here for ten years with temporary protected status, then had that status revoked but did not return home.
Framing all of these individuals as illegal people who willfully crossed the border and violated our laws is really not entirely accurate. Perhaps as many as half of the 11 million migrants ended up in illegal status through no fault of their own.
Several pillars of immigration reform have been identified. The ﬁrst is getting control of the border, which we have already done. The second is to increase the size of the guest worker program. This, too, we have already done. In 2010, some 500,000 Mexicans entered the United States on temporary work visas thanks to legislation quietly passed by Congress.
The third pillar is to increase immigration quotas for Mexico and Canada, because we are so intensely linked with our two NAFTA partners. Migrants have in effect already done this themselves by naturalizing in massive numbers and then sponsoring the entry of immediate family members, who are not counted against the quotas. Three-quarters of all legal immigrants from Mexico now enter as sons, daughters, spouses, or parents of an American citizen.
That leaves the fourth pillar of immigration reform: a process of legalization. Here the question is, how much are we going to penalize these people? How many weights will we put on their shoulders as they come above board and try to make their way in the United States?
Latinos, in 1970, were only 4.7 percent of the U.S. population. Today, they are 16.3 percent. Within twenty years, they will be approaching 25 percent of the population. This is our demographic future. The question we have to ask ourselves is, do we want to keep mass illegality as a huge barrier to the social and economic integration of this population, or do we want to lift the barrier of mass illegality as expeditiously as possible?
The early reports on the legislation Congress is now drafting suggest a willingness to do something nice for the Dreamers, to give them an easy path in. The real question, though, is what is going to happen to everybody else. How hard will Congress make it for these people to get on with their lives in the country where almost all of them have now lived for ten or more years?
That is the dilemma facing us at this point. Lord knows what is going to come out of Congress. The Gang of Eight has made their statement, but the House has yet to speak, and I always hesitate to predict what will come out of the sausage grinder that is Congress until I see the legislation sitting on the president’s desk with a signature on the bottom line. Like all of you, I will be waiting with a great deal of interest to see what happens.
A lot of people in the United States like to say that immigration policy is a domestic issue that must never be negotiated with anybody else. However, the United States negotiated the Bracero Agreement with Mexico in 1942, and we negotiated an agreement two decades later with Cuba. It is very strange that the United States has had, for almost fifty years, a standing immigration agreement with Cuba, a country with which it has no diplomatic relations and which it considers to be its worst enemy in the world, along with North Korea.
Mexico has a lot of things to say in the immigration discussion, and I think it deserves to be at the table.
Legislators, the press, the right wing, and the Democrats in the United States are making a big fuss about the path to citizenship. This seems to be the central issue in the debate over the new immigration bill. The Democrats want a path to citizenship because they know that the immigrants who become citizens will vote overwhelmingly Democratic, as they have for years. This is a big deal.
The Republicans, logically enough, do not want that to happen. They have not been doing so well in the popular vote for the presidency. So, the last thing they want is to increase the numbers of people who do not like them and will not vote for them.
So, that is what Washington is debating. But, if you ask most Mexicans, they do not care about a path to citizenship. They are not against it; they are not for it. They simply do not care.
What they want is a piece of paper that makes them legal so they can earn a better wage, have a credit card, get a mortgage, get a driver’s license, lease a car, and put their kids in school. They want to be free of the fear of deportation. They want to have all of the things that people with legal status in the United States have.
What matters most to these immigrants – those from Mexico or from one of our smaller Central American neighbors – is not the length of the path but the hoops they must jump through along the way. If the hoops are set too high and are too narrow and difficult to jump through, if the process is too complicated and too expensive, a lot of people will say, “Forget about it!” People will also stay in the closet if they do not have a guarantee of acceptance. The problem is that once you officially declare, “I am an illegal, and here are my papers; I want to be legal,” you cannot go back in the closet.
If the hoops are not reasonable in terms of money and other requirements, one of two things will happen. Either people will not sign up, or they will respond as Mexicans often do when regulations make life miserable for them: they will use their incredible ingenuity to get around them. That is what we do every day in Mexico City. We do not respect the law or abide by the law. Instead, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner we get around the law. Why? Because we have a lot of inapplicable laws in Mexico.
If U.S. immigration reform leads to too many hoops, it will only create incentives for Mexicans to crawl under, jump over, or go around these obstacles.
Under the U.S. Senate’s new temporary work proposal, candidates have to prove they were in the United States before December 31, 2011. How will they do this? What kinds of documents will be accepted as proof?
How about a visa? Well, most applicants do not have a visa; that is why they are illegal. What about their Mexican passport, which was stamped when they entered? Well, they entered illegally through the desert and never had a Mexican passport, so that does not work.
Or does it? Every Mexican, illegal or not, who arrives in the United States is entitled to a Mexican passport or consular ID, and almost all go to the nearest consulate and request one. It is a useful document. It is not perfect because it has all sorts of limitations – many states do not recognize this type of document – but it is much better to have than not to have. Most important, a Mexican passport issued by a consulate in the United States in 2010 is pretty good proof that the person holding the passport was in the country before December 31, 2011. But it is only good proof if the U.S. government will accept it as proof.
Two other issues that will be tremendously important are legal aid in preparing applications and the question of when immigrants have to have certain knowledge of English. Do they need to know English for the first piece of paper? For the green card at ten years? Or for citizenship at thirteen years? If knowledge of English is a requirement at the very beginning and they do not receive intensive and free English-language education, they will not be able to apply for that initial registration. Why would they even come forward?
Then there is the southern border issue; that is, Mexico’s southern border with Central America. Mexico might be a mess, but we are less of a mess than the Central Americans. In Mexico, we have twenty-three willful homicides per 100,000 inhabitants every year. Honduras has about eighty, El Salvador has about a hundred, and Guatemala fifty to sixty. These are infinitely more violent countries than Mexico. And their economic situations are far from buoyant.
Does the United States really think it can secure its southern border without having its southern neighbor secure its own southern border? Solving this issue will be almost impossible without much closer U.S.-Mexican cooperation.
Finally, has immigration from Mexico ended? One of the ways our consulates in the United States know whether new people are coming here is by counting the number of requests they receive for passports or IDs, which are called matriculas.
The matricula program started in 2001, after 9/11. The IDs are good for six years. Then they have to be renewed. The first big renewal year was 2008–2009, and the next will be in 2015. Thus, for all practical purposes, every new passport or matricula that is given out in a nonrenewal year is for a newcomer. Last year New York gave out 120,000; Los Angeles, 250,000.
So, either all of these people want two IDs each – I can’t think of a good reason why they would – or an enormous number of Mexicans are still coming.
For over a century the tradeoff has been between legal and illegal, not between immigration and nonimmigration. Our two countries – our societies, our economies – are far too intensely and closely linked, and have been for such a long time, that immigration – higher skilled, lower skilled, higher wage, lower wage – is going to go on regardless. Whether through California or through Arizona or through the Rio Grande Valley (or, as we call it, the Rio Bravo Valley) and Tamaulipas, immigration is going to continue.
The issue is whether we want it to be legal or illegal. The best way to eliminate illegal flows in the future is to make them legal.
© 2013 by Mary C. Waters, Douglas S. Massey, and Jorge Castañeda, respectively