Ezra Klein’s recent column on immigration (Here at Bloomberg, then reprinted in the Washington Post) starts this way: “Everything you know about immigration, particularly unauthorized immigration, is wrong.” He then goes on to retail the pet theory of immigration-expansionist sociology professor Douglas Massey to the effect that border enforcement causes illegal immigration.
That’s supposedly the case because before there was any meaningful enforcement, Mexican migrants happily crossed back and forth across the border with no thought of staying. But once the border was “militarized” it became harder to get back in, so once illegal aliens made it across, they didn’t want to risk it again so they stayed, and sent for their families. This is supposed to have resulted in permanent settlement that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
The political objective of this argument is twofold: to prevent any proposed increases in enforcement and to argue that, since the settlement of illegal aliens was our fault in the first place (“the legacy of the last buildup,” Klein calls it), we owe them an amnesty.
The problem is that it’s not true. The key data point is this:
The data support Massey’s thesis: In 1980, 46 percent of undocumented Mexican migrants returned to Mexico within 12 months. By 2007, that was down to 7 percent. As a result, the permanent undocumented population exploded.
Except Massey’s data do not support Massey’s thesis. To see why, here’s the graph Massey presented at a congressional hearing in 2007, at which he and I testified, that is the core of his argument:
The first thing to note is that the majority of Mexican illegal immigrants stayed even in 1980, when Massey started collecting his data (the numbers on the left are the percentage returning, which was between 40 and 45 percent in 1980). More important, Massey’s own data do not show any discontinuity caused by the two turning points he identifies: the 1986 IRCA amnesty and the beginning of serious border enforcement with Operation Hold the Line in El Paso in 1993.
Instead, what Massey’s work really shows is the same process every developing nation in the world has experienced – a steady movement of farmers from rural areas to the cities, as agricultural production became more rationalized and modernized. It happened in Europe, it happened here, it’s happening in China, and it’s happening in Mexico. The problem is that, because of lax immigration enforcement (both at the border and the interior, including the workplace), a very large share of Mexico’s peasantry has moved to our cities instead of cities in Mexico.
This process started long before any of the enforcement initiatives that Massey and Klein so abhor. The Mexican immigrant population nearly tripled from 1970 to 1980, doubled by 1990, doubled again by 2000. The numerical increase over the next ten years was even greater, with the total number reaching 11.7 million in 2010 — but that represented “only” a 50 percent increase from the prior census, because once the number got so large it would have been mathematically impossible for such a rapid rate of growth to be sustained.
Now that 78 percent of Mexicans live in cities (close to our 82 percent) is Massey right in his comment to Klein that “I personally think the huge boom in Mexican immigration is over”? Maybe, though that’s a completely different argument than the one Massey makes. But it is by no means certain that large-scale immigration from Mexico is “over,” as I spelled out last year in The National Interest. In fact, Pew reported earlier this year that fully one-third of Mexicans say they’d move here if they could. It’s entirely possible that, if we continue with today’s half-hearted enforcement — especially so in the interior – we could see lower, but still significant and sustained, levels of Mexican illegal immigration. It is also possible that an economic slump or civil strife there could cause a surge in Mexican illegal immigration, like the one we’re seeing from Central America.
The one thing we know for sure is that it’s premature to conclude that unauthorized crossings across our southern border are no longer a concern. Some day that might be the case. But not today.