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Interview with Douglas Massey: Measuring the effects of US policy on Latin American migration patterns

  • Tue, Jul 6 2010
    • Doug Massey

The following podcast features an interview conducted by Stephanie Marudas with Douglas Massey. He is coeditor, along with Katharine Donato, Jonathan Hiskey, and Jorge Durand, of the July 2010 Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, “Continental Divides: International Migration in the Americas.” Massey is a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, and the founder and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project and Latin American Migration Project.

  • Douglas Massey: Measuring the effects of US policy on Latin American migration patterns

Stephanie Marudas: In The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science issue about immigration, you and Jorge Durand make the case that Latin America is no longer an immigrant destination but rather an exporter of migrants. You look at three migration patterns that have characterized the region for the past 50 years. Can you tell us what those patterns are and what they signify?

Douglas Massey: For most of its history, Latin America was an area of in-migration and attracted Europeans in to the various countries; Mexico being no exception. Even a famous person like Frieda Kahlo, her father was an immigrant from Germany. But the major immigrant-receiving nations in Latin America historically were Brazil and Argentina; the more minor immigrant-receiving nations were Chile and Venezuela. And this was part of a project of nation-building launched by many of these countries to increase their standing in the world, bring in more people, and develop. And this all came to an end in the 1930s. After the Depression and the Second World War, immigration revived in various countries. In Argentina, it continued but it stopped attracting migrants from Europe and instead began attracting migrants from other countries in Latin America. Brazil stopped attracting migrants entirely and started sending them out to the United States. Venezuela, during the oil boom years, continued to attract immigrants from Spain and from other countries in Europe. But with the oil bust after the 1980s, that dried up and the migrants started going back to Europe as Europe boomed. The main exception to this was Mexico; although Mexico had been a country of immigration and brought in immigrants through the 1930s. Really from the 1940s on, it was pretty much a country of labor export. So Mexican immigration in the United States goes way back to the beginning of the twentieth century. But after the Depression killed it, and there were massive deportation campaigns in the United States, it was restarted in 1942 when the United States got into the Second World War and launched a labor recruitment program known as the Bracero Program. And the Bracero Program for the next 22 years recruited Mexican workers for short-term labor in the United States. By the late 1950s, 450,000 Mexicans were entering each year on temporary work visas and about 50,000 Mexicans were entering on permanent resident visas. So the shift from immigrant-receiving to immigrant-exporting happened first in Mexico, and then it spread to other countries in Latin America after the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s, Mexican migration continued; although after we shut down the Bracero Program, migration shifted to undocumented auspices. And during the United States intervention in Central America, we generated large streams of refugees, most of which ended up in the United States. Some were welcomed, like Nicaraguans and Cubans and Dominicans because they were fleeing left-wing governments. Those fleeing right-wing governments were not welcomed and ended up in undocumented status and populated the United States during the 1980s. As the economic restructuring spread during the 1980s and 1990s, migration streams emerged from places like Colombia, Peru, Ecuador. And even in more recent years—as the crises have deepened and spread—they have spread to places like Brazil and Argentina. Argentina also sends out large numbers of migrants to other places. So Mexico is unusual in that 99.9 percent of its migrants come to the United States. Peru sends out large numbers of migrants but only half come to the United States and the rest go all over the world, to Europe, to Japan, to Australia, to Canada. Ecuador sends large numbers to the United States but also to Spain. So you really have this diversity of patterns in Latin America; and Latin America—as a whole—progressively has shifted from a country of importing people from abroad to a region that exports people, both the United States and to Europe; and in many cases even f[a]rther afield, to Australia and New Zealand and Japan.

SM: And here we are today in 2010, what does Mexican immigration look like today?

DM: At this moment, undocumented migration between Mexico and the United States has stopped. In 2008, for the first time in 50 years, net illegal migration to the United States from Mexico fell to zero and it has probably gone negative now. And according to the Department of Homeland Security’s own estimates, the undocumented population peaked in 2008 at around twelve million, and then dropped between 2008 and 2009 to around eleven million. So all this talk about the ongoing invasion in the United States is completely out of sync with [the] underlying reality. Even in Arizona, the hotbed of anti-immigrant sentiment, according to Homeland Security’s own figures 100,000 undocumented migrants left Arizona between 2008 and 2009. And there is no reason to think that it has expanded from 2009 to 2010, although we do not have the data for this yet.

SM: What are some possible reasons out there for why there has been this decline?

DM: We know that it is from a combination of things. We do not know which weight to put on which factor, but the factors are clear. Border enforcement has risen exponentially to extreme levels so that it is very costly, difficult, and risky to cross the Mexico-U.S. border without authorization; so that has deterred some people. Since September 11, 2001, in particular, internal enforcement has expanded exponentially; so deportations have risen by this massive factor. We are currently deporting from the United States on the order of about 360,000 people per year. This is record level—we have never annually deported so many people from the country. And then of course, in 2008, the economy collapsed. So given rising repression within the United States, growing difficulty of crossing the border into the United States, and the collapse of opportunities, jobs—in the United States— people are not coming anymore and those that were recently arrived have increasingly gone home. But, paradoxically, militarizing the border reduces the rate of out-migration among people who have been here for a long time since they are afraid they will not be able to get back in. And so the rate of return migration among settled migrants is actually also at a record low. So I think we have seen the initial drop from the peak in 2008, but we are not going to see a massive outflow. There is no evidence of any kind of move toward what immigration restrictionists call self-deportation among long-term residents. They have lived here for a decade. They have got American-born kids. They have got jobs, houses. Frequently, they run their own businesses. All kinds of things.

SM: You have different immigration statuses within families. It is sort of hard to break that family up if one is a citizen and the other is not.

DM: Yes, according to the estimates, within households that contain undocumented migrants, about a quarter of the people are citizens and another 10 percent or so are documented migrants. Most families are in mixed status. And the law is actually more punitive than you would think, since many legal immigrants to the United States, permanent resident aliens, are also deportable under current law. So in 1996, Congress passed this law that said if you are ever convicted of a crime you were instantly deportable. And they applied the law ex post facto, so if you committed the crime in 1982, they passed the law in 1996, if you were not a citizen in 1996 you were deportable from that moment on even though you committed the crime years ago. So there are tens of thousands of people out there, many of whom came in as young children or even babies, grew up in the States, perhaps got in trouble as juveniles and then pleaded guilty to a felony to avoid jail time. Then now, suddenly ex post facto, many years later, they are deportable. And they are being deported from the United States. And these infractions also now include immigration violations and increasingly immigration violations have been criminalized, turned into felonious charges. So in the past, if you used your brother’s Social Security number to give to an employer in the United States, it was no big deal. Now, you are charged with identity theft and document fraud under terrorist statutes and it has basically criminalized a fairly benign act. Once you are deported, you are not even eligible to reapply for admission for ten years. And so we are exporting a lot of people who grew up in the United States who have strong claims. The most obvious case was the salutatorian graduate of Princeton three years ago, top graduate in classical Greek and Latin. [He] came to the United States at age two or three from the Dominican Republic. He is Afro-Caribbean Dominican, grew up homeless for a time in New York, got into the Catholic school system and got into Princeton, graduated with honors; and immediately after graduation was deported. And there was nothing the university could do, with all of its money and all of its resources, to prevent his removal from the United States. And as a consequence, he was forced to go to Oxford University with a full classics scholarship. So our law is basically forcing out of the country one of the top graduates of one of the top universities in the world, who did nothing wrong and is through no fault of his own being deported from the United States, the only country he really knows.

SM: In The Annals, you talk about some of the motivating factors in terms of why people will enter the country illegally.

DM: They are typically migrating not to stay in the United States permanently, not to make the United States their permanent home, and they want to use a period of labor in the United States to earn money to solve some kind of economic difficulty they are facing in their home community. They cannot earn wages they would like to be able to consume or invest the way they want. Other times, it is simply missing or failed markets, so there is no social insurance scheme in many of these Latin-American countries. So if you lose a job, you do not get unemployment insurance. So one way to hedge your bets against losing a job is to send one of your household workers to the United States so if anybody gets unemployed, in Mexico for example, you have an alternative income stream. [It’s] very difficult to get loans to buy land to set up small productive enterprises. It is very difficult to get credit to make large consumer purchases. Americans have instant access to credit: you just pull out a credit card and you instantly access a credit market. In Mexico and other sending countries, that is not the case. So in the absence of access to credit, to smooth consumption, and in the absence of capital markets to borrow, to produce or to buy houses—they migrate. And they use a period of labor in a high-wage country like the United States to save and then they repatriate the funds, and then they are able to construct their house or to buy sewing machines to set up a small shop in land that they own or to irrigate their farmland or to buy consumer goods for a growing family. So people migrate for a variety of motivations, and the most common ones do not involve a permanent stay in the United States, and Americans do not really understand this very well.

So the instant reaction from American policy-makers has been to somehow drive up the cost of migration so to eliminate this cost-benefit calculation. If you drive up the cost, then the benefits will be reduced. But most people are not thinking that way. The paradoxical effect is that when you drive up the cost of border crossing, you increase the risks. People, logically enough, stop crossing the border but they do this by hunkering down and staying in the United States once they have paid the cost and experienced the difficulties of border crossing. So the net effect of militarizing the border with Mexico was actually to dramatically reduce the rate of out-migration while, through the 1990s at least, not really affecting very much the rate of in-migration. And it is only with the economic collapses and great turn in hostility and the rise in deportation since September 11, 2001, that in-migration has really fallen off.

SM: What are some of your latest projects with the LAMP Project and the Mexican Migration Project in terms of research?

DM: One of the big things we have always looked at and have been paying a lot of attention to lately is the effect of United States’ policy on migration patterns. What we have found mostly is that U.S. interventions have been counterproductive. So I have already mentioned that militarizing the border reduced the rate of out-migration and did not really affect the rate of in-migration until after September 11, 2001. So for the entire decade of the 1990s, we had basically doubled the net rate of in-migration to the United States as a result of militarizing the border. The other effect that it had, of course, was changing the geography of immigration. So when we militarized the border, we first erected the wall of enforcement resources in El Paso in 1993, and then in 1994 we did the same in San Diego. Those two were the busiest border crossing points and they had about 80 to 85 percent of the traffic. Well, when you made it so difficult and costly and dangerous to cross those areas, you diverted the flows. And where did they get diverted? To Arizona. So Arizona before 1994 was a complete backwater. Nobody crossed into Arizona; Arizona had really a tiny undocumented population. But once crossing into California became so difficult and the flows were diverted through Arizona and through the Sonoran Desert, suddenly Arizona goes overnight from being a backwater to a major crossing point. And this had national repercussions because 20,000 Mexicans arriving per week in Tijuana and crossing over into San Diego do not make a big impression. Tijuana has two million Mexicans and San Diego has three or four million people: about 40 percent Mexican. Twenty thousand Mexicans in Chula Vista, California do not stand out. But 20,000 Mexican immigrants arriving per week in Douglas, Arizona—a town of about 25,000 people—make a huge impression. And 20,000 people going across open ranchland instead of built-up urban areas make a big impression. And so this created a new narrative in the American media that there is this brand-new invasion going on when, in fact, nothing had changed except the place where they were crossing. And once we diverted the flows away from California, they kept on going. In the space of 10 years, Mexican immigration was transformed from a regional phenomenon affecting three states into a national phenomenon affecting fifty states. And we transformed Mexican immigration from a circular flow of male workers into a settled population of families. So basically we spread immigration geographically all over the country and increased the costs to ourselves with much more profound, long-term consequences. And all of this is completely a function of American border policy. If we had done nothing at the border since 1986, spent no additional money, just kept the border patrol’s budget and activities pretty much on the same growth path that they had experienced before, we would have had at least half the undocumented population we observe now and it would have been much more confined to California, Texas, and Illinois rather than being a fifty-state phenomenon. The fastest-growing Mexican populations are now in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, places like that. There has been a permanent deviation of migrants away from the state of California to everywhere else. So if you look at census data, for example from 1985 to 1990, two-thirds of all Mexicans who arrived in that five-year period went to California. By 1995 to 2000, one-third went to California and that has persisted. So there is a permanent deviation of people away from California toward other states in the union. So, basically, we have shot ourselves repeatedly in the foot with our harsh unilateral policies and have not solved the problem but have, in fact, made it worse.

SM: And now, we see some states taking matters into their own hands to crack down on illegal immigration, and Arizona being our latest example; toughest law in the nation, some say. It is illegal to be in Arizona and the police can stop you if they think that you are here illegally and there are some ramifications out there that folks are worried about.

DM: Well, it is the endpoint of a logical process that has been developing over the past two decades with the escalating demonization of Mexicans, in particular, and Latinos more generally. In the American mind, illegal migrant—Mexican and Latina—are conflated. You say immigrant and the thing that pops into people’s mind is an illegal Mexican. I can guarantee you that the average Anglo-American cannot tell the difference between a Salvadoran and Mexican. So they are all kind of in one big conceptual category in people’s heads, and they have increasingly acquired negative valences, negative baggage, and negative associations in the American mind. And entrepreneurs— from political entrepreneurs like Pat Buchanan, to media entrepreneurs like Lou Dobbs, to academic entrepreneurs like Samuel P. Huntington—have all taken advantage of this and have pushed this Latino-threat narrative that has become more and more common in American discourse and has led to rising rates of hostility and rising rates of hate crimes and rising numbers of anti-immigrant xenophobic militias. Paradoxically, this has all been exacerbated by the election of America’s first black president. So given the changing demographics, the nature of current immigration flows, the fact that we have a black president, a Latina Supreme Court Justice, has completely discomfited some segment of America’s older white European population. And the spread of immigration from traditional immigrant-receiving states such as New York or California to other states that have never had immigrants before has also brought about this shift of immigration legislation from the federal to the local level. So twenty-six states now have what are called 287(g) agreements with the federal government to engage in immigration enforcement and use local jails to house people they suspect of being undocumented migrants. And the number of immigrant-related bills being introduced into legislatures and passing state legislatures has exploded. So you go from a couple hundred in 2005 when these first were being introduced into legislatures to around 1,400 by 2008. In just five years, you have this explosion of legislation. So what happened in Arizona was not something that has suddenly just emerged out of the blue, it has been developing and building for some time.

SM: Well, we are seeing from the latest polls that 60 percent of Americans think that this is okay. Does that surprise you?

DM: The extent to which Americans are willing to tolerate this surprises and, really frankly, kind of scares me because what it indicates is this major gap between the underlying realities of what people have been led to believe in the United States. After all, illegal migration is basically stopped now and has been stopped for a couple years and the undocumented population is slowly falling. But this message is nowhere to be found. People talk about the continuing invasion and the need to take back our country and you just have to ask yourself, Take back from whom? Everybody seems to have bought into the frame of the immigration restrictionists that we have got to militarize the border, we owe it to the American people to put more money into border enforcement. Well, we have already stopped the flow, we have already got the most militarized border anywhere in the world except the DMZ in Korea, and they want to put more in. For what purpose? It is a complete and total waste of money and as recent and future terrorist acts will no doubt reveal, it has got nothing to do with our national security and it has got nothing to do with the War on Terror. It is really all about our feelings of insecurity during changing times in the United States and what is important is for public leaders to get up and to denounce it for what it is.

SM: The Obama administration had been promising immigration reform policy and overhaul of it during its first year. We are in year two now and nothing has come about. And Congress is taking up the issue. If they came to you and said, “Douglas Massey, we want immigration reform.” What would you put out there?

DM: The guest-worker program we have now I think is exploitive of workers and I would design a different one where you give visas to workers and let labor markets allocate supply and demand, rather than indenture them to employers and give them a tool to beat American workers with. We have entered into a free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, and yet Mexico and Canada have the same numerical limitations on visas as every other country in the world. So our largest trading partners are Canada and Mexico and the integration of the North American economy creates way more legitimate demands for permanent resident visas than can be handled with the 20,000 visa per-year limitation. So you need to increase the size of the quotas for Mexico and Canada. And rather than spending billions of dollars on what is worse than useless, but a counterproductive militarization of the border, take that money and channel it into structural adjustment assistance in Mexico to allow it to develop and solve some of the problems that do drive migrants between Mexico and the United States. And then the last thing we need to do is to come to terms with the eleven million or so people we have got in the United States that are not going home, that are here. The longer we put off dealing with this in a realistic and humane fashion, the worse it is going to be for us. We need some kind of alternative plan. And I think an amnesty for the children of migrants who have no criminal record who grew up here, and an earned legalization for their parents are the only realistic and humane things to do, coupled with a guest-worker program that would allow most people to circulate rather than settle, because that is what they want to do, and a broader program of structural adjustment to enable Mexico to improve its infrastructure and so become a fuller partner in a North American integrated economy.

SM: I was wondering, how did you get into this field? Why research immigration?

DM: Well, I grew up with immigrants. I look like a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant and I guess I am. But my grandparents were immigrants from Finland on my mother’s side. And so I grew up thinking everybody had grandparents that had accents and came from the old country. I did not really know what the old country was, but that is where my grandparents and my great aunts and uncles all came from. And so my mother always had a spirit of protecting the underdog and rooting for immigrants to make their way up the ladder, and I probably picked that up from my mother. But, of course, I do not study Scandinavia, I study Latin America. That is because I started studying Spanish in third grade, and really started taking Spanish earnestly from seventh through twelfth grade and then every year in college. So I had a background in Spanish and I grew up on the West Coast. So I learned a lot about Mexico and Mexican culture and society. After I finished my PhD, I ran into an anthropologist who had spent a year in Mexico studying immigration. And I became impressed with what an anthropologist could do in the field to collect information on what was then emerging as this difficult but important issue to study: undocumented migration. This was 1978. So I started collaborating with him and realized that if you applied ethnographic field methods very carefully and quantified the data that you could build a reliable and valid database on something that you cannot get from national statistical systems or regular surveys. In 1982, with my colleague Jorge Durand, we started the Mexican Migration Project. It was not called that then, it was just a pilot survey that I started and roped some Mexican colleagues into joining me and we have been funded continuously since 1987. Every year we go and collect data on migration to the U.S., interviewing specific communities all over the country in Mexico and then following up with interviews of migrants from those same communities that we locate in the United States. We put together a bi-national data set and we have somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 registered users. It is the main source of data on undocumented migration from Mexico; and if people in the government want to find out about what is going on, they have to turn to this database. It is the best database around for these sorts of purposes.

SM: Where do you hope to see this field head down the road?

DM: Well, I would like to see the public have a firmer understanding of what migration is all about. The remarkable thing about international migration in the world today is that despite all the huge inequalities between countries, hardly anybody moves. Only three percent of the world’s population live outside the borders of their country of birth, and that is inflated partly because of the breakup of the Soviet Union. And if you eliminate refugees who have basically been displaced, from say Rwanda to Congo or something like that, and really look at long-distance migrants like Mexicans into the U.S., it is only about 1.5 percent. So migration is really a pretty rare phenomenon and it is part and parcel of the processes of globalization and integration of markets across countries. And the irony is the more repressive you get, the more it backfires and the more migrants you end up with settling in your country. If you had a more open system, there would be more circulation, less settlement, and everyone would be better off. But there are so many people out there with campaigns designed to increase fear and feelings of insecurity about foreigners, about immigrants, and unfortunately the terrorist attacks have only played into those fears and insecurities. And then, of course, an economic collapse also creates very legitimate fears and insecurities on the part of not only Americans but other people around the world. So it is a very toxic brew and you end up with ideological insecurity through Islamic terrorism and economic insecurity through what has been a three-decade long increase in income inequality leading to a final economic collapse in the United States. Immigrants did not cause this, but they become a convenient target and there is no shortage of people willing to step forward to demonize them for their own purposes. And there has been a shortage of people willing to get up and counter this with a counter-narrative about what immigration is really like and what immigration is really about and how immigrants are not really a threat to our society or any other society.

SM: On that note, we would like to thank you for your time.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.