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August 09, 2013 1:32 PM Border Backfire

By Ed Kilgore

It’s not often you read something related to the turgid and eternal debate over immigration policy and say: Ah-hah! But that was my reaction to Ezra Klein’s account of the argument made by Princeton immigration expert Doug Massey of the relationship between “border control” and the presence and distribution of undocumented workers:

According to Massey, the rise of America’s large undocumented population is a direct result of the militarization of the border. While undocumented workers once traveled back and forth from Mexico with relative ease, after the border was garrisoned, immigrants from Mexico crossed the border and stayed.
“Migrants quite rationally responded to the increased costs and risks by minimizing the number of times they crossed the border,” Massey wrote in his 2007 paper “Understanding America’s Immigration ‘Crisis.’” “But they achieved this goal not by remaining in Mexico and abandoning their intention to migrate to the U.S., but by hunkering down and staying once they had run the gauntlet at the border and made it to their final destination.”
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.
The militarization also had another unintended consequence: It dispersed the undocumented population. Prior to 1986, about 85 percent of Mexicans who entered the U.S. settled in California, Texas or Illinois, and more than two-thirds entered through either the San Diego-Tijuana entry point or the El Paso-Juarez entry point. As the U.S. blockaded those areas, undocumented migrants found new ways in — and new places to settle. By 2002, two-thirds of undocumented migrants were entering at a non-San Diego/El Paso entry point and settling in a “nontraditional” state.

So it’s rather interesting that the whole immigration reform debate is revolving around exactly how much more of this border militarization conservatives will demand in exchange for some sort of legalization of the undocumented population. As Ezra concludes:

At best, we can hope to waste tens of billions of dollars on further enforcement in return for a lengthy and complicated path to citizenship. At worst, we’ll do nothing — in which case this will be known as the era of wasted opportunity.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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