Jorge Castañeda and Douglas Massey on Mexican Immigration to the U.S.

by Reihan Salam

Back in June, Jorge Castañeda and Douglas Massey published an op-ed in the New York Times that raised a number of interesting issues, e.g.: while unauthorized migration has greatly decreased, legal Mexican travel has increased.

[L]egal migration soared: 517,000 Mexicans entered the United States as legal temporary workers in 2010, while 888,000 entered on business visas and 30,000 arrived as exchange visitors. In 1995 the respective figures were 27,000, 256,000 and 5,000. In other words, Mexicans are coming to the United States to work as eagerly as ever, but they are doing so legally.

At the same time, legal permanent Mexican immigration to the United States has exploded, with an average of 160,000 persons entering annually since 2005. About 60 percent of those are immediate relatives — spouses, minor children, parents — of American citizens, and an additional 30 percent are other relatives, like siblings.

The large number of family migrants is an unintended, even ironic, consequence of actions taken by Congress and successive administrations to make life miserable for immigrants regardless of legal status.

That is, immigration enforcement efforts and legislation designed to limit non-citizen access to federal benefits encouraged “defensive naturalization” on the part of Mexican immigrants, thus setting off a chain reaction:

In the decade before 1996, an average of 29,000 Mexicans were naturalized each year; since 1996, the average has been 125,000 per year, yielding two million new citizens who could then bring in close relatives. At present, nearly two-thirds of legal permanent residents from Mexico enter as relatives of United States citizens.

Castañeda and Massey offer us a reminder of the generosity of extended family reunification policies, and it is not clear that this approach makes a great deal of sense given the changing shape of the U.S. labor market. The authors suggest that the challenges posed by Mexican immigration have been greatly alleviated by demographic change and defensive naturalization, with the exception of the status of unauthorized population in the U.S.:

Regularizing the status of the 11.5 million undocumented people who live in the United States has yet to be accomplished, but a solution can be envisioned by recognizing that self-deportation is not going to happen. Voluntary departures have practically stopped, and the idea of forced removals disturbs many Americans. So if legalization can be achieved without too much fuss, the United States and Mexico will have solved their immigration issue peacefully and quietly.

One idea, that we will discuss at greater length in the months to come once an article by a leading immigration scholar is published in a forthcoming issue of National Affairs, is to legalize a broad swathe of the undocumented population by (a) offering a path to citizenship for those who entered the U.S. as children (the DREAM-eligible population) yet (b) allowing most of the rest of the undocumented population — those who have generally law-abiding, etc. — to become lawful permanent residents who are barred from naturalization. Some will see this as draconian while others will see it as unduly generous, but I found the argument convincing and I am eager to share it with you.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.