Return of the ‘E’ Word

by Mark Krikorian
An immigration-enforcement vision for the new century.

Senator Pat Moynihan used to say that you’re entitled to your own opinions but not to your own facts. I’m afraid that Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology at Princeton, confused the two in his response (via Ezra Klein’s blog at the Washington Post) to a Corner post of mine from last week. Massey presents as “empirical fact” his opinions about the consequences of immigration enforcement, claiming that the huge increases in Mexican immigration were actually caused by border enforcement.

More on that below, but it’s important to begin with the source of Massey’s opinions. He starts by noting that my own post was “about what you’d expect from someone whose salary depends on putting a negative spin on all things related to immigration.” I might counter that his reply is what you’d expect from an Ivy League sociology professor, but don’t take my word for it. Massey isn’t just a faculty-lounge leftist; he’s an active, partisan Democrat. He appears to have maxed out in contributions to both Obama campaigns and has contributed thousands to the DNC, Al Franken, Bernie Sanders, John Edwards, and Princeton’s own congressman, Rush Holt (F-minus grade from Numbers USA, 100 percent from NARAL).

What’s more, in 2005 Massey published a decidedly unacademic book, Return of the “L” Word: A Liberal Vision for the New Century, which Publishers Weekly describes as “an unabashedly partisan work, one that attempts to reach out to the dedicated fan bases of Paul Krugman and Molly Ivins.” The book seeks to expose the VARWICON (Massey’s Orwellian contraction for Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy); even a fellow liberal sociology professor confessed to me that the book was something of an embarrassment. Fred Siegel’s review in the New York Sun was withering, ending this way:

Shorn of his academic pretensions, Mr. Massey is just another Deaniac who is convinced that Democrats have been losing because they’ve failed to show sufficient ideological fervor. By the time you finish “The Return of the ‘L’ Word,” you realize the problems of academia go well beyond postmodernism. Mr. Massey has made his case: He is the disease of which he proclaims himself the cure.

None of this means Massey’s facts are compromised. But a familiarity with his politics is important to understanding his interpretations of those facts, and his opinions about them. He claims that I imagine his views to be “articulated for nefarious political purposes.” Incorrect. There’s nothing nefarious about his purposes; but they are political.

As to the substance of our disagreement: Massey’s basic point is that border enforcement increases illegal immigration, as the Mexican migrants who happily crossed back and forth across the border in days of yore are now forced to settle down, because it’s harder than it used to be to get back in after making a visit home. In Massey’s words, “the huge increase in border enforcement since 1986 has backfired by reducing the rate of return for undocumented migration to Mexico rather than lowering the rate of undocumented departure for the United States.”

The visual depiction of this view is a graph showing the likelihood that a Mexican migrant would return home within twelve months of his first illegal trip to the United States (based on surveys done by the Mexican Migration Project). That graph (which Massey has massaged significantly from the one he presented in 2007 congressional testimony) shows that before 1986, a little more than half of first-time illegal aliens went home within a year of sneaking into the U.S. Of course, that still means almost half of first-time illegal aliens stayed.

That all changed after 1986, when, in Massey’s words, “Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act to initiate the militarization of the border,” leading to more illegals’ staying put once they reached this country. Actually, while his data certainly show a drop in returns by first-time illegals, “militarization” of the border cannot have been the cause, because there was no such thing in the 1986 act. Its main elements were the first-ever mass amnesty for illegal aliens, in exchange for prohibiting the employment of illegal aliens for the first time, a prohibition that was never really enforced. Border Patrol appropriations didn’t really begin to grow rapidly until the mid-1990s (see Figure 2 in this Congressional Research Service report), nearly a decade into the decline shown in Massey’s graph, in response to increased illegal immigration.

The question is how to interpret the “simple statement of empirical fact” that Massey presents. His interpretation, clearly shaped by his view that mass immigration from Mexico is a good thing, is that enforcement is “stupid and counterproductive.” But what the trend of decreasing back-and-forth migration might suggest instead is that it was the amnesty that increased the likelihood that first-time illegals would stay.

Mexico has been undergoing the same process of urbanization as other modernizing societies, with the rural share of its population falling from about 50 percent in 1960 to about 20 percent today. The only question was which cities Mexico’s peasantry would move to. Most, of course, went to Mexico City, Guadalajara, Juarez, and other places in their own country. But the 1986 amnesty sent the clear message that moving to our cities was also a possibility. Here’s how Philip Martin, an economist at UC Davis and the foremost scholar of Mexican migrants in U.S. agriculture, put it in a 2003 book:

In 1987–88, when there were about six million adult men in rural Mexico, the United States legalized one million Mexican men under the Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) program [part of the 1986 amnesty]. . . . The fact that many of these men did not do the qualifying farm work but nonetheless became immigrants taught rural Mexicans that being an unauthorized worker in the United States can bring immigration benefits and encouraged more rural Mexicans to migrate to the United States. . . . 

The legalization also created more-firmly established networks of relatives, friends, and acquaintances for prospective illegal aliens to rely on to get on their feet. On top of all that, Mexico faced a currency crisis in 1982, followed by years of 100 percent inflation, followed by another economic crisis in 1994, all of which made permanent, albeit illegal, settlement in the United States much more attractive than before.

The result is that 10 percent of all people born in Mexico now live here.

Massey’s implication that without the “stupid and counterproductive” Border Patrol this wouldn’t have happened is more than a little far-fetched. The “caging effect” of increased border enforcement may well mean that Mexican illegal aliens travel home less frequently. But without the enforcement increases, it’s likely that 15 or 20 percent of Mexico’s population would have moved here rather than “only” 10 percent, albeit those immigrants might be making more frequent visits home. After all, the Mexican immigrant population was increasing rapidly before the “militarization” that Massey so abhors, tripling between 1970 and 1980, and doubling again from 1980 to 1990.

But Massey’s take on the subject does suggest a different, and more realistic, concern. At this point we almost certainly would get more bang for the buck by devoting further resources not to the border but to interior enforcement. As any Border Patrol agent will tell you, immigration can’t be controlled only with border enforcement; it does best as part of a broader, layered system that starts in visa offices abroad, covers both legitimate and illegal border crossings, and continues inside the country.

We’ve increased resources at the border significantly — Massey’s “militarization” — expanding and modernizing the fences and doubling the number of agents over the past decade (though the Border Patrol is still smaller than the New York Police Department). The absurdity of the current Senate immigration bill’s border provisions — called “almost overkill” by Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), who sponsored them — stems not from the fact that they are devoted to the border. Rather, the problems are 1) the money would be better spent on interior enforcement and 2) none of it is going to happen anyway, since the increases in manpower and equipment were inserted at the last minute merely as a political prop, to provide cover for pro-amnesty Republican senators. Short of handing out toy badges to random passers-by, there’s no way to recruit, screen, train, equip, and deploy 20,000 additional Border Patrol agents in the space of a few years — and everyone, including the measure’s sponsors, knows that.

The post-American Left gets a thrill from asserting that border enforcement causes illegal immigration. It gives them a way to argue for the dissolution of America’s sovereignty while seeming to sound reasonable. But it’s no more valid than other such counterintuitive nostrums of the Left — Freedom Is Slavery, for instance, or Ignorance Is Strength.

The reality is that immigration enforcement works. But it works best when applied across the board. For the political elite to earn back the trust of the public regarding its commitment to protecting American sovereignty, we will need to see more than showy but insincere border-enforcement boasts. Instead, a serious immigration system must combine border control with worksite enforcement, systematized coordination between federal authorities and local police, prosecution of illegal-immigrant identity theft and tax fraud, rigorous standards for visa issuance, and serious consequences for immigration fraud, among other things. The bill promoted by Professor Massey’s friends in the Senate wouldn’t accomplish any of this.

— Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.