Return of the ‘E’ Word
An immigration-enforcement vision for the new century.


Mark Krikorian

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.