Ezra Klein interviews immigration expert Doug Massey:
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.
In recent years, the net inflow of new undocumented immigrants arriving from Mexico has fallen to zero. Some of the decline is due to the U.S. recession and a falloff in construction, which employed a lot of migrant workers. But some is due to an improving economy in Mexico, where unemployment is 5 percent and wages have been rising. “I personally think the huge boom in Mexican immigration is over,” Massey said.
Yet the political debate over immigration is stuck in 1985. Congress is focused above all on how to further militarize an already militarized border — despite the fact that doubling the size of the border patrol since 2004 and installing hundreds of miles of barriers and surveillance equipment appears to have been counterproductive.