Friday, June 5, 2009 |

You announced your retirement at a time, arguably, when the relationship between Mexico and the United States is really receiving a lot more attention than it has in the last 15 years or so—

Much of that because of the swine flu epidemic.

Yeah, the swine flu, the war on drugs, the increasing militarization of the border. Is that more than a coincidence, or is that just a coincidence?

Oh, you know, the bilateral relationship has its ups and downs. It has throughout the 40 plus years that I’ve been working professionally on it. So, is the current situation in U.S.-Mexico relations significantly worse than it was, say, under Jimmy Carter’s presidency? That’s kind of arguable. There are some innovations—certainly the drug-related violence is higher than it has ever been. The trans-border transmission of infectious disease is obviously a new development, the militarization of the border has been in process since 1993, and what we have seen in recent years is just a continuation of the project that Bill Clinton started. So I suppose you can say that if a healthy U.S.-Mexico relationship were the criterion for retirement, I would never retire, because there are always going to be major irritants just for historical, cultural reasons, and our geographic proximity. But no, the timing had nothing to do with the state of bi-national relations.

It looks like we’re sort of on an upswing in terms of the amount of attention.

Well actually, when the amount of attention being given to Mexico in the media and the Congress is higher, those are times when you should expect greater conflict in the relationship. When Mexico is being ignored, then, paradoxically, the relations are generally more amicable. If policy makers are paying attention, it’s usually for the wrong reasons, but…it’s also more difficult to do the kind of research that I do among Mexican immigrants. In the last few years, for example, it’s gotten a lot more difficult to interview Mexicans living on this side of the border. …This year particularly, it was like pulling teeth to get interviews done with the U.S.-based migrants.

Why is that?

Because of the climate of fear that has been created in immigrant communities by the interior enforcement activities of recent years. We have had to work much harder in the last couple of years to establish our bona fides and to reassure potential interviewees that we have nothing to do with the U.S. Government, nothing to do with la migra. And eventually we’ve gotten the interviews, but it’s taken a Herculean effort. So the amount of enforcement activity going on, especially in the United States, the amount of media attention and all that it gets, it creates kind of a siege mentality within the populations that I’m trying to study. So in that respect, especially when the Congress is actively debating immigration policy or introducing new legislation, that’s a time of heightened anxiety on both sides of the border, but particularly among those who are already here, because they expect the worst. Anytime that Congress becomes re-engaged with the immigration issue, it’s likely that there will be new restrictive measures that will make life even more difficult for those already here.

During the last few years, have you seen greater fear among the people you were trying to interact with who are migrants, compared to all the previous decades that you’ve been doing this kind of work?


So what is it particularly about this period of enforcement as opposed to, say, the period starting in 1995, for example, that makes people more reluctant to speak?

Well of course there is a lot more enforcement activity at the border, so getting across the border today almost invariably requires hiring a professional smuggler, and that costs people $3,000 at the current going rate. So for relatives still in Mexico, to bring them to this side of the border requires a huge cash outlay that the U.S.-based relatives have to come up with in most cases, and if they’re unwilling or unable to loan them that money, then it becomes a source of family separations, tensions with the family.

It’s mostly the interior enforcement activities that have created greater anxieties in recent years: workplace raids, neighborhood sweeps, random traffic stops, the Secure Communities program of DHS, which is supposed to target criminal aliens…but which ends up rounding up mostly economic migrants. All of this creates a situation in which, even if a family has not been directly affected by these kinds of enforcement activities, they know someone who has, they’ve heard of someone. You also have a rising proportion of mixed-status families, in which one or more members are undocumented and other members aren’t legal. Frequently it’s the children who are U.S.-born, and therefore U.S. citizens, and the parents are undocumented. The family lives in dread continually that the undocumented members will be somehow caught up in an enforcement operation and the children will have no one to care for them and the family will be broken up, and that proportion of mixed-status families continues to rise. …There are over 4 million children in this country who live in households in which one or more of their parents are undocumented. So it’s a combination of factors, clearly.

One more, of course, is the economy, which has created great employment insecurity among immigrants of all types, and most of them are barely hanging on, but they’re continuing to try to tough out the recession, but there’s a lot of anxiety. …[O]ver half of the families that we interviewed this year on the U.S. side had had their regular working hours cut because of the recession, and they live day to day in fear of losing their livelihoods altogether. So when you put this together with the effects of enforcement activities, it’s a recipe for a pretty high level of anxiety.

All of which contributes to not necessarily wanting to expose yourself more than you absolutely have to to make a living?

Absolutely. We asked a question about this in our latest survey. “What are the things you worry about most as an undocumented person living in the United States?” Majorities worry about getting to work, walking in the street, driving a car, seeking medical attention, taking your children to school. All of those common everyday activities are now anxiety-producing.

I know that most of your research has a the inefficiency of enforced border protection and border control—

The lack of cost effectiveness coupled with a host of unintended consequences, like higher migrant fatalities, like more permanent settlement in the United States, like the fueling of the people-smuggling industry. There’s been a lot of collateral damage from what we’ve been doing at the border.

And you argue that much of this has resulted in very little actual decrease in the number of immigrants coming into the United States, and that Mexicans aren’t deterred from trying to get into the United States.

Coming to the border and trying their luck. Our data shows that upwards of 95 percent in most years in which we’ve done the survey have succeeded in entering on the second or the third try, if they’ve been apprehended at all. We have yet to do a study in the last five years that shows even a majority being apprehended even a single time. This year’s survey showed 46 percent apprehended on the most recent try. But still 98 percent of them got in, eventually.

So how does Congress justify further enforcement of the border as an effective means of preventing further immigration?

Well, it supposedly reassures constituents that the government is doing the common-sensical thing about immigration, which is to put up walls, put up physical barriers, virtual barriers, chase them down if they should get across the border. Congress has never demanded evidence of efficacy. They don’t want to hear evidence like the kind that my research team has generated that shows that it’s simply not an effective deterrent—that it doesn’t keep migrants out of the country.

It’s something that members of Congress believe their constituents demand, and that’s a highly visible thing, and that doesn’t rely on any cooperation of the Mexican government, that it’s something we can do unilaterally. So there’s a big constituency for this kind of approach in the Congress even in the absence of evidence that it’s effective. I think it’s a tremendous waste of taxpayers’ money. It always has been. Highly experienced border patrolmen agree that building fences is a waste of money, and has all these unintended consequences as well. But it’s something that the politicians have demanded and have kept throwing money at, and the Obama administration is doing the same thing. The only variation so far in their border enforcement policy is to stop spending money on physical fence construction—to take that money and put it into electronic fence-building. Otherwise the enforcement effort continues apace, and the rationale they’re giving for that is that it’s necessary to build trust in the general public. They have things under control, and perhaps some sort of legalization program can be considered once people have been convinced that all the enforcement pieces are in place.

It sounds like you’re saying that they know it’s not going to be more effective based on previous experience, but that in order for any kind of meaningful immigration reform to take place, they first have to show people that all of the money they’ve spent is not effective.

I don’t think that they will ever say that border enforcement is ineffective. I can’t foresee any administration actually admitting that. They may begin to reduce expenditures on it. But we’re never going to see the border enforcement apparatus that’s been created since 1993 dismantled in our lifetime. The only question is how much more will be done? How much more will be invested in that strategy of immigration control?

I’m really interested in the spatial, geographic focus of your research, and the way that you compare, for example, the Spanish case with the U.S.-Mexico case, and the way that the construction of these walls drives people to find other ways of entering.

It does two things. It displaces the flows geographically, spatially, so that migrants and the people smugglers will always find the point of least resistance, and go around fortifications. I liken it to throwing a boulder in a swiftly-moving stream—that’s just the nature of this kind of population movement. One of the problems is that along the U.S.-Mexico border, diverting the flows in that way has greatly increased the death toll because the areas to which flows are being diverted are more remote from urban areas. They involve passage through highly dangerous and mountainous desert terrain, so it is inevitable that there will be fatalities. Well over 5,000 people have died since 1995—probably twice that many because those 5,000-plus are only the ones whose bodies have been discovered.

So there’s that kind of geographic displacement, and there’s also a shift to new modes of entry, and you see that in the Spanish case very clearly. When the Spaniards erected this electronic radar surveillance wall along their Mediterranean coast, the flows from North Africa were diverted almost immediately to the Canary Islands. Now there’s pressure on the land borders as well. New modes of entry is something that we see very much in evidence on the U.S.-Mexico border. This year, for example, we found that over a quarter of the undocumented migrants we interviewed in this year’s study had actually entered the U.S. through a legal port of entry. They had entered either concealed in a vehicle or using false documents or borrowed documents. So this has become a very important alternative or unconventional method of entering the United States without authorization, because as we have tightened up the border in underdeveloped areas between the legal ports of entry, smugglers have begun to offer crossing through the ports of entry, because it reduces physical risk to zero, and it’s highly likely to be successful because there are far too many crossings being made through those ports of entry to be scrutinized adequately.

That proliferation of false documents sounds like one of those unintended consequences you were talking about.

Absolutely. And the other new mode of entry that we’ve seen in the last couple of years is maritime crossings, from the coast of Baja California to the beaches of San Diego county. That kind of smuggling is up about 300 percent since October of 2007.

So it sounds like what you’re saying is that the impetus for people to leave and to actually make it to the United States is much stronger and ultimately will prevail over any kind of fear that people have of not making it over safely.

Yes. Now, what has reduced unauthorized migration flows in the last two or three fiscal years? It’s been the cooling of the U.S. economy more than anything else. The U.S. economic meltdown has deterred far more potential undocumented migrants than anything that the U.S. government has done since 1993. If we look back at the history, what is the only other period in modern history when migration from Mexico has virtually dried up?


Your research. (Laughs. Before the start of our conversation, we chatted about my college thesis on Chicago’s Mexicans during the Great Depression).

How modern are we talking here?

We’re talking about the Great Depression! (Laughs).

Oh sure! I thought you meant in the last 15 years.

So 1929 to 1935, new migration virtually dried up. There were no jobs in the United States. We have seen this repeatedly over the last 60 or 70 years—that when there is a severe economic contraction in the United States, the flow of new migrants falls off rapidly, and then when we’re in a better place in terms of our business cycle, the flow rebounds. That’s what we can expect to happen as soon as we’re in a sustained recovery from the current crisis.

Do you think the fact that fortification of the border is happening at the same time that migrants are not coming to the United States because of the economic situation here will give proponents of fortification—

It’s very convenient, it’s very convenient for proponents of this approach, because they can declare victory, just as (former homeland security secretary) Michael Chertoff did last October, just as (current DHS secretary) Janet Napolitano seems to be doing. Now they can claim that because we have ratcheted up our border enforcement efforts to such a level, that we have reached a tipping point in migrant calculations, and that the tide has been turned, and we’ve created a permanent deterrent. That is simply an illusion, but that is of course the argument that is being made, and the only thing that they have to support it is the apprehension statistics, which are down. They’re down 27 percent in the current fiscal year.

What the apprehension statistics don’t show is all the people who got away. They only document the unlucky minority who are caught.

Do you think it’s just a matter of time before immigration increases to the level it was before the economic slowdown? Is it just a matter of time before Janet Napolitano is proved wrong?

If we have a “normal” recovery, of course flows will rebound. Not necessarily to the late 1990s level, but it will level off at a point much higher than it is today.

What do you see being the effect of the drug war and the increased violence in the border region on migration flows and the way that the U.S. Congress is dealing with both of those. Are they being conflated?

Well there is a conflation of the two issues, particularly among anti-immigrant members of Congress. Actually it’s a conflation of three issues: illegal migration, drug trafficking, and security threats. Empirically there’s really very little impact of the drug wars on immigration flows. There’s some anecdotal information that in some parts of Mexico…rural areas are being affected for the first time by the drug wars, that there is much less return migration from the United States, so people are opting to stay here rather than go back, and some anecdotal information that small merchants aren’t able to make it in those places because there isn’t enough return migration. But there’s no documented effect beyond those small pockets that drug trafficking, per se, is giving people incentives either to migrate or to stay in the United States.

Now politically there is a percentage in conflating the issues because you can use drug trafficking or security threats to justify any kind of border fortification, and people like (congressmen) Duncan Hunter and Brian Bilbray and even more, Tom Tancredo, when he was in the Congress, have been very systematic in viewing this as an interrelated set of issues. It’s really not, and there’s really very little overlap in terms of drug trafficking and migrant smuggling. Those are basically two compartmentalized businesses. Again, the political impulse is to consider them to be different facets of the same industry that will respond to the same kinds of remedies.

So where do policy makers begin to address all of this?

I devote special attention to the so-called developmental approach to immigration control, which means simply creating alternatives to immigration in the places from which migrants come, through targeted development projects. That’s the approach that has never been given more than lip service in Washington, but which virtually all immigration experts view as the only kind of measure that’s likely to have a sustainable long-term impact on unauthorized flows. That will involve a cooperative effort including the Mexican government, the U.S. government, foundations on both sides of the border, non-governmental organizations, [and] migrant associations in the United States. There are various potential funders of those projects that need to be brought together, but it’s not rocket science, and it can be done if there’s a will.

Do you think the Obama administration will take that into consideration?

That’s the kind of approach, I think, that is unlikely to be taken seriously in the short term, which means that comprehensive immigration reform, if it does turn out to be comprehensive, will be border enforcement, interior enforcement, some sort of legalization of undocumented migrants who are already here, and if we’re really lucky, visa reform, so that we fix the bottlenecks of the legal immigration system to create more legal entry opportunities. If Obama gets all of that done, he will go down in history as the most serious of our immigration reformers. They may never get to visa reform, which would be a great pity and which would simply guarantee the continuation of the illegal flows.

Enforcement, they’re going to do, both interior and border, and I think there will be sustained pressure from Latino organizations and Latino voters for them to do some kind of legalization. Beyond that, it’s sheer speculation.

Do you think the developmental approach, which obviously would require much more bilateral cooperation, is even more far off?

Well, I think a developmental solution would have to be bilateral. It doesn’t have much of a constituency in Washington and never has had, because politically it’s always much more attractive to do things unilaterally. Whatever we can control, whatever we can throw money at that does not involve cooperation from the Mexican side, is by definition more palatable in Congress.

What do you think it’s going to take for the U.S. Congress to be more willing to work with the Mexican government? I was reading an op-ed by (Mexican political analyst) Denise Dresser, who was saying that a lot of it is really resting on the shoulders of (Mexican president Felipe) Calder—n.

Oh, I don’t believe that. …There’s really very little that the Mexican government can do to create the conditions for a broader kind of reform. In fact, most things that they could do are likely to provoke a backlash in Congress. So I think that whole line of argument is pretty much without foundation.

There are two things that would improve the climate—wouldn’t guarantee that we will pursue comprehensive reforms but politically would facilitate it. One is a strong and sustained economic recovery in the United States. That, combined with demographic changes in our own society, and Mexico, that would increase the demand for migrant labor, and simultaneously decrease the supply of migrants.

Mexico is passing through its own demographic transition. Its labor force is actually going to shrink over the next 30 years, so there will be fewer potential migrants on the Mexican side of the border. Our society is clearly aging, and we’re going to face in not too many more years the kinds of problems that Japan and western European countries are already facing in terms of guaranteeing continued financing of medical care and other social services that depend upon the contributions of people who are economically active, of whom we will have fewer and fewer.

Renewing the labor force?

Correct, but also renewing the taxpayers. So I think it’s going to require a combination of stronger economic growth in the United States with contracting labor supply, a contracting supply of native-born labor, so that you have, once again, as you did in the 1990s, labor shortages that could be documented in certain parts of the country and certain industries. That would have to become routine, so that the necessity for foreign-born workers becomes more evident to the average resident of the United States. Under those conditions, employer groups would become a lot more active, lobbying the government for a liberalization of immigration laws. That, combined with the fact that there are going to be fewer potential migrants from Mexico because the birth rates have fallen so rapidly and have continued to decline on the Mexican side. That means less pressure on the border and not so much need for these continued symbolic fortification efforts at the border.

So that’s the medium- to long-term picture. Let demography take its course, but the U.S. economy also has to be put back on a growth curve.

Thanks a lot.

Why am I retiring now? Forty years is long enough!

What are you going to be doing after retiring?…Leisure trips to Mexico, maybe?

No! (Laughs). Too much like work.

—Interview by ADRIAN FLORIDO

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