Friday, June 5, 2009 | Professor Wayne Cornelius has spent the last four decades conducting field research among migrant-sending and -receiving communities in Mexico and the United States.

The founder and director of UCSD’s Center for Comparative Immigration Studies is widely regarded as a foremost expert on the impacts of immigration control policies on migration from Mexico to the United States, and has also studied migration in Western Europe and Japan.

After a 41-year career, Cornelius will retire at the end of the month.

We sat down with him to talk about the state of U.S.-Mexico relations, migrant flows into the United States and policy concerning our southern border. Here’s a condensed version of our Q&A. You can read the full conversation here.

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?

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.

I know that most of your research has addressed 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.

From 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. …

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.

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?

Ummm …

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 Michael Chertoff did last October, just as 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.

Is it 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 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.

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.

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.

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) Calderón.

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.

— Interview by ADRIAN FLORIDO

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