“Why [Mexican] Border Enforcement Backfired”

A big study of immigration published recently by the National Academy of Sciences noted that immigration policy has contributed to the rise on undocumented people in the U.S.  Now about 11 million, their numbers tripled since the mid 1980. How did that happen?

Douglas Massey and colleagues published an article in March, 2016, “Why Border Enforcement Backfired.”

According to Massey, undocumented migration from Mexico to the United States was largely a circular phenomenon, but the rise of aggressive border enforcement in the 1980s disrupted this pattern, imposing no effective controls on people coming into the U.S but deterring people from leaving.

The Immigration and Control Act of 1986 awarded green cards to 2.7 million undocumented immigrants, including one million farm workers. The Act also introduced tougher enforcement. Employers were required to check on legal status – but did not. Border enforcement budgets began to rise sharply.

“Our estimates reveal that the rapid escalation of border enforcement beginning in 1986 had no effect on the likelihood of initiating undocumented migration to the United States but did have powerful unintended consequences, pushing migrants away from relatively benign crossing locations in El Paso and San Diego.”(pg. 1590). Crossing deaths multiplied (figure 6). Coyote charges rose from $500 in 1990 to $2,000 in 2000 (figure 4). But the chance of successfully crossing the border albeit with multiple attempts was close to 100% until after about 2005 (figure 5). What greater enforcement did was to discourage undocumented residents from circulating back outside. “The probability of returning from a first trip fell sharply after the 1980s, going from a high of 48% in 1980 to zero in 2010.” “The shift from sojourning to settling as a prevailing migration strategy” took place.

Massey estimates that if border enforcement had remained at its 1986 level (as measured by the spending budget) there would have been 9.7 million undocumented persons in the U.S. in 2010 instead of the actual number of 14 million (pg. 1593).

A more open border policy would have produced less permanent immigration. “Now is the time to shift from a policy of immigration suppression to immigration management” (pg. 1595). The authors say that the times of large scale immigration is over, what with demographic changes and economic improvements in Mexico and tepid job growth in the U.S.

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