CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we'll talk to a writer who was born in Nigeria and raised in the U.S. as a Jehovah's Witness. She talks about writing the truth about her home country, even when it's an ugly truth. That's next. But first, overhauling the U.S. immigration system remains a hot button topic. That's no surprise. Lawmakers are struggling to find one solution that fits everybody. But sociologist Douglas Massey says they should stop focusing on today's problems and look to the past.
He says enforcement and policy over the last several decades has only worsened the U.S. immigration problem. And he explains this argument in an article published recently in the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Doug Massey is a professor of sociology and codirector of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University. He joins us now. Welcome.
DOUGLAS MASSEY: Pleasure to be here.
HEADLEE: When we talk about looking to the past, what you're really talking about are the days pre-1960. That's when Mexican nationals would travel freely across the border. They'd come in to work. They would go back home when their work was done. And if that system worked so well, why did we ever change it?
MASSEY: Well, we changed it because we wanted to purge racism from the American immigration system. And this racism was manifested in these old National Origin quotas that were erected to keep, basically, Eastern European Jews and southern European Catholics and Eastern European Polish Catholics out of the country. When those were put in place in the 1920s, people weren't thinking about the Western Hemisphere. And so it was never covered under the National Origin quotas.
But when they got rid of the National Origin quotas, they put in a new immigration visa system that gave 20,000 visas per country per year and divided them up according to family connections to the U.S. and U.S. labor needs. And this opened up the door to immigration from previously banned parts of the world, like Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe. But it imposed new numerical limits on immigration from places like Mexico and the Western Hemisphere. At the same time, Congress got rid of a long-standing guest worker program known as the Bracero program because it came to be seen as a discriminatory system that was on a par with southern sharecropping and needed to be abandoned. But they weren't thinking about the ongoing flows. In the late 1950s, we had 500,000 Mexicans coming in to the United States, about 90 percent of whom returned within a year or so. And when you block this flow from happening, that's the origins of the illegal migrations in the United States, which began as a steady rise after 1965, to peak at about 1979 or 1980.
HEADLEE: OK, help me understand this on really kind of the basic level. 'Cause then we get to 1980s and 1990s, there was a lot of really harsh political rhetoric going around. People talking - campaigning against illegal aliens that were coming in to invade the country. They actually used warlike language. And they started investing millions, eventually went up to more than a billion dollars in border enforcement, and you talk about how this ended up having an unintended consequence when it came to the workers who were coming here for - just for work.
MASSEY: Well, when you militarize the border, and make it very difficult and very risky and very costly to cross the border, migrants, being reasonable people, minimize border crossing. But they do it in a way that the policy makers did not anticipate.
Rather than staying in Mexico and not crossing the border to the jobs that were waiting for them, they simply stopped returning back to Mexico to avoid having to cross the border again and pay the high costs and experience the high risks. And if you keep in-migration constant and dramatically reduce outmigration, the only possible arithmetic outcome is a dramatic increase in net migration, which is what we observed, especially during the 1990s and early 2000s.
HEADLEE: And yet, at the same time, I have to point out that people's idea of what was going on is really quite unrealistic. We got all these numbers of the numbers of people apprehended. The numbers that the border agents were taking into custody went up all the time. But what was really happening was not an increase in migration. It was just an increase in apprehensions.
MASSEY: Well, if you start throwing money at border enforcement and dramatically ramp up the number of border patrol officers, you're going to catch more migrants, even if the flow is constant. And according to the data, the undocumented flows actually peaked around 1979, 1980. But thereafter, the number of apprehensions kept increasing because you'd put evermore border patrol officers looking for them. So if you look at apprehensions per capita - per border patrol officer, that peaks at around 1979, 1980. But the number of border apprehensions goes up to the millions by 1986.
HEADLEE: So the odd thing, to me here, is that we actually dealt with immigration best when we had the fewest regulations and enforcement at the border.
MASSEY: That's one of the great paradoxes of immigration today. The more porous you make the border and the easier you make it for people to come and go, the fewer people actually settle in the country of destination. So if you have a more flexible immigration policy and you admit that, well, Mexico, the United States are in fact integrating economically under the North American Free Trade Agreement, and allow for legitimate cross-border movements as a result of that integration, you'll end up with fewer migrant populations actually settling in the United States and a smaller rate of undocumented. Or you would not even have undocumented migration, and you'd have a smaller rate of immigrant population growth.
HEADLEE: I don't harbor any naive idea that Congress is suddenly going to completely open up the borders. But let's hypothetically say that they did. Is that cat out of the bag? Is it too late at this point to turn back the clock and make, as you say, a porous border?
MASSEY: No, and in fact Congress has quietly done that. Although there's all this debate about installing guest worker programs, by 2008, there were 360,000 guest worker entries from Mexico alone. So there's a lot of temporary workers coming into the United States that people don't even notice. And a lot of the migrants you see in the country today are actually here on legal visas and temporary visas. And many of them are circulating back and forth within the system.
HEADLEE: Let me ask you something. The PEW Hispanic Center, which is a nonpartisan research organization, released a report last year that got a lot of attention because they said after four decades that brought in millions - 12 million - current immigrants, most of them came here illegally. The net migration flow - and I'm quoting here - from Mexico to the United States has stopped and may have reversed.
HEADLEE: What about the argument that all of this border enforcement - the Obama administration has deported more people than any other administration - what if that is the cause of this reverse migration? Perhaps that's the reason why we're seeing fewer Mexican migrants coming to the U.S.
MASSEY: Well, when I did a systematic analysis using the data that I've been collecting in Mexico and on this side of the border for the past 30 years, and looked at what was predicting the rates of in-and-out migration, I find that the enforcement effort, as I said earlier, had this negative effect on return migration, but had zero effect on the rate of in-migration, which was driven, initially, almost entirely by U.S. labor demand.
And the conditions on both sides of the border have now changed quite dramatically. So that I think the boom in undocumented migration is really over, and in fact, now is a good time to implement a legalization program because the pressure at the border is really off, no matter what the rhetoric in Washington.
HEADLEE: Well, let's talk about the rhetoric in Washington because in many ways these decisions on immigration, as you've said, dating back to the 1960s at the very least don't have very much to do with practical reality, right? I mean, it's usually about political mores and what people need to talk about. That the rhetoric people need to use or feel they need to use in order to get elected and reelected.
MASSEY: Yeah, when it comes to immigration and border policy, the rhetoric and the laws that are passed tell you more about the insecurities and fears in the United States than anything about the realities of immigration. It also tells you about the hopes and aspirations, depending on the period.
So in 1965, it was in the middle of the civil rights movement, and Congress was trying to purge the U.S. of - the U.S. immigration system of its racist legacy. But in the years since, it's become - the border and immigration has become a prop in larger debates, first about the Cold War, and now about the war on terror. It's really not about border security. I think Mexico-U.S. border gets all the attention because of the demographic changes in the United States and the fear of - really around immigration from south of the border.
HEADLEE: Doug Massey Professor of sociology, codirector of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University. He joined us from his home office in Jamaica, Vermont. Thank you so much, Doug.
MASSEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.