America's imaginary border insecurity

Politicians refuse to acknowledge that the number of illegal immigrants arriving in the U.S. remains very low

Published May 11, 2013 12:00PM (EDT)

This piece originally appeared on Pacific Standard.

Pacific Standard U.S. immigration reform has hinged on first “securing the border,” which has that sort of common sense appeal of not fixing water damage after a pipe bursts until you repair the leaky pipe.

Politicians from former presidential contenders to D.C. legislators to local sheriffs all insist that the border needs to be fixed before we can talk about legalizing existing illegal immigrants or making other changes to immigration policy. This week, Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the “gang of eight” working on drafting an immigration bill, repeated the mantra that there will be no bill without better border security. In Mexico last week, President Obama stressed the need to secure the border (which to Mexicans might involve preventing U.S. guns from heading south). NPR quoted Obama security adviser Ben Rhodes: “With Mexico, first and foremost, they are critical to our ability to secure the border. All the immigration plans that have been contemplated put a focus on securing the border as an essential priority and starting point for immigration reform.”

But if that is a precondition, then bring on reform—that plumbing has been solidly repaired for some time.

“The net illegal immigration into the United States in the last four years has been zero: Net zero at the border,” says Doug Massey, a Princeton-based sociologist who has been collecting data on immigration since 1982. He’s been making the case for sensible immigration policies for almost as long; the first-ever Miller-McCune cover story was a Massey-penned piece about NAFTA and immigration. (He spoke in Pacific Standard’s hometown earlier this year and I scribbled some notes.)

Understand, he’s not saying that no one’s crossing the border illegally, or that that there aren’t issues that will flare up (or fester) where two countries rub together; “immigration’s benefits accrue broadly but the costs are borne locally,” Massey notes. But at the end of the day, or fiscal year, the number of new faces appearing in the U.S. illegally is not growing, even as the shrillness of calls to clamp down grows louder.

This shouldn’t be news. “While the facts on the ground have steadily and dramatically changed,” Doris Meissner, the head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under Bill Clinton, wrote in a report for the Migration Policy Institute, “public perceptions have not kept up with the new realities.”

As we quoted immigration lawyer Marshall Fitz three years ago: “This is all about degrees, and unfortunately, the debate is never about degrees. The debate is about absolutes: ‘The border isn’t secure, we’ve got to secure the border first.’ Well, the border is far more secure than it’s ever, ever, ever been, unquestionably.”

Part of that is willful perception, Massey said. “Immigration is a trope of a larger political conversation in the United States,” and that has resulted in “a policy made for the wrong reasons with results that are unwanted.” (And while Massey would not be mistaken for a conservative, he acknowledges “it’s been a bipartisan effort” to create a busted system.)

Massey says the actual flow of all immigrants is the same as it was after 1965, the year the immigration law abolished national quotas. The one signal difference? In recent years 90 percent of those immigrants have been illegal. The flow has been constant, but as more resources have been poured in to stem the tide there have been more captures and a resultant increase in hysteria.

The Migration Policy Institute determined that the U.S. “spends more on its immigration enforcement agencies [$18 billion in FY2012] than on all its other principal criminal federal law enforcement agencies combined.” That amount is 15 times greater than it was 1986, when the modern regime of enforcement took off. The latest jockeying in Washington may add another billion dollars a year to that. And it’s bought what?

“In 60 years the inflow hasn’t changed,” Massey said. “But behavior has, all due to the policy of the U.S.”

And that behavior has led to an increase in people staying in the United States. The rate of return to Mexico (by far the biggest source of immigrants to the U.S.) fell as “militarization” of the border increased the costs of crossing over, and so made staying in the U.S. permanently a rational choice. Fixing the border, Massey argues, turned what had been a circular flow of male workers into three states into a one-way flow of families into 50 states.

This idea that you can’t go home again—let’s dub it the Thomas Wolfe effect—has been recognized for a long time. Here’s the Public Policy Institute of California, for example, in a 2002 report (PDF here) that cited some of Massey’s work: “There is strong evidence that unauthorized migrants are staying longer in the United States during the period of increased enforcement.” The same report, which looked at the previous amnesty-plus-border-crackdown effort, also found no evidence that the “border enforcement build-up as such” had really cut into the immigrant flow.

But what it did was move the location of immigration enforcement’s low-hanging fruit.

“The big achievement during the Bush years was the rise in apprehensions,” said Michael Dear, author of Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the U.S.-Mexico Divide. “The big achievement during the Obama years has been the rise in deportations.” Since 1990, more than four million people have been deported from the U.S., with “expedited removals” making up almost a third of deportations in recent years.

With the infrastructure for immigration control in place, “I’m going to assert that the border war is over,” Dear, a U.C. Berkeley planning professor, argued at the recent Association of American Geographers meeting. But the fight has shifted to the interior: Apprehensions of illegal immigrants by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, i.e. those made deeper inside the U.S., are almost equal to those by the Border Patrol, i.e. at the nation’s fringes.

Those high-profile raids of meat-packing plants and private homes have helped establish, in the aggregate, the equilibrium Massey has noted.

With his let’s-declare-victory assertion, Dear sees the border fence itself as an anomaly that will pass: “Walls will come down; walls always come down.” And these walls in particular are “the aberrant historical aspect” of the U.S. Mexico border. In 1849 it took six years to survey the border that resulted from the Mexican-American War. A second survey took place in 1890. And until the 1990s, Dear said, that stretch “did not have walls, very rarely had fences, and most of it was unmarked.”

But surely if the walls waver, especially as the U.S. economy gets back on its feet, pent-up demand on both sides of the border—for opportunity in Mexico, cheap labor in the U.S.—will be huge. Well, maybe not both sides.

“We conclude that over the next few years, migration flows are very unlikely to reach the high levels registered during the 1990s,” the Migration Policy Institute has said. Massey concurs. “Personally, I think the massive boom in illegal immigration is over,” he said, citing trends like wages that have slid in the U.S. while fertility has dropped and wages have risen in Mexico. (Here’s a series of charts backing that up.)

Some academics, like U.C. Davis ag economist J. Edward Taylor, suggest those trends alone—and not the border build-up—have and will continue to stem immigration from Latin America to the U.S. In fact, a border fixed by demographics, and not D.C., may raise a fine crop of havoc for American farmers still struggling to find cheap labor.

By Michael Todd

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