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July 2012, Volume 18, Number 3

Mexico-US Migration: Pew, Massey

Pew. The Pew Hispanic Center estimated that the number of unauthorized Mexicans in the US peaked at seven million in 2007 and fell to 6.1 million in 2011. Mexicans were 58 percent of the 11.2 million unauthorized foreigners in 2011.

Pew attributed the decrease to the 2008-09 recession and falling construction employment, more border enforcement and deportations, and declining Mexican birth rates (fertility fell from an average 7.3 children per woman in 1960 to 2.4 in 2012). About 20 percent of Mexicans apprehended and returned to Mexico say they do not plan to return to the US, almost triple the stay-at-home rate of 2005.

About 10 percent of the people born in Mexico have moved to the US, some 12 million; in 1970, there were 760,000 Mexican-born US residents, or less than two percent of Mexicans had moved to the US. Mexico is the largest source of US immigrants: 30 percent of the 40 million foreign-born US residents were born in Mexico. Almost 60 percent of Mexican-born US residents live in California and Texas.

Between 2005 and 2010, Pew estimated zero net Mexico-US migration, that is, 1.4 million Mexicans moved to the US and 1.4 million Mexicans (including 300,000 and US-born children) moved to Mexico (about 46,500 Mexicans who were deported in the first half of 2011 said they had US-born children). There are still Mexicans moving to the US, but entrants are matched by returns to Mexico, including US-born children of Mexican parents who return to Mexico.

Massey. Sociologist Doug Massey, co-founder of the Mexican Migration Project, downplays the importance of wage differences in explaining Mexico-US migration. Instead of being motivated by earning in an hour in the US what would take a day's work in Mexico, Massey argues that Mexicans would stay in Mexico despite wage differences but for market consolidation and human and social capital formation.

Massey views international migration as a response to changes in developing countries that displace workers, such as changes that reduce the share of workers employed in agriculture. He is especially influenced by the notion that young people in tradition-bound rural economies realize their world is changing but lack the resources to take advantage of new opportunities. Households that send a member abroad to earn high wages and remit some of them can benefit during crises at home and see their income rise over time.

International migration helps families to diversify risk and accumulate capital as markets spread in developing countries. In this way, the faster economic and job growth associated with economic integration can temporarily increase migration from poorer to richer trading partners, the so-called migration hump. Some of this increased migration reflects the fact that persons too poor to migrate previously can do so as a result of faster economic growth, but more of the migration reflects changing perceptions of opportunity, as residents who previously would have accepted a life as rain-fed farmers now want more. Especially youth in such families see international migration as the fastest way to achieve economic advancement.

The migration response to globalization and modernization in poor countries depends in part on previous levels of migration. The human and social capital embodied in friends and relatives who have migrated and returned, as well as those who remain abroad, can be shared with those who have not yet migrated, so that some migration can beget more migration in snowball fashion as farmers leave agriculture.

The displacement accompanying globalization, combined with new attitudes and aspirations and migration experience, represent cumulative causation, a process in which some migration generates more. Cumulative causation helps to explain ever-increasing migration, but not why migration eventually falls. Well before wages are equalized in countries that are integrating economically, including Italy to Germany in the 1960s and Mexico to the US recently, economically motivated migration can fall.

Massey blames Congressional decisions for the upsurge in Mexico-US migration over the past four decades. In 1970, there were less than 750,000 Mexican-born US residents; by 2010, there were about 12 million. Massey suggests that, since the mid-1950s, the outflow of Mexicans has been "fixed" at about 500,000 a year. During the Bracero era, most Mexicans shuttled between seasonal farm jobs in the US and homes in Mexico. Massey believes the decision to end the Bracero program in 1964, when less than 100,000 Braceros were admitted, spurred illegal migration, even though apprehensions remained low until the mid-1970s.

The second bad decision, according to Massey, were the 1965 amendments to the basic US immigration law that ended national preferences and introduced quotas on migration from the Western Hemisphere. By 1978, Mexico was limited to 20,000 immigrant visas a year (immediate relatives of US citizens are exempt from these quotas). Massey argues that this quota encouraged illegal migration as immigrants in the US unified families.

The third bad decision involved adding Border Patrol agents and fences along the Mexico-US border, which raised the cost of illegal entry. The rising cost of entering the US illegally encouraged those who succeeded to stay longer and eventually form or unite families in the US. The settlement of "illegal aliens," in turn, produced an anti-migrant backlash, especially in states receiving large numbers of Mexican migrants for the first time such as Arizona.

Massey argues that most Mexican migrants want upward mobility at home, so their preference is to circulate between Mexico and the US rather than settle in the US. He recommends that the US begin a guest worker program to hire Mexicans as the US economy recovers and legalize the unauthorized Mexicans who have settled in the US. Massey would give immediate immigrant status to those brought to the US as children and some type of earned immigrant status to those who arrived as adults. Implementing this legalization and guest worker policy, Massey argues, would make most of the 22,000 Border Patrol agents and the fences on the Mexico-US border redundant and help to insure the successful integration of Mexican immigrants and their children.


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