The counterproductive consequences of border enforcement

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Author: Douglas S. Massey
Date: Fall 2017
From: The Cato Journal(Vol. 37, Issue 3)
Publisher: Cato Institute
Document Type: Essay
Length: 4,383 words

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From 1986 to 2008 the undocumented population of the United States grew from three million to 12 million persons, despite a five-fold increase in Border Patrol officers, a four-fold increase in hours spent patrolling the border, and a 20-fold increase in the agency's nominal budget. Whether measured in terms of personnel, patrol hours, or budget, studies indicate that the surge in border enforcement has had little effect in reducing unauthorized migration to the United States (Massey, Durand, and Pren 2014). The strategy of enhanced border enforcement was not without consequences, however, for although it did not deter Mexicans from heading northward or prevent them from crossing the border, it did reduce the rate of return migration and redirected migrant flows to new crossing points and destinations, with profound consequences for the size, composition, and geographic distribution of the nation's unauthorized population. Here I draw on results from a recent study (Massey, Durand, and Pren 2016) to explain how and why the unprecedented militarization of the Mexico-U.S. border not only failed to reduce undocumented migration but also actually backfired by turning what had been a circular flow of male workers, going mainly to three states, into a large and growing population of families in 50 states.

The Rise of Illegal Migration

The origins of illegal migration go back 1965, when Congress passed amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act that placed numerical limits on immigration from the Western Hemisphere. At the same time, it canceled a longstanding guest worker agreement with Mexico. Subsequent legislative amendments further tightened restrictions on Mexican entry until by 1976 Mexico was left with an annual quota of just 20,000 legal resident visas per year and no temporary work visas at all.

The conditions of labor supply and demand had not changed, however, and network connections between Mexican workers and U.S. employers were well established by 1965. As a result, once opportunities for legal entry disappeared, migration did not stop but simply continued under undocumented auspices. By 1979 the annual inflow of Mexican workers had returned back to levels that prevailed in the late 1950s, and as before, the migration was overwhelmingly circular (Massey and Pren 2012). In practical terms, then, little had changed between the late 1950s and the late 1970s. Similarly sized flows of migrants were going to the same destinations in the same U.S. states and returning after short periods of work.

However, in symbolic terms, the situation had changed dramatically, for now the vast majority of the migrants were "illegal" and thus by definition "criminals" and "lawbreakers." The rise of illegal migration created a new opening for political entrepreneurs to cultivate a politics of fear, framing Latino immigration as a grave threat to the nation (Chavez 2008). Fear is a well-established tool for political mobilization, and throughout history humans have found it difficult to resist the temptation to cultivate fear of outsiders in order to achieve self-serving goals. In response to the advent of illegal migration after 1965, three prominent categories of social...

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Source Citation
Massey, Douglas S. "The counterproductive consequences of border enforcement." The Cato Journal, vol. 37, no. 3, 2017, p. 539+. Accessed 16 Apr. 2021.
  

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