Seeing Mexican Immigration Clearly, by Douglas S. Massey, Reaction Essay, Cato Unbound: Richard Rodriguez is an essayist in the humanist tradition and thus comments on the cultural meaning of Mexican immigration and the symbolic importance of Mexicans in American society. As a student of culture myself, I concur with his emphasis on cultural meanings and symbols in the current debate. ...
Despite my appreciation for the cultural ramifications of Mexican immigration, I am a social scientist and ultimately believe that accurate understanding needs to be grounded in empirical reality. In 25 years of research on a variety of public policy issues, I have never seen so much misinformation.... Thanks to the media and political entrepreneurs, Mexican immigrants are routinely portrayed as a tidal wave of human beings fleeing an impoverished, disorganized nation who are desperate to settle in the United States, where they will overwhelm our culture, displace our language, mooch our social services...
This profile, however, bears no discernible relationship to the reality that I know as a social scientist.
Since 1982 I have co-directed a large data-gathering effort known as the Mexican Migration Project. My collaborators and I have conducted representative surveys in communities all over Mexico and the United States, and over the years, we have surveyed 20,000 households and 120,000 individuals... My understanding of Mexican immigration rests on these data, and if anyone thinks I’ve got it all wrong, they are free to download the data, analyze it, and see for themselves.
Mexican immigration is not a tidal wave. The rate of undocumented migration has not increased in over two decades. Neither is Mexico a demographic time bomb; its fertility rate is only slightly above replacement. Although a variety of trans-border population movements have increased, this is to be expected in a North American economy that is increasingly integrated under the terms of a mutually-ratified trade agreement. ... Rates of migration between Mexico and the United States are entirely normal for two countries so closely integrated economically.
Mexico is not impoverished or disorganized. It is a dynamic, one trillion dollar economy and, along with Canada, our largest trading partner. Its per capita income is $10,000, which puts it at the upper tier of middle income countries, not far behind Russia’s per capita income of $11,000. Compared with Russia, however, Mexico has a much better developed infrastructure of highways, ports, railroads, telecommunications, and social services that give it a poverty rate of 18% rather than 40%, as well as a male life expectancy of 73 years rather than 61 years... Unlike Russia, moreover, Mexico is a functioning democracy with open and competitive elections, a separation of powers, and a well-defined party system.
In keeping with these realities, Mexicans are not desperate to settle north of the border. Most migrants are not fleeing poverty so much as seeking social mobility. They typically have a job and income in Mexico and are seeking to finance some economic goal at home—acquiring a home, purchasing land, capitalizing a business, investing in education, smoothing consumption. Left to themselves, the vast majority of migrants will return once they have met their economic goals. From 1965 to 1985, 85% of undocumented entries from Mexico were offset by departures and the net increase in the undocumented population was small. The build-up of enforcement resources at the border has not decreased the entry of migrants so much as discouraged their return home. Since the late 1980s the rate of undocumented out-migration has been halved. Undocumented population growth in the United States stems not from rising in-migration, but from falling out-migration.
To Americans who fear cultural displacement, I say look at what’s happening south of the border. Cultural influences travel in both directions and in an integrated economy they are inevitable. Given the global hegemony of the United States, however, the cultural effects are asymmetric. We influence Mexican culture and society far more than they affect U.S. culture and society. Within Mexico, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Toys ‘R Us, and 7-11 are increasingly displacing Mexican outlets. Even Taco Bell is making inroads, and American cultural traditions such as Halloween and Santa Claus now compete with Mexican celebrations such as Day of the Dead and Three Kings Day.
Linguistically, English-speakers certainly have nothing to fear. English is increasingly spoken in Mexico and is viewed as essential for social and economic advancement. ... Within the United States, in contrast, few ... children of immigrants use Spanish rather than English and virtually none of their grandchildren can speak it at all.
Mexican immigrants do not migrate to take advantage of U.S. social services. Their service usage rates are well below those of other immigrant groups and have fallen sharply since the mid-1990s. Undocumented migrants, in particular, are more likely to pay taxes than to use public services... The problem of paying for services to immigrants is serious, but one that is easily solved through federal transfers. Whereas tax revenues accrue disproportionately to the federal government, the costs of immigration are borne locally. ...
The demagogic portrayal of Mexico as a threat to American culture, society, and security has not solved the problems associated with Mexico-U.S. migration; it has only made them worse. Rather than seeking to build a wall between our two countries, we should adopt the stance taken by the European Union when it integrated poor neighbors such as Spain and Portugal in the 1980s and Poland and Hungary today. Rather than seeking to block flows of people that naturally follow from trade and investment within a common market, we should work to make sure these movements occur under circumstances that are beneficial to all concerned, promoting growth in Mexico, minimizing costs to the United States, and protecting the rights of immigrant and native workers.
I think the bottom line is right, the question is not how to build a wall between us which does nothing to stem the economic incentives to migrate, but rather how to integrate the two economies so as to promote growth and enhance economic opportunity within Mexico without imposing substantial costs on U.S. citizens.