Train wreck: Failures of U.S. immigration policy

Sociologist Doug Massey told the UCLA Center for Mexican Studies that post-1986 U.S. border enforcement policy with Mexico has prevented cyclical immigration, decentralized crossing points and created a false impression of ever-increasing border crossings.

Train wreck: Failures of U.S. immigration policy

Left: Nogales, Arizona, U.S. border with Mexico, 2010. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill/National Guard. Public Domain.) Right: Border Crossing, San Ysidro, 2012. (Photo: Josh Denmark/Department of Homeland Security. Public Domain.)

by Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)

UCLA International Institute, January 29, 2018 — Doug Massey, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University and a specialist in the sociology of immigration, spoke at UCLA on January 10. The event was cosponsored by the UCLA Center for Mexican Studies, California Center for Population ResearchCenter for the Study of International Migration and Social Stratification, Inequality, and Mobility Working Group.

Massey analyzed border enforcement policies and explained that U.S. border control legislation since the 1980s has both failed to achieve its goals and created public misunderstanding of migration trends. He emphasized the need for new approaches to enlightening the public about the realities of illegal migration today.

Dysfunctional decision making

Massey advocated less restrictive border enforcement policies in Congressional testimony during George W. Bush’s second administration in hopes, he said, of “preventing another instance of America shooting itself in the foot and achieving a dysfunctional outcome.” Congress did not heed the professor’s advice, instead opting to enact strict border control legislation. In his opinion, that decision was one of many misaligned legislative decisions concerning the U.S.-Mexico border in the years following passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

The act provided amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States at the time, while stipulating heightened, militarized enforcement of the border. “Militarization of the border disrupted cyclical migration patterns, transformed the geography of border crossings and increased the use of coyotes [human smugglers],” the speaker said.


Changing patterns of immigration

“The undocumented population fell in the years following 1986,” said Massey, “but the government began to throw money at border enforcement in a way that was completely disconnected from the quantity and patterns of immigrant traffic along the border.” Prior to 1986, he explained, many migrant agricultural workers from Mexico would leave and re-enter the United States annually. “After [the Immigration Reform and Control Act] was passed, immigration across the border transformed from a circular flow to a one-way road into the U.S.,” said Massey.

Fewer people crossed the border overall, while those who had previously migrated cyclically minimized their risk of detainment by staying in the United States. Nevertheless, as the years passed, the federal government continued to increase spending on border control.

“The increase in border patrols caused border crossings to move away from traditional points like San Diego and El Paso and towards the rest of country,” the speaker explained. “Undocumented immigration spread outwards to all fifty states. As border crossing sites diversified, so, too, did the prospects for jobs in sectors like food processing. Over the past three decades, Latino labor migration patterns have shifted to places like Marshalltown, Iowa,” said Massey.

The speaker pointed to the disconnect between border patrol policies and actual crossing patterns, saying, “If you put more effort into catching people, you’ll get more apprehensions. It’s a powerful feedback effect. As enforcement became more severe, the cost of coyotes rose and smuggling became more complex to circumvent border patrols." Despite the human cost of smuggling, legislators continue to push for policies that exacerbate the situation.


Doug Massey speaks at the UCLA Center for Mexican Studies. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/UCLA.)


Border as political theater

“Closing and militarizing the border has become a political symbol, not a reaction to legitimate issues,” said Massey. “You can’t reduce net migration when it is already zero, but you can build a wall to signal your values and send a message to your base of who you think should be allowed into our country.” He lamented that this “virtue signaling” has impacted and will continue to impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients, who live in fear of deportation.

“[Deported immigrants] will come back — but less educated, traumatized and disenchanted with this country,” said the speaker. He observed that many DREAMers and undocumented immigrants have already been forcibly removed and must wait for immigration reform or protective legislation to return to the United States, a policy that has provoked widespread social opposition. “We’re shooting ourselves in the foot by alienating Americans. This has been one large train wreck,” he said.

“Undocumented immigrants are the largest group of people living in the U.S. without any economic or civil rights since slavery, so we have to advocate for them,” said Massey. “The Mexico-U.S. border has become theater, and violence on the border has become political ritual.”

Massey predicted that the militarization of the border would remain a political football as long as President Trump holds office and cable television and social media continue to circulate sensationalized, often-incorrect news articles and clips that vilify immigrants.

Unorthodox outreach methods

“The best way to counteract negative stereotypes in media and cable journalism is [to fuse] entertainment with the truth about the economics of migration,” concluded Massey. “It’s an uphill slog… so much misinformation [is] put deliberately into the public sphere, so we have to fight to re-educate the large segment of Americans who believe that millions of undocumented Mexican immigrants are illegally swarming our borders. It can be hard to penetrate 'truthiness’ and the self-reinforcing circles on the internet.”

“My best piece of outreach was filming a segment on ‘Adam Ruins Everything’ on TruTV, which is a comedic program focused on debunking social myths,” Massey explained. The television show did an entire episode on the border wall featuring the Princeton professor, who detailed the ways in which past border enforcement policies have failed.

“My segment ended up getting over 4 million views online, so it was … more successful in relaying my message than a New York Times Op Ed,” he said. In the future, Massey hopes to continue reaching new audiences and educating them on the realities of immigration reform.