What Happens When Policies Ignore Reality

At a time of increasingly xenophobic and racist policies in the United States, in his article Douglas Massey analyzes the counterproductive outcome of the changes made to the immigration system at the Mexico-US border in 1965, and concludes by warning of the grave danger posed when those in charge of policies insist on denying reality and ignoring evidence.





The United States currently houses some 11 million unauthorized migrants, with nearly 80% coming from Latin America or the Caribbean and 56% originating in Mexico alone. Never before have so many residents lacked social, economic, or political rights within the United States.  Even during the days of chattel servitude, the slave population numbered only around four million.

The obvious disadvantages of unauthorized status are exacerbated by the constant threat of deportation. From 2008 through 2016, some 3.1 million migrants were forcibly removed from the United States, mostly for civil infractions rather than criminal acts. Faced with a rising risk of arrest, detention, and deportation, unauthorized migrants have burrowed further underground, making themselves ever more vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation. Those fortunate enough to evade deportation themselves nonetheless experience serious challenges to their material, physical, and psychological welfare owing to the stress of living a shadowed life outside of the law.

Unauthorized status not only threatens the wellbeing of adults, but also their children, who presently number 5.1 million. Children without legal status are uniquely vulnerable, and even those who are U.S. citizens (79% of all children with undocumented parents were born in the United States) are not in a position to exercise their rights for fear of attracting the attention of authorities and putting their parents and older siblings at risk.  Compared to other citizens, the native born children of undocumented parents face significant additional burdens in seeking to achieve status and mobility within their country of birth.

When deportation does occur, it renders migrants’ lives asunder, splitting families apart, separating husbands from wives and leaving children without parents. Owing to mass deportation, a large but unknown number of children are left parentless in the United States, turning them into de facto orphans reliant on relatives and friends for support.  Many parents and children cannot face the prospect of long-term separation following a deportation and more than 600,000 U.S. citizen children now find themselves living alongside their deported parents in Mexico.

Lacking a Mexican birth certificate or national identity card, these displaced children are technically “undocumented” in Mexico. Whatever their precise legal status they are marginalized socially and economically by their limited command of the Spanish language, their lack of familiarity with Mexican culture and society.  With virtually no help from the U.S. embassy or its consulates, these vulnerable U.S. citizens, along with their deported non-citizen siblings, struggle to find their way in a society they do not fully understand.

The situation of current and former unauthorized migrants constitutes a massive human rights tragedy, with millions people facing harsh, life-changing punishment (arrest, incarceration, and deportation) for the minor civil offense of entering and working in the United States without permission. This lamentable circumstance is a direct result of unilateral policy actions taken by the United States that bore no relation to the actual realities of cross-border movement.  The sad truth is that U.S. immigration policies are not grounded in any real understanding of immigration as a social and economic process. Instead they are made with an eye to influencing domestic politics and they reveal more about Americans’ hopes and aspirations—and their fears and apprehensions—than anything having to do with immigration itself.

The cost of good intentions

During the 1960s, hopes and aspirations dominated U.S. policy as legislators sought to right the wrongs of a racist past. In 1964, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, followed in 1965 by the Voting Rights Act and in 1968 by the Fair Housing Act. These laws sought to prohibit racial discrimination in markets for labor, services, and housing while assuring minority voting rights.  It was in this context that liberal reformers proposed legislation to eliminate racial prejudice from the U.S. immigration system.

Prior to 1965, U.S. law prohibited the entry of immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa and discriminated against Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act sought to eliminate these racist provisions and create a new system that would allocate visas impartially across countries to meet U.S. labor needs and enable the reunification of families within the United States. The new system, which was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1965 and phased in gradually before taking full effect in 1978, established a quota of 20,000 numerically limited visas for each country with a global ceiling of 290,000 permanent resident visas.

Although many don’t appreciate it, the racist immigration quotas in place before 1965 never applied to nations in the Western Hemisphere and thus there were no numerical limits on immigration from Mexico prior to that date. In spite of the facts that Mexicans had been targeted for deportation during the 1930s, they were welcomed and deliberately recruited to meet rising labor demand during the 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, from 1942 through 1964 the United States shared a binational treaty with Mexico known as the Bracero Program, which arranged for the temporary entry of Mexican workers for short-term seasonal labor on an annual basis. In 1965, however, Congress unilaterally terminated the Bracero Program as part of its civil rights reforms, seeing it as a discriminatory system of labor exploitation on a par with black sharecropping in the Jim Crow South.

The imposition of immigration quotas and the elimination of the Bracero Program drastically reduced Mexican access to legal visas, blatantly ignoring the very well-developed, highly institutionalized system of cross-border migration that by the 1960s was firmly established in North America. Under the Bracero Program, millions of Mexicans had traveled legally to the United States for short-term labor and in so doing had established well-developed social networks connecting communities in Mexico to jobs and receiving communities in the United States. During the late 1950s, nearly 450,000 temporary Bracero workers and around 50,000 permanent residents were entering the United States from Mexico each year. This movement was overwhelmingly circular, with the vast majority migrants commuting back and forth across the border on an annual basis. Even those with permanent resident visas often used their “green cards” to circulate freely rather than to settle north of the border. The immigration reforms of 1965 took no account of this reality.

The militarization of the border

Given that the conditions of labor supply and demand had not changed on either side of the border and millions of Mexicans had acquired experience circulating in and out of the United States, when opportunities for legal entry suddenly evaporated after 1965 the movement of Mexican migrants did not cease—it simply continued without authorization. Between 1965 and 1979, the number of border apprehensions steadily rose as former Braceros entered the United States clandestinely without documents to jobs they knew were waiting for them on the other side.

Although little had changed in practical terms (the same migrants were largely going to the same jobs in the same destinations), much had changed in symbolic terms since the migration was now “illegal” and the migrants were by definition “criminals” and “lawbreakers.” As border apprehensions increased immigration officials, politicians, and pundits portrayed “illegal migration” and “illegal aliens” as grave threats to the United States. Unauthorized migration was metaphorically portrayed as a “flood” that would “inundate” U.S. society and “drown” its culture or as an “invasion” in which “outgunned” Border Patrol agents sought vainly to “hold the line” against “Banzai charges” by “alien invaders” who sought to “conquer” and “occupy” the United Sates.

Over the years, this “Latino Threat Narrative” gained ever greater traction with politicians and the public, pushing popular opinion in a more conservative, xenophobic, and racist direction. Rising nativist sentiment generated political support for restrictive immigration policies and harsh border enforcement actions, which in turn led to a steady increase in the number of Border Patrol agents and Border Patrol budgets, which produced more person-hours spent patrolling the border, which generated still more apprehensions.

Even though the actual volume of undocumented migration had stopped rising around 1979, the number of apprehensions continued to increase because of the ever increasing enforcement effort, leading to a self-perpetuating feedback loop in which more apprehensions were taken as poof of the ongoing invasion, fueling more xenophobia and political pressure and thereby generating additional border enforcement efforts, which of course produced more border apprehensions, which further justified still more resources to stop the ongoing “alien invasion.” The end result of this feedback loop was the steady militarization of the Mexico-U.S. border in a way that was entirely disconnected from the underlying reality of undocumented migration.

Border enforcement efforts surged especially after 1986 when the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, and once again in 1993 and 1994 when the Border Patrol launched Operation Blockade in El Paso and Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, the two busiest border sectors. With the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001 border enforcement grew exponentially as undocumented migration was increasingly conflated with Islamic terrorism in the public imagination. Between 1986 and 2010, for example, the Border Patrol budget increased 12 times in real terms and the number of Border Patrol officers grew by a factor six.

Together with the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, the PATRIOT Act also dramatically increased deportations from within the United States, with the number of alien removals rising from 51,000 in 1995 to peak at 434,000 in 2013. Ninety-six percent of those removed in that year were from Mexico or Central America. Al-Qaeda attacked the United States on 9-11, 2001, and to demonstrate its resolve in fighting Islamic terrorism, the country began massively deporting its Latinos.

The consequences of enforcement

The massive surge in U.S. immigration enforcement efforts had profound effects along the border, dramatically increasing the monetary costs and physical risks of unauthorized border crossing while rendering undocumented life in the United States increasingly more onerous. On the border, enforcement efforts were initially focused on El Paso and San Diego, which historically had accounted for around three-quarters of all undocumented entries.  In response, migrants quickly redirected their efforts to new crossing sites along the Arizona Border, where crossing was more costly and dangerous but the border was guarded by fewer Border Patrol Officers.

For this reason, the likelihood of apprehension did not rise significantly for unauthorized migrants after the new border operations were launched. Between 1970 and 2010 the likelihood of apprehension on any given crossing attempt varied narrowly between 0.30 and 0.40 and the probability of achieving a successful crossing in a series of attempts stood at nearly 1.0.  Faced with rising costs and risks of border crossing but a high likelihood of ultimately gaining entry, migrants began to minimize border crossing—not by remaining in Mexico but by settling in the United States once they had paid the costs and experienced the risks of clandestine border crossing.  As a result, during the 1990s and 2000s rates of return migration back to Mexico plummeted.

With the inflow of migrants largely unaffected by the rise in border enforcement and the outflow steadily falling, the net volume of unauthorized migration increased and undocumented population growth accelerated. At the same time, the inflow of unauthorized Mexican migrants was permanently diverted away from California to new destination areas throughout the United States. Whereas two-thirds of all Mexican migrants who arrived between 1985 and 1990 went to that state, only one third of those who arrived between 1995 and 2000 did so, a fraction that has not increased in years since. The fastest growing Mexican and Central American populations were now in the states of Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, not California.

As more migrants remained north of the border for longer periods of time, they increasingly sought to reunify their families by arranging for the entry of spouses and children.  Upon reunification husbands and wives began having U.S. born children, as young couples are wont to do. From 1988 to 2008 the undocumented population increased from 2 million to 12 million persons, compared to an increase of just three million between 1965 and 1985. In the end, the U.S. spent a total of 27 billion dollars from 1986 to 2008 only to accelerate the rate of undocumented population growth and transform what had been a circular flow of male workers going to three states into a settled population of families living in 50 states.

In testimony before House and Senate Committees, multiple editorials published leading U.S. newspapers, numerous magazine articles, and many interviews on television and radio during the 1990s and early 2000s I tried to explain to policy makers and the public that border enforcement was backfiring and that it was working to accelerate rather than reduce the net inflow of unauthorized migrants.  Politicians and the public paid no attention and continued to double down on a strategy of greater border enforcement.  The number of people without social, economic, and political rights in the United States continued to grow as a white backlash against the nation’s changing racial-ethnic composition gained momentum, culminating in the 2016 election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, who famously proposed constructing a $24 billion border wall.

A human rights tragedy

The irony in the failure of U.S. immigration enforcement efforts is that Mexico-U.S. migration would eventually cease of its own accord not because of enforcement but because of Mexico’s demographic transition. In 1965 the total fertility rate in Mexico stood at 6.76 children per woman but by the year 2000 it had had fallen to 2.75 and in 2015 reached replacement level with a value of 2.21. As a result of the sharp decline in the rate of childbearing, Mexico’s population began to age. Like most demographic outcomes, migration is highly age dependent, with the likelihood of initiating movement rising rapidly through the teenage years, peaking around age 22-23 and then falling to low levels by age 30.

Between 1960 and 2000 the median age in Mexico rose from 16.6 years to 22.7 years, contributing strongly to the undocumented outflow; but by 2015 it had climbed 27.5 years, approaching the upper limit of the age range for initiating migration.  Among those actually at risk of migrating (persons aged 16 or more) the average age is now in the 40s. In response to the rising age in the population at risk of migration, unauthorized migration began to slow in 2000 and came to an abrupt halt during the Great Recession of 2008, when the undocumented population declined by a million persons. Since that date net undocumented migration has been zero or negative as Mexico’s population has steadily moved out of the migrant-prone ages.

At this point some 11 million undocumented migrants continue to reside in the United States, where they are under increasing pressure from a rising tide of xenophobia, a hostile Congress, and a nativist President, under whom arrests by the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement are up by 43%.  According to the data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, more than 900,000 unauthorized migrants who entered the county as children have registered for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which is scheduled to end in March 2018 rendering these former child migrants instantly deportable from the only country they really know.

In addition, more than 6000,000 U.S.-born citizen children now reside in Mexico with their deported parents, where they struggle in school and have difficulty fitting into a society they do not know. Hundreds of thousands of other families have been torn apart by deportation, with children separated from their parents and spouses divided from one another across a heavily militarized border; and since 1986, some 8,500 migrants have died while attempting an unauthorized border crossing.

The tenuous situation of undocumented migrants, their families, and the communities they inhabit constitutes an immense human rights tragedy. Their ongoing marginalization and victimization illustrates the great harm that results when politicians enact policies that willfully deny reality. Immigration is a complex human response to transnational asymmetries in labor supply and demand, closely linked to demographic trends, and sustained over time by the accumulation of migration-specific human and social capital. It can’t be turned off and on like a faucet.  Back in the 1960s when U.S. policy makers were contemplating reforms to eliminate racism from the immigration system, it was not realistic to think that they could end Mexico-U.S. migration simply by canceling the Bracero Program and imposing restrictive immigration quotas. The well-established migration system was bound to continue function and the failure to recognize this fact in the end only produced pain, suffering, and social discord on a massive scale.

The Mexico-U.S. migration system that prevailed in the mid-1960s was largely a U.S. creation. Begun as a temporary wartime measure with 4,200 migrants in 1942, the Bracero Program was extended and expanded through the late 1940s and 1950s, peaking at nearly 450,000 in 1956. In the course of the program’s existence, some 4.7 million Braceros entered and left the United States to create the social capital (contacts between migrants and employers) and human capital (knowledge of U.S. jobs and opportunities) that would sustain migration once the program was terminated.

A more realistic approach to policy under these circumstances would have been to reform the Bracero Program rather than ending it, while also setting a larger visa quota for Mexico as a neighboring nation with a long history of immigration to the United States. And once it became evident that border enforcement was backfiring, the rational response would have been to moderate enforcement in order to maintain the traditional circularity of trans-border movements. Estimates suggest that simply maintaining border enforcement at its pre-1986 levels would have produced an undocumented population at least 33% lower than that actually observed in 2010.

The attempt to curtail a well-established migration system that the U.S. government itself helped to create ultimately failed, of course. In doing so, the futile enforcement effort wasted billions of dollars, cost thousands of lives, and undermined the health and wellbeing of millions of people on both sides of the border. Rather than slowing the growth of the undocumented population, it accelerated it to hasten the shift of the United States toward a “majority minority society” in which European whites are no longer numerically dominant. In a very real way, the xenophobic, nativist backlash that crested in 2016 can be traced back to failed policies of immigration restriction and border control implemented in the 1960s. The example illustrates the great harm that ensues when policy makers insist on denying reality and ignoring evidence.◊


Is a sociologist and professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.