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A Plan To Reform Immigration Policy, DIY-Style


Immigration remains an intense political issue in this country and a point of contention between Mexico and the United States. In an op-ed published on Saturday in The New York Times, Jorge Castaneda, Mexico's former foreign minister, and Douglas S. Massey, founder and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project, argue that in the shadow of that gargantuan debate, time and commonsense decisions by Mexican migrants have brought us nearly everything immigration reform was supposed to achieve.

The only issue left, they argue, is for the U.S. to come to terms with 11 and a half million people, 60 percent of them Mexican, who live here illegally. Douglas S. Massey is founder and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project and professor of sociology at Princeton. He joins us from his office there in New Jersey. Nice to have you with us today.


CONAN: And Jorge Castaneda served as foreign minister of Mexico from 2000 to 2003. He's currently a professor of politics in Latin American and Caribbean studies at NYU. He joins us from his office in Mexico City. And good to have you with us again.

JORGE CASTANEDA: Thank you and good to be here. Hi, Doug. How are you?


CONAN: Well, Minister Castaneda, let me ask you, these problems have solved themselves?

CASTANEDA: Well, they haven't solved themselves, but I think as we try to point out in this op-ed piece, intelligent decisions partly by the Obama administration, partly by Mexican residents in the United States, partly by Mexican migrants in Mexico have contributed to what seems to be a relatively important solution. What do I mean by this? Well, one, the Obama administration has expedited the process and increased the number of H visas, mainly H-2A and H-2B visas and many other visas - NAFTA visas, business visas, et cetera - for Mexican migrants make - taking the number to very high levels.

Secondly, Mexican permanent residents in the United States began what Doug Massey calls a process of defensive naturalization, acquiring U.S. citizenship because they were scared of the anti-immigration atmosphere in the United States, and that allowed them to bring very quickly legally their spouses, younger children and parents to the United States as permanent residents. And finally, Mexican migrants are looking for ways to find other forms of going to the United States without having to run the risk, the danger, of entering illegally.

CONAN: And, Doug Massey, part of that is that the - crossing the border has become more difficult and more expensive.

MASSEY: It's more difficult and more expensive. And up until about four or five years ago, the main effect of making the border crossing riskier and more costly was that it kept people inside the United States and actually contributed to the building up of a population north of the border as people stopped circulating back and forth to avoid the costs and risks at the border. And that's led to the problem that we currently face - the 11.5 million people out of status and living in the United States.

CONAN: So, in part, the bad economy has helped too in a sense - attracting fewer people.

MASSEY: Immigration - illegal migration has started to trend downward in 2001, 2002, and then it really collapsed in 2008 as residential home construction was really hit hard by the recession. And that had been a big driver of Mexican immigration in the latter half of the 2000s. And basically right now, we're at a net zero or even a negative flow of migrants between Mexico and the United States, without documents.

CONAN: A negative flow?


CONAN: So the number - reducing the number, which is a - many politicians here will say is the number one issue that's happening.

MASSEY: What that means is that entries are a little bit offset by departures from the United States. But the net - there's very little net change in the total illegal population. The total Mexican population is slightly downward because so many legal immigrants are circulating back and forth across the border with permanent resident visas or temporary work visas. The illegal population is pretty much stable at around 11.5 million. Mexico - the share of Mexicans is about 60 percent. The number of Mexicans has gone down slightly, but there's really no mass exodus of people already in the country.

CONAN: Jorge Castaneda, I wanted to ask you about a line in the op-ed. It's a solution long in the making, you wrote, traceable in part to accident and in part to the hypocrisy of an American policy that has quietly legalized temporary workers without saying so publicly.

CASTANEDA: Well, this is the impression we have of what the Obama administration has been doing, granting more visas to those that are not subject to congressional numerical limits, make granting federal reunification more rapidly, granting new visas more rapidly, particularly the investor visas, which has skyrocketed in many parts of the United States. So all of this has been done without saying so publicly, and we say - sort of imply, I guess. A short of piece. It's difficult to say everything you want. That hypocrisy here has it's advantages. And honesty and straightforwardness is sometimes overrated. Perhaps the Obama administration has done the right thing by having all of this happen without announcing it, without publicizing it and making itself vulnerable to criticisms from the right wing.

CONAN: There will be critics from other areas as well who point out that the number of deportations last year was up to 400,000.

CASTANEDA: Well, we point that out, and we think it's lament - regrettable because, in fact, Obama has deported more people than the Bush administration did. And that has not brought about a more secure border or any of this voluntary deportation or self-deportation that other people have been announcing. But the fundamental issue that we tried to point to, I think - and Doug can make this point more clearly than I can - is that there has been a sort of replacement of undocumented migration from Mexico to the United States the last five or six years by documented or legal migration from Mexico to the United States.

For Mexico, this is ideal because we still have people leaving who cannot find good jobs at good wages in Mexico despite all the efforts we make, but who no longer have to brave the gauntlet of the desert in Sonora or the river in the east, and who are not subject to deportations or the same kind of discrimination as those without papers. And for the United States, this is probably a better solution also because this people are not living the shadows anymore. They're openly getting jobs, decent jobs. And I think this is a very positive development for both countries.

CONAN: And, Doug Massey, you described it in the piece - or it was described in the piece - as a sort of restoration of these sort of healthy circulation of immigration that had existed earlier.

MASSEY: Yeah. Contrary to what a lot of Americans believe, the average Mexican migrant, when leaving Mexico, does not want to settle in the U.S. permanently. And for decades, the normative pattern was a circulatory flow back and forth between Mexico and the United States. Between 1942 and 1965, this happened under the Bracero program, which was an explicit temporary worker program. When that program was canceled in '65, between '65 and '85, it basically switched over to undocumented auspices and people circulated pretty much as they had before, except in undocumented status.

After 1985, the militarization of the border again and that started to disrupt the circulatory pattern, which really came to an end in the 1990s. And now, because of decisions we've made and actions taken by the migrants themselves, legal immigration is back up and that's highly circulatory, and illegal migration has basically stopped.

CONAN: Jorge Castaneda, we know you have to leave us shortly, but I did want to ask about that tricky remaining problem, the 11.5 half million people who are here.

CASTANEDA: Well, it's tricky because there's still a lot of hostility in the United States towards anything that sounds like amnesty. But on the other hand, we now know that voluntary or self-deportation will not work. And we know now that there will not be an endless flow of undocumented migrants from Mexico. The rationale for trying to legalize or regularize the status of all this people in the United States is greater than ever. There are partial ways of doing it, like the DREAM Act. There are full-pledge ways of doing it, like Ronald Reagan's amnesty in 1986. There are many ways of preceding, but it would seemed, especially as Barack Obama is re-elected November, that this is something that could be done now.

And we should - I think Americans and Mexicans a new - there would be a new Mexican government on December 1st, and I think it would be important for the new Mexican government to push now full throttle, so to speak, for the legalization, regularization of the more than 6 million Mexicans without papers in the United States.

CONAN: Jorge Castaneda, thanks for your time. Again, we know you got another appointment.

CASTANEDA: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. He's a global distinguished professor of politics and Latin American and Caribbean studies at NYU, served as Mexico's foreign minister from 2000 to 2003. Still with us, Douglas Massey, founder and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project. And I wanted to ask you, we're talking about the effect of the what some called self-deportation. You say it's not working. But I wonder, have you been able to track the effects of these harsh immigration laws that have taken effect in some states - well, hadn't taken effect quiet in Arizona, but in Alabama, for example?

MASSEY: Well, the anecdotal evidence is that labor shortages there are popping up, and people are leaving the state. And in Arizona, there was a drop in the number of undocumented residents after 2008. But it's very difficult to sort the effect of the recession out - which hit Phoenix area very hard - from the nasty legislation that they passed. So the - most of the studies that have been done, I found minimal or no effects of local legislation and local policy efforts on the size of the undocumented population.

CONAN: And how do you expect that this interesting statistical information is going to ratchet down the volume on what has been a highly contentious debate?

MASSEY: Well, a lot of the volume has been about border control. And in a sense, we've gotten control of the border after 60 years of undocumented migration. For the past four years, migration has been either negative or at a net zero. Immediately after the recession, illegal - the illegal population dropped by about a million people, and then it has held steady since then. And personally, I think the big boom in Mexican immigration is probably over, and the drivers of that migration have changed in the normal course of events.

And so if we have a more open border, and we do create a guest worker program, and we have an - some kind of a legalization program, I don't think we'll go back to the boom years of Mexican immigration that we've observed in the past. The drivers are just not there anymore.

CONAN: And when you talk about net zero, it's not that people aren't still coming across the border; as many are going back.

MASSEY: As many are going back, and it's in rough balance, and it has been for the past three or four years.

CONAN: And what factors do you cite most - think are most significant in that?

MASSEY: Well, there was the drop in labor demand in the United States. There was the quite opening up of doors for legal entry in the United States through temporary worker visas and also for citizen permanent resident visas. And in Mexico, the economy didn't stumble that badly when the U.S. recession hit. And so the Mexican economy is actually doing reasonably well. The narco violence in Mexico, to the extend that it hasn't any effect at all, seems to be deterrent, especially because it tends to be concentrated in the northern states, and so people stopped going northward.

And finally, Mexican fertility has plummeted in the last two decades. So in the '70s, Mexican fertility was about 5.5 children per women. It's now down to around 2.2, 2.3 children per women, which is about the same as the United States. So Mexico's labor force growth is decelerating, and the number of workers entering the workforce every year is not growing rapidly anymore. In fact, it's slowing down.

CONAN: Doug Massey, thanks very much for your time today.

MASSEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Douglas Massey, founder and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton. He joined us from his office there. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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