The Washington Post

Who’re you going to believe on immigration? Mark Krikorian or your lying eyes?

Last week, I wrote a column about the research Princeton's Doug Massey has done on the flow of Mexican migration to the United States, which suggests that some of our border enforcement policies have backfired. Mark Krikorian, head of the aggressively restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies, took exception to the piece  — and to Massey's research. So I asked Massey if he'd like to respond. His reply follows:

Mark Kirkorian’s recent post to the National Review in response to Ezra Klein’s earlier article on Mexican immigration is about what you’d expect from someone whose salary depends on putting a negative spin on all things related to immigration. Klein’s article in The Washington Post summarized my work on Mexico-U.S. migration, which concludes that the huge increase in border enforcement since 1986 has backfired by reducing the rate of return for undocumented migration to Mexico rather than lowering the rate of undocumented departure for the United States.

This is a simple statement of empirical fact. Indeed, as stated in a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, “rather than acting as a deterrent, increased enforcement appears to have other effects on migrant behavior: it increases the duration of trips and reduces the likelihood of return migration.”

The possibility that ever more border enforcement might actually be stupid and counterproductive is anathema to Kirkorian’s organization, the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates strict controls on immigration. He therefore dismisses the finding as a “pet theory” articulated for nefarious political purposes. He then trundles out a dated chart of my own data and argues that it shows precisely the opposite of what I argue. Don’t believe your lyin’ eyes!

Well, seeing is believing and here I reproduce the latest update of that chart, which comes from the Web site of the Mexican Migration Project, which I co-direct with my colleague Jorge Durand. Since 1982, the MMP has surveyed tens of thousands of Mexicans on both sides of the border to create the largest and most reliable database available on Mexican migration to the United States. The MMP is an award-winning, publicly funded project whose design and results are subject to regular scientific peer-review. All data are publicly available from the project website and can be downloaded at any time should anyone wish to check our computations or do their own research.

The chart I reproduce presents the probability of returning to Mexico within 12 months of entering the United States on a first undocumented trip. The probability is computed by year from 1965 through 2010 using life history data gathered from representative interviews done with some 24,000 household heads. As can be seen, the likelihood of return migration was quite high through 1986, when Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act to initiate the militarization of the border. In that year, the probability of return migration stood at 0.60, meaning that 60% of all undocumented migrants returned to Mexico within a year of entering the United States.

Thereafter the return probability began to fall, reaching just 0.48 in 1993.  In that year, however, the U.S. Border Patrol launched Operation Blockade in El Paso and followed up in 1994 with Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego. These intensive operations sought to seal off the two busiest border-crossing sectors. Rather than reducing the inflow, however, this intensification of enforcement caused the probability of return migration to fall even faster, ultimately reducing it to an all-time low of 0.08 in 2010.

As I look at the figure, it clearly supports the conclusions of the National Academy of Sciences panel and contradicts the views of Mr. Kirkorian and the Center for Immigration Studies. But readers can draw their own conclusions.

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