Seeing Mexican Immigration Clearly

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. Indeed, as I pointed out in a recent article, “the Mexico-U.S. border is much more than a boundary between two nations. Over the years it has become a symbolic stage upon which the nation’s insecurities and fears, hopes and dreams, are projected for public consumption” and that as a result, “American border policy has less to do with the underlying realities of Mexican immigration than with the nation’s view of itself and its place in the world.” (Chronicle of Higher Education Review, June 30, B11).

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 as in the debate on Mexican immigration during 2006. 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, and undermine our national security.

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 to gather detailed information from U.S. migrants about their experiences crossing the border, living in the United States, and returning to Mexico. 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. Undocumented migration stems from the unwillingness of the United States to include labor within the broader framework governing trade and investment. 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 (U.S. figures are 12% and 75 years, respectively). 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. Even the smallest towns and cities in Mexico have bustling English language academies, and English has become a core part of the Spanish spoken by most Mexicans. Within the United States, in contrast, few Anglo-Americans speak Spanish and although it may be widely spoken among new immigrants, there is a rapid shift to English over time. Few of 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, and even those they do use—mainly education and medical care—are consumed at rates well below what one would expect given their socioeconomic characteristics. 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.

Mexico is not a threat to U.S. national security. It is an ally and friendly trading nation that annually spends less than 0.8% of GDP on its military. There are a million U.S. citizens living in Mexico and ten million Mexicans living in the United States, all of whom have multiple ties of kinship, friendship, and commerce that cross the border. Tourism is extensive and large shares of citizens in both countries have spent time on the other side of the border. Mexico has no resident Islamic community, no known terrorist cells, and has never been a launching pad for terrorist attacks on the United States. Those attributes describe our neighbor to the north, not our neighbor to the south.

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.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In the lead essay to this month’s Cato Unbound, celebrated essayist Richard Rodriguez offers a provocative meditation on the place of Mexicans in the U.S. economy and consciousness. “I retain my belief in the necessity of a common American culture,” Rodriguez writes, “But I am lately appalled by voices raised in this country against Mexican migrant workers.” Arguing that the question of Mexican immigration “might better be asked of a theologian, than an economist,” Rogriguez considers the religious and cultural character of Mexicans, and the role of Mexico as a repository of American sin, and American fear.

Response Essays

  • Victor Davis Hanson recounts the proposals from his book Mexifornia, and sets out a biting, detailed reply to Richard Rodriguez’s lead essay. “Here he has sadly advanced no real argument,” Hanson writes, “but instead offers only a melange of ethnic vignettes, and, for some reason, ad hominem attacks of the very sort he used to deplore.” Hanson charges that Rodriguez, writing from his tony San Francisco haunts, offers only a cartoon version of his and others’ work, and fails to directly face the troubling economic and social consequences of unlawfully resident Mexicans in America evident to Hanson in the San Joaquin Valley.

  • In his reply to Rodriguez, Douglass Massey, the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University, writes that “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, and undermine our national security… This profile, however, bears no discernible relationship to the reality that I know as a social scientist.” Massey, drawing on his decades of research on Mexican migration, argues each element of this picture is false, and has exacerbated the problems of Mexico-U.S. immigration.

  • How well are Mexican immigrants and their offspring assimilating? In his contribution to this month’s discussion, University of Texas economist Stephen J. Trejo lays out the latest findings. According to Trejo, “Mexican Americans are not too far off the path of intergenerational assimilation traveled by previous waves of European immigrants. During their first few generations in the United States, Mexican-American families experience substantial economic and social mobility, and their actual progress is probably even greater than what we see in available data.” However, a slow rate of educational attainment remains a “critical problem” that may delay the full integration of Mexican Americans.