Thursday, January 12, 2012

Counting undocumented crossings

If you weren't paying close attention, you couldn't be blamed for thinking no one crosses the border illegally anymore. I almost choked when I read the patently false headline in The Atlantic: "Latino Immigration to the U.S. Could End This Year" and then watched as it zipped all over Twitter. Incidentally, it was a perfectly good article by Shannon O'Neil that does not make such a claim, and I am sure she had no control over the headline. This op-ed in the New York Times is more accurate, noting the net number of Mexicans crossing illegally is zero. That echoes the widely cited quote by Douglas Massey at Princeton.

“No one wants to hear it, but the flow has already stopped,” Mr. Massey said, referring to illegal traffic. “For the first time in 60 years, the net traffic has gone to zero and is probably a little bit negative.”

What has arisen is confusion between flow and net flow. The flow will never stop. Because of enforcement, circular migration is no longer as prevalent as it once was, but the idea that people have stopped crossing illegally is absurd. No matter what we do at the border, people will always cross. We can slow it, but we can't stop it.

The net flow, however, does not mean people stop crossing. If it is zero, that means the number of people entering matches the number of people leaving. This is historic and important, but not the same as no flow. If you had read a certain book, you'd have been clued in a long time ago about how demographic shifts in the United States and Latin America would have this effect.

I like finding evidence that supports ending the wasteful and obsessive spending on enforcement, and I support the policy suggestions of the NYT op-ed. However, I want the evidence to be empirically valid. Pretending that undocumented crossings have stopped gives the false impression that a long-standing historical reality suddenly ceased while no one was paying attention.

Why do I care? Rational immigration reform must acknowledge the never-ending flow of people and embrace it.  Otherwise it will fail. In particular, we have to remember that demographic trends are always shifting, as are economic (the fact that bankers screwed up our economy plays a big part here) and political conditions. Together, they determine how many people will be trying to cross illegally in any given span of time. Good policy has built in flexibility. To say that the flow has stopped is to say that history has ended, and that doesn't get us to good policy.


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