It's time for immigration reform
July 7th, 2011
09:00 AM ET

It's time for immigration reform

Editor's Note: Douglas S. Massey is the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University

By Douglas S. Massey – Special to CNN

For years, conservatives and many liberals have stated their unwillingness to consider comprehensive immigration reform until “America regained control of its borders.”  That moment has arrived.

According to estimates from the Mexican Migration Project, which I co-direct, the rate of new undocumented migration from Mexico dropped to zero in 2008 for the first time in 50 years.

This remarkable event partly reflects the drop in labor demand in the context of a deep economic recession, but it also stems from a massive increase in border enforcement.  Since 1990, the size of the Border Patrol has increased by a factor of five and its budget by a factor of 13. 

Although this escalation surely helped to reduce the inflow of undocumented migrants, however, it also discouraged the outflow of those already here.  The probability that an undocumented migrant returned to Mexico within 12 months of entering reached a record low value of around 8% in 2007. Among those who did return, most did not seek reentry, with the likelihood of attempting a return trip to the United States standing at just 5%.

At present, therefore, new undocumented migrants are not heading northward; former undocumented migrants are coming back in very small numbers; and settled undocumented residents are staying put.  As a result of these trends, the population of undocumented U.S. residents peaked at 12.6 million persons in 2008 and fell to 10.8 million in 2009, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  Net undocumented migration is now slightly negative.

The advent of net out-migration does not reflect a significant move toward “self-deportation” among undocumented residents present in the United States, however.  As already noted, long-term undocumented residents are less likely than ever to leave.   Some of the decline stems from an unappreciated shift to guest worker migration.  From 1990 to 2008 the number of Mexicans admitted with temporary work visas grew from 17,000 to 361,000 per year.

Other former undocumented migrants are legalizing through actions taken by legal family members.  The number of legal Mexican immigrants attaining U.S. citizenship surged from 18,000 in 1990 to 232,000 in 2008.  U.S. citizens are allowed to sponsor the entry of their spouses, minor children, and parents without numerical limitation and since 1990 a record two million Mexicans have naturalized.  As result, whereas just 5% of all Mexicans entering the Untied States as legal immigrants were relatives of citizens, 59% fell into this category in 2008, a total of 112,000 persons.

In sum, of the four principal components of comprehensive immigration reform, three have already been substantially achieved.   The border is now under control and net-undocumented migration has fallen below zero; a guest worker program has been created to bring in more than 360,000 temporary Mexican migrants per year; and legal immigrants have increasingly taken it upon themselves to “expand” the quotas by naturalizing and sponsoring the entry of immediate relatives outside of the numerical quotas.

In practical terms, there is really only one thing that remains to be accomplished:  the creation of a pathway to legalization for long-term undocumented residents.  Somewhere around three million of these people entered the country as minors.  They did not make the decision to violate U.S. immigration law and should not be held responsibilities for choices made by their parents.  In the absence of a criminal record or other disqualifying circumstances, those who entered as minors should be given an immediate and unconditional amnesty and be allowed to proceed with their lives in the only country that most of them know.

For their part, undocumented migrants who entered as adults should be offered a temporary legalization that confers the right to live and work in the United States for some extended period, during which they would be able to accumulate points ultimately to qualify them for legal permanent residence.  Points would be awarded for socially desirable behaviors such as paying taxes, learning English, studying civics, holding a steady job, owning a home, parenting U.S. citizen children and generally staying out of trouble.  Once a certain minimum threshold of points is achieved, migrants would be allowed to pay a fine as restitution for violating the law and then, having paid their debt to society, get on with their lives as legal permanent residents of the United States.  We are much closer to the ultimate goals of immigration reform than most people realize.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Douglas S. Massey.

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Topics: Immigration • Law • Politics • United States

soundoff (274 Responses)
  1. Insanity

    Massey has also published extensively on Mexican immigration, including the books Return to Aztlan (University of California Press, 1987)
    Southwestern United States - a Chicano country called Aztlan
    Some huffpo writer who hangs out with MEChA?

    July 8, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Reply
  2. anybody

    very simple 3 questions:
    1) american or immigrant who work harder? and who have better live?
    2) deport all undocumented alien living in usa longtime even have family here ,if amerca can say yes, whole world would say ok?
    3) anyone don't pay tax or not pay enough, how to made the solution?

    July 8, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Reply
  3. Just ME

    This guy is at Princeton LOL No wonder..he lives in Pennsylvania! I think the southern States need to invite him down there and let him get the real story. Sheesh!

    July 9, 2011 at 3:03 am | Reply
  4. 86emmm

    CALL -OUR- Congress @ 866 220 0044
    E-verify -ALL- JOBS & GOV`t. PROGRAMS->section-8 , welfare , foodstamps , wic. etc. !
    287g->NATIONWIDE TO FIND & DEPORT -ALL- illegal aliens !
    Call I.C.E. @ 866 347 2423 to REPORT illegal aliens & THEIR EMPLOYERS !
    -ALL- illegal aliens from -ALL- COUNTRIES ARE CRIMINALS !
    SEND–>"FREE FAXES" to -OUR- Congress @ NumbersUSA.c 0r CapsWeb.o !
    visit-> AmericanPatrol.c – OutRagedPatriots.c – Ojjpac.o !
    google-> Work in the states build a life in Mexico -> To see that BETTER LIFE !

    July 9, 2011 at 3:58 am | Reply
    • Buzz Mann

      Where I live the police are not allowed to ask them if they are legal and if you accuse them of being illegal in public the police will arrest you.

      July 9, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  5. Made in the USA

    ZERO? The author is delusional. Does he even get out? When is the last time this guy was in Walmart or Kmart? Has he ever been to a food store to see the newly pregnant with anchor babies spending welfare $? Has he ever been to a school or a hospital? No one believes you Douglas Massey.

    July 9, 2011 at 11:23 am | Reply
  6. Buzz Mann

    I have seen the fraudulent practices first hand.A van pulled up at construction company I do work for with 5 guys in it.They all went in office to apply for jobs.After filling out applications the owner told them everything looked fine except that they all couldn't use the same S.S. number. So they leave and come back 15 min. later with 5 different S.S. numbers.

    July 9, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Reply
    • Buzz Mann

      Ohh, and they got hired.

      July 9, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  7. Dick Hertz

    It's time for Immigration enforcement. Why does CNN censor anyone speaking the truth? It's like they have a stake in the illegals getting amnesty. It;s wrong and they know it. They encourage trolls to piss off the people then when they reply they get booted. I am the txleadhead and have been silenced from protecting my grandkids future. Illegal immigration was wrong when Reagan gave amnesty to six million leeches. It is wrong now for the liberals to try and give 20 million amnesty for future votes. It will also be wrong in the future if we still abide by the Constitution. We not only need to end illegal immigration. We also need to start hanging their greedy employers for treason. I have never broke into anyone's home and demanded anything. Never have, never will. Being a Veteran and Independent voter I will stay loyal to the United States. Shame CNN can't say the same.

    July 9, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Reply
    • AM Reilly

      "I have never broke into anyone's home and demanded anything. Never have, never will."
      What a reputation. Thank you for that!
      By the way have ever broken a law, any law, ever, speeding tickets, less payments to IRS, mortgage defaults, drunk driving? Have you been hanged before? This is America, its a democracy, we don't hang people for nothing. Everyone is free to voice their opinion and march in the streets. Punishments are given commensurate with the crime one commits. That shld be how we deal with the undocumented..

      I have an idea, why not we export the ones who cannot find job in the first place. We won't need them anytime soon anyway. What's wrong with illegals if they want to work and can find a job at the prevailing wage!!!

      July 9, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Reply
      • Buzz Mann

        Wouldn't forging a SS # to get that job be a federal crime?

        July 9, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
      • AM Reilly

        Yeah, forging ss # is a crime and that's why I said "punishment commensurate with the crime". But, one must understand the situation they were in when they committed such a crime. Are they habitual criminals? If they are, then definitely kick them out. Don't our courts look at all of this when giving sentences. Do you think all of them are criminals..

        Here is the bigger problem. I have been running my business for 12 years and before that I was in some other business. And I am in this town with 20% + unemployment. And I cannot find stable employees. Either they are on social programs and want cash, or they are illegal and want cash or they are in between their unemployment benefits or their girlfriend's and don't stick around for more than a year. I have a struggling business in this grueling economy and I am just spending time re-hiring & retraining my workers.

        No wonder there are no hirings going on for last 2 years because businesses are getting fedup. Either they will close down or some who can move will start taking productions overseas. And wonder where will be we then!!

        So, when will these unemployment benefits end, when will the social programs end FOR CITIZENS who donot deserve them and are capable of taking a job and when will we settle the immigration issue? AFTER WE HAVE SENT ALL OF OUR PRODUCTION TO INDIA AND CHINA?

        July 9, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
  8. beantownbilly

    The border has not been "controlled". You state that the illegals have voluntarilly chosen to invade the USA at a rate that coincidentally approximate the rate at which they chose to return to Mexico. This happened in 2008, so you say, but could revert to a million a year again once the job market improves. This does not mean that the USA controlls the border, only that high unemployment and a series of new state-level immigration reforms have made this a less hospitable place for illegals to work. And I am sure that you are smart enough to grasp this, but unfortunately not intellectually honest enough to admit it.

    July 10, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Reply
  9. creep964

    Who among you here is an Indian- American? The native indian-Americans are the ones who could truly say, "This land is mine because I came here first. So, therefore, all you whites who came here to kick us out of America, should be the first one to leave. " On the other hand, this country owes China $13 trillion and therefore you can all swallow your arrogance and say hello to your creditors, the Chinese, who'll soon be the legal owners of America!

    July 10, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Reply
  10. johnc

    I live in southern California. I am very tired of listening to spanish everywhere I go. Most food establishments hire nothing but spanish speaking workers. I consider this a workplace safety issue. What happens when someone is injured on the job? How will they communicate with police and paramedics? How will our kids get that first job in fast food? Without knowing spanish, they can't communicate with the other workers.

    We speak ENGLISH! It is rude to speak foreign languages in public. Who said it is Ok to speak spanish in the US anyway? Leave your language and customs back in the old country. Adapt or go home!

    July 11, 2011 at 12:14 am | Reply
  11. Last Real Americans

    I remember standing up and staring at the flag and singing the anthem. I remember a couple of kids that complained...I remember they were all minorities. Now that has been taken away,...our pride as a nation. I will never buy Chinese goods if I don't have to...I will become an enemy to all non-americans. I will smile in your face,...I will conqueer you into the end. America is at war.

    July 11, 2011 at 4:24 am | Reply
  12. outa here

    This country is tail-spining downward in everyway. Hopes and dreams of our forefathers are long gone!

    July 11, 2011 at 9:08 am | Reply
  13. Rick McDaniel

    No "reform" is needed. What is needed, is enforcement of our laws.

    July 11, 2011 at 10:57 am | Reply
  14. Jame Tiberius Waffles

    Simple solution: Invade Mexico(again)! Then all Mexicans will be legal U.S. citizens and we won't have to worry about illegal immigration from Mexico. Then the whole drug war thing would be our problem, but after 10 years of Iraq and Afghanistan I think we can handle it.

    July 11, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Reply
  15. walter

    well while we are on this immigration thing lets go a step further and get reform on welfare and the ssi also as many illegals are on them in most states and this would save the usa money to get these people off our welfare and ssi programs along with getting them to become legal with the notion that they learn to read and write in english and understand what it really means to be an american and to pay back money for being here illegally( for breaking the us law )

    July 12, 2011 at 6:48 am | Reply
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  24. Don Koza

    Douglass Massey, Great article! I had not realized so much progress had been made toward alleviating my concerns and the concerns of many people, I'm sure. As a conservative, I am greatly concerned about the security of our national boarders. President Ronald Reagan had granted amnesty to illegal immigrants; however that didn't work because the boarders had not yet been secured. If our border is currently as secure as you say it is, I agree that we are ready to grant amnesty to resident illegal immigrants without fear of a huge inrush of more illegals.

    It is also truly a shame how some have been treated by our Government employees. Once security is guaranteed, we should be a welcoming society. It is a myth legal immigrants suck up the few meager jobs that exist and add a burden on society. If they take a job no one else wants, they are adding value to our economy through their work. We should welcome them with open arms. God bless you for all you do.

    July 24, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Reply
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