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

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