Fear, repression not solving immigration issues, scholars say

Panelists agree that militarization of the U.S. border with Mexico is not working as a deterrent to unauthorized immigration

Jayashri Srikantiah

Jayashri Srikantiah

In the current U.S. immigration debate, there is a disconnect between the native-born population's fears of losing control of political and economic power to newcomers and the structural needs of the American economy, which has come to depend on immigrant labor, said Alejandro Portes, professor of sociology at Princeton University, who spoke here during a Nov. 13 class on immigration issues.

Public response to immigration follows in two basic paths: the desire to exclude newcomers altogether or to "Americanize" them as fast as possible, said Portes, the director of the Center for Migration and Development at Princeton. But since neither response is rooted in an understanding of the economic forces that drive immigration, policies based on them often lead to consequences that are the opposite of what they intended, he said.

Portes was one of four scholars who appeared on a panel, "Immigration: Is There a Problem? Is There a Solution?" as part of an autumn quarter course, Immigration Rights and Wrongs. The course, taught by Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE) faculty and visiting scholars, examined aspects of immigration, including its economic, political, cultural and ethical dimensions. The class was open to the general public as well as to undergraduate and graduate students as part of an annual CCSRE course that addresses pressing social issues.

Other panelists at the Nov. 13 presentation included Jayashri Srikantiah, associate professor of law and director of Stanford Law School's Immigrants' Rights Clinic; Jennifer Lee, associate professor of sociology at the University of California-Irvine; and Aristide Zolberg, professor of political science at New York City's New School University. Michele Landis Dauber, associate professor at the Law School, was moderator.

The militarization of the U.S. border with Mexico isn't working as a deterrent to unauthorized immigration, the scholars agreed. "There has been more than a tenfold increase in border enforcement expenditures in the last decade or so, at the same time as there has been a drastic increase in the amount of undocumented migration," Srikantiah said. "The more complicated the U.S government makes it to cross the border, the more profitable it is for smugglers or traffickers to take people across," she said. The net result has been more deaths at the border; in 2005, there were 450, she said.

The fit between the needs of thousands of U.S. firms for manual workers and the needs of Mexican and Central American workers is so strong as to defy any attempt at repression, Portes said. "You can build fences at places in the Mexican-American border and the flow will just move elsewhere, as migrants brave the desert and death as necessary."

Border enforcement hasn't served to keep undocumented migrant workers out of the United States but to keep them in, he said. Despite the fact that the Border Patrol is now second only to the Army as an arms-bearing force, the probability of capture for those trying to cross the border illegally has declined due to the increasing sophistication of smugglers, he said.

Once in, it is too costly for migrants to leave and return again, stopping what formerly were cyclical migration patterns in their tracks, Portes said. Heightened repression, "so dear to the self-important guardians of national integrity," has had exactly the opposite consequence, he said. "It has transformed what was a regional phenomenon to a permanent unauthorized population."

A global economic webJennifer Lee challenged the perception that the persistent inflow of immigrants—and in particular Hispanic immigrants—threatens to divide the United States into two cultures. Her work has shown that the newest groups of immigrants follow classic lines of assimilation, she said. By the third generation the majority of Hispanic immigrants achieve rates of social mobility consistent with immigrant groups in the past, as demonstrated by measures including using English exclusively and rates of intermarriage, she said.

But monolingualism created by an emphasis on assimilation is not necessarily a good thing, Portes said. The United States has become part of a single global web, in which it plays a core role, he said. "In the new world order, in which economic, political and cultural ties bind nations ever closer, it is not clear the rapid extinction of foreign languages in America is in the interests of individual citizens or the country as a whole."

As an alternative, Portes recommended immigration legislation that would bring the currently unauthorized flow of immigrants "above ground" as a managed labor pool.

Under his proposal, every Mexican with a certified job could cross the border legally by paying $2,000, half of which could be refunded upon his or her return. Migrants who wished to stay in the United States after six years, and who had no criminal convictions and the endorsement of employers, would be given preferred status, he said. His proposal also would tap the proactive capacity of the Mexican government, which would create social programs that would provide incentives for the families of migrant workers to remain in Mexico, he said.

Most immigrant rights groups oppose a temporary worker program, because it creates no incentives for migrants to become valued workers in the United States, Srikantiah said. It also creates the potential for the abuse of power by employers who control workers' visas, she said. Migrants call such programs "report to deport," because "in our world of technology, if you enter a database as a temporary worker, you'll be tracked." A worker could be deported for even a mild violation of the law, she said.

In a critique of current proposed legislation, Srikantiah noted the Senate bill ultimately was not supported by a majority of grassroots and legal advocacy groups partly because it expanded conceptions of "so-called criminal aliens" and further limited their rights, she said. Both Senate and House bills expanded ideas of who could be detained without a bond hearing and the categories of crimes that make an immigrant deportable.

One of the really hard questions that Congress will grapple with is not so much about quotas or legalization, but a nuts-and-bolts one, she said: "If the current enforcement doesn't work, if it is not humane, what kind of enforcement can we live with?"