Does Legalization Encourage Unauthorized Immigration?

By Hillary Kosnac, hkosnac@ucsd.edu, and Tom K. Wong, tomkwong@ucsd.edu, @twong002

Chances that 2013 will bring a comprehensive immigration reform bill (CIR) that includes a path to citizenship increased recently after the bipartisan Senate “gang of 8’s” bill was voted out of committee (and largely in tact after some 300 amendments were considered). However, the optimism surrounding the bill was quickly tempered as the House Judiciary Committee (HJC) held a hearing in which the legalization of undocumented immigrants and an eventual path to citizenship were sharply questioned.

These questions renewed debate over whether legalization (or even just talk of legalization) leads to more unauthorized immigration, particularly from Mexico. In response to Republican Representative Louie Gohmert’s (TX-1) claim during the HJC hearing that talk of legalization leads to a “dramatic uptick in people coming across the border illegally,” an expert witness stated, “every time that we talk about some sort of immigration reform, especially when there are still questions out there, there is some kind of increase.” This witness, however, concluded his answer by stating “can’t give you what that increase is, I don’t know.”

Given legalization and a path to citizenship are at the core of immigration reform efforts on the one hand and concerns about the “moral hazard” of legalization – i.e., the fear that legalization now will encourage more unauthorized immigration down the road – generate intense opposition to reform efforts on the other, it is critical to provide better answers than “I don’t know.”

While there has yet to be a silver bullet one way or another, there is a way to empirically evaluate whether (prospective) legalization encourages more unauthorized immigration. Since 2005, the Mexican Migration Field Research Program (MMFRP) housed at the University of California, San Diego has conducted thousands of interviews with prospective migrants in Mexico. During the last push for immigration reform in 2006 and 2007, the MMFRP surveyed nearly 900 persons. Questions participants were asked included whether they had an intent to immigrate to the U.S., if yes, the reason for wanting to immigrate, as well as questions about what they knew about the details of the proposed CIR bill.

One way that we could observe whether a moral hazard related to legalization exists is if respondents who expressed an intent to immigrate cited “amnesty” as their primary motivation. Another way that we could observe moral hazard is if those who knew about the legalization component of the proposed CIR bill were more likely to express an intent to immigrate than those who did not know about the legalization. We take each of these possibilities in turn.

Is “Amnesty” a Motivating Factor?

The 2007 MMFRP included 861 respondents 236 of these were either born in the U.S. or were legal permanent residents. The remaining 625 respondents comprise a pool of prospective undocumented immigrants. Among these 625 people, only 130 or 23.7% stated that they intended to immigrate to the U.S. (419 did not intend to immigrate and 76 did not respond). For those that expressed an intent to immigrate, a follow up question was asked regarding their reasons for wanting to come to the U.S. “Amnesty” was one option among over a dozen potential reasons. Of all of the respondents who expressed an intent to immigrate, zero stated amnesty as one of their primary reasons for wanting to come to the U.S.

It is important to note here that social desirability bias may be at play. This refers to respondents answering survey questions in ways that fit what they think the person asking the questions wants to hear (or in ways that may be viewed favorably by others), instead of in ways that reflect how the respondent truly thinks and feels. We thus take one step further.

Does Knowing About Legalization Promote Unauthorized Immigration?

The MMFRP also allows us to examine what prospective immigrants in Mexico knew about the proposed CIR bill – including legalization. If knowing about legalization leads to an increase in unauthorized immigration, we would expect that a large majority of respondents who knew about the proposed legalization would want to immigrate. The data do not show this. In fact, just 21.1% (16 out of 76) of those who knew about the legalization expressed an intent to immigrate. This means that 78.9% of prospective undocumented immigrants who knew about the proposed legalization had no intention of leaving Mexico.

We can also view this from a slightly different perspective. If talk of legalization is enough to cause an uptick in unauthorized immigration, then there should be an observable statistically significant difference in the intent to immigrate between those who know about legalization and those who do not. Again, the data do not support this. Surprisingly, not only is there no statistically significant difference between these two groups, but those who did not know about the legalization were slightly more likely to express an intent to immigrate than those who did. As indicated above, while 21.1% of those who knew about the proposed legalization wanted to immigrate, 24.1% (114 out of 473) who did not know about it expressed an intent to leave Mexico.

The 2013 MMFRP

Preliminary analysis of the 2013 MMFRP (n = 610) provides a window into the question of moral hazard in the context of the current immigration reform debate. While the 2013 MMFRP also asks the question of intent to immigrate, it does so for only a subset of respondents. As a result, only 75 prospective undocumented immigrants were asked whether they had an intent to immigrate. Moreover, unlike the 2007 MMFRP, the 2013 survey did not ask the follow up question of “why.” However, it did ask, “Do you think there’s going to be an amnesty in the US in the next 4 years.”

Again, if hopes of legalization were enough to encourage more unauthorized immigration, we would expect those who responded yes to the “amnesty” question to want to immigrate more so than those who responded no. The data do not support this. Just 26.7% (12 out of 45) of prospective undocumented immigrants who thought there was going to be “amnesty” in the next 4 years expressed an intent to immigrate, which means that 73.3% had no intention of leaving. There is also no statistically significant difference in the intent to immigrate between those who think there will be “amnesty” and those who do not. While 26.7% of those who think there will be “amnesty” wanted to immigrate, 31.8% (7 out of 22) who did not think so expressed an intent to leave Mexico for the U.S.

Inconclusive, but Better than “I Don’t Know”

To be sure, the analysis here does not provide a definitive answer to the question of moral hazard – however, while the evidence is inconclusive and more analysis is needed, these results provide cause to challenge the assertion that simply talking about legalization prompts a dramatic uptick in unauthorized immigration.

In both 2007 and 2013, the large majority of prospective undocumented immigrants with knowledge or optimism regarding “amnesty” expressed no intent to leave Mexico. Additionally we found no statistically significant difference in the intent to immigrate between those who have knowledge or optimism of “amnesty” and those who do not. While the MMFRP datasets provide a way to empirically examine the question of moral hazard as it relates to legalization, limitations do exist. One limitation is the generalizability of the findings. Each year the MMFRP conducts its research in one of three Mexican sending communities: Tlacuitapa, Jalisco, Tunkás, Yucatán, and San Miguel Tlacotepec, Oaxaca. It would thus be a stretch to say that the surveys are representative of the Mexican population as a whole – and we do not claim that it is. However, given the politically sensitive nature of claims that unauthorized immigration will increase as a result of legalization (or just talk of it), we cannot rely on answers of “I don’t know.” Does legalization encourage more unauthorized immigration? This analysis suggests no, but more research is needed.

Hillary Kosnac is a graduate student at UC San Diego. Tom K. Wong, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of political science at UC San Diego. He is an expert on immigration politics and policy. He is a research associate at CCIS and beginning in fall 2013 he will be Director of the International Migration Studies Program at UC San Diego.