Presentation of Recession without Borders: Mexican migrants confront the economic downturn

El Colegio de la Frontera Norte
Invites you to the presentation of the book:

Recession Without Borders
Mexican Migrants Confront the Economic Downturn

Edited by David Scott FitzGerald, Rafael Alarcón and Leah Muse-Orlinoff

Dr. Gustavo Verduzco Igartúa
El Colegio de México

Dra. Paz Trigueros Legarreta
Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana – Azcapotzalco

Dr. Rafael Alarcón Acosta
El Colegio de la Frontera Norte

November 24, 2011
5:00pm, Casa Colef
Francisco Sosa 254, Barrui de Sabta Catarina
Delegación Coyoacán, México, D.F.

CCIS researchers present to congressional staffers and the Congressional Research Service

A group of researchers from CCIS recently traveled to Washington, DC to present the results of research carried out as part of the Mexican Migration Field Research Program. In a presentation sponsored by the offices of Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-California) and Representative Candice Miller (R-Michigan), CCIS researchers presented research dealing with topics including the impact of border enforcement measures and laws at the sub-national level that deal with immigration matters on the behavior of Mexican immigrants in the United States. The presentation to congressional staffers was followed by a roundtable discussion with members of the Congressional Research Service (CRS). In a wide-ranging discussion, CCIS staffers briefed CRS employees about some of the latest research on immigration.

Fenced In (The Dallas Morning News)

Research from the Mexican Migration Field Research Program was mentioned in The Dallas Morning News


A U.S. Border Patrol agent along the fence at the Mexican border.

Let’s say you want to cross the U.S.-Mexico border the unconventional way. If you pay someone to sneak you in through a legal port of entry–a more popular option with women–it costs $2,850 and requires that you hide in a vehicle of some sort. If you choose the desert or mountain route, the added hazard and rigor drop the price to $1,587.

Despite the aggressive enforcement along the U.S. Mexico border, this illegal act still occurs with some frequency. Fewer people are trying to get in, for a host of reasons, but those who are bent on coming pay coyotes the fee and venture across. Sometimes it takes several tries, but the success rate is still an astonishing nine out of every ten.

We know these details thanks to the social scientists at the Mexican Migration Field Research Program, which is run by the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Since 2005, their surveys of immigrants in Mexico and California have given us a remarkable insight into the factors that drive migration.

Illuminating this issue helps everyone, regardless of where you stand on this intensely debated issue. It is only when you know the forces at work that you can begin to understand immigration in all its complexity and (cue the hope and dream) begin to develop a coherent public policy.

David Keyes, one of the researchers, shared with me some of the latest findings, which were also presented at a conference in California this week. Based on interviews with residents from the Mexican town of Tlacotepec–those still in the village and those now in California–researchers offer some sobering insights into the limits of enforcement.

The poor economy in the U.S. and the perception that the route north is more perilous than before are indeed deterring people from leaving. But those who are bent on coming will make the trip and, by dint of repeated tries, sneak across. “Border enforcement efforts of the U.S. government are not effectively stemming the undocumented migrations of Tlacotepense migrants,” according to a draft of the research paper.

Keyes, in a PowerPoint presentation, does an interesting analysis that links the hours the U.S. Border Patrol spends watching the frontier and the fees charged by human smugglers. In the early 1980s, when the total number of hours standing guard was under 2 million, it cost under $500 to sneak cross. In 2010, when the number of hours more than quadrupled, the fee averages a little under $2,000.

What does this tell us? Well, it supports the theory that one consequence of more aggressive enforcement is more aggressive attempts at violating the border. Researchers who interviewed Mexicans from Tlacotepec, in the southwestern state of Guerrero, conclude that 38 percent of those who entered illegally were apprehended at least once when crossing via desert or mountain. Those who snuck in at border crossings fared better–22 percent were caught at least once.

These apprehension rates have not really changed much from 2002 to 2010, a period of rather dramatic enforcement. The reason, researchers conclude, is that the tactics and methods of those running this market changed. Between 1986 and 1993, 53 percent of Tlacotepenses used a coyote. Between 2002 and 2010, an astonishing 87 percent resorted to these human smugglers.

I think it is misguided to use this data to argue that enforcement doesn’t work, for the simple reason that there is no way to measure how many would have entered had security not increased. Logic argues that the numbers would be higher, maybe much higher. But the persistence demonstrated by these migrants, particularly when the economy is not a draw, really does show that enforcement alone can only accomplish so much. If the economy improves and if migrants sense that the drug violence is abating, well you reach your own conclusions.

The Border Patrol and its parent, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, are now focusing enforcement on human smuggling networks and migrants who repeatedly cross the border. The research, certainly unintended, validates that change in policy by providing a statistical framework.

The Mexican Migration Field Research Project, along with an even more ambitious Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University, provide an invaluable service and should be required reading for all public officials and agencies involved in immigration. Among other things, the research conducted by these social scientists is the only antidote to the extreme politics of immigration, where rhetoric rules and intemperate shouts drown out data.

Here’s what the numbers tell us: The border is far more secure now than it has ever been–all that money, all those boots on the ground and all those eyes in the sky offer vigilance at a level that is unprecedented. This is beyond dispute, and anyone who argues otherwise is simply ignoring the facts. The number of illegal immigrants entering has dropped rather dramatically, to 150,000 a year down from as high as 600,000, according to one reliable estimate.

Enforcement is an important factor but not the only one. A bad economy in the U.S. has always worked as a deterrent. Important demographic changes in Mexico and the persistence of violence along the border are also significant factors. We are living in an unusual time because all these forces are at play at the same time, and all are having an impact.

But even when the border is at its most secure, when migration is further checked by these other factors, the frontier with Mexico is still a porous place. Look at the determined Tlacotepenses. Barring a hermetic seal (or Herman’s electrified fence), people bent on moving north will find a way, eventually. There’s an industry with high profit margins that practically guarantees it.

“I don’t think it will stop,” a middle-aged migrant, taking stock of all of this, told the researchers. “It might deter people like me, who are very cautions. But a lot of people that have made up their mind, they are tired of not having money….And that wall, we might not be able to jump it, but there will be coyotes that will dig a kilometer-long hole. And they will do it. They will do it because there is money to be made.”

Read the article »

Read editorial »

Ethnicity, Race, & Indigenous Peoples in Latin America & the Caribbean

On November 3-5, 2011, the University of California, San Diego will host the Second Conference on Ethnicity, Race, and Indigenous Peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean. The event is organized and sponsored by ERIP (LASA Section on Ethnicity, Race, and Indigenous Peoples), CILAS-UCSD (Center for Iberian and Latin American Studies, University of California, San Diego), CLAS-SDSU (Center for Latin American Studies, San Diego State University), LACES (Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies, journal published by Taylor & Francis and housed at UCSD), Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies (University of California, San Diego), and CCIS (Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, University of California, San Diego).

As explained in the Call for Panels and Papers, the conference will cover topics related to all aspects of ethnicity, race relations, Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and other ethnic or racial groups in Latin America and the Caribbean. Participants will include a large number of professional scholars and graduate students from a wide range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, as well as activists and practitioners from grassroots organizations and NGOs. The program will feature multiple thematic panels organized into parallel sessions, presentations by keynote speakers, and receptions and other events, beginning on Thursday November 3rd and continuing through Saturday November 5th.

The LASA Section on Ethnicity, Race, and Indigenous Peoples (ERIP) and the journal Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies (LACES) have jointly established a Travel Grants fund to assist participants’ travel from Latin American and the Caribbean, on a competitive basis. They will also sponsor the ERIP-LACES Student Paper Award to recognize the best work submitted by graduate students at the conference.

The First ERIP conference, which took place in May 2008 at the University of California, San Diego, brought together more than 300 participants and attendees. Because of the high level of interest and the existence of space, time and budget constraints, we urge prospective participants to submit their Panel Proposal Forms and Individual Paper Proposal Forms as early as possible in order to improve their chances of securing a place in the program.  Early registration is also recommended to those interested in simply attending the conference.

ERIP Conference Organizing and Program Committee:
Shannon Speed, Chair ERIP
Leon Zamosc, Chief Editor LACES
David Mares, Director CILAS-UCSD
Ramona Perez, Director CLAS-SDSU

US-Mexico Border Immersion Program

An Immersion program for the 2012 January Intersession is being sponsored by University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute.  The program offers a great opportunity to gain international experience and learn about the important issues surrounding the San Diego-Tijuana border community through political, economic, social, and theological spectrum.

For more information, view website and flyer.

Jeffrey Lesser – Brazilian Journeys: Contemporary Immigration and Emigration

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Seminar to be held on Monday, October 10th in ERC 115 at 12:00 pm.

Brazil, like the United States, often defines itself as a “nation of immigrants.”  Yet immigration has implications far beyond the direct experiences of newcomers.  The idea of immigration, often so different than the concrete reality of arrival, allowed Brazil’s elites (made up of landowners, politicians, intellectuals, and industrialists) to see a future that was different and better than the present one.

More than five million immigrants flowed into Brazil between 1872 and 1972 and the majority originated in Europe, especially Italy. Yet Brazil stands out for the high numbers of non-Europeans who also entered, notably from Japan and the Middle East.   Today Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, is one of the largest Italian, Japanese, and Lebanese cities in the world.

This paper will explore the relationship between immigration and national identity both as an historical phenomenon and as a contemporary one by providing an overview of immigration to Brazil and then focusing on the contemporary movement of Brazilians to Japan.

Jeffrey Lesser is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor and Chair of the History Department at Emory University.  His research focuses on issues of ethnicity and national identity.

Lesser received his B.A. and M.A. degrees from Brown University and his Ph.D. from New York University.  He is the author of A Discontented Diaspora: Japanese-Brazilians and the Meanings of Ethnic Militancy, 1960-1980 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), winner of the Roberto Reis Prize (Honorable Mention) from the Brazilian Studies Association; Negotiating National Identity: Minorities, Immigrants and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil (Duke University Press, 1999), winner of the Best Book Prize from the Brazil Section of the Latin American Studies Association, and Welcoming the Undesirables: Brazil and the Jewish Question (University of California Press, 1994) which won the Best Book Prize from New England Council on Latin American Studies. 

Lesser is has edited a number of volumes including Rethinking Jewish-Latin Americans (University of New Mexico Press, 2008; with Raanan Rein) Searching for Home Abroad: Japanese – Brazilians and Transnationalism (Duke University Press, 2003) and Arab and Jewish Immigrants in Latin America: Images and Realities (London: Frank Cass, 1998; with Ignacio Klich).

Interview with John Skrentny on the EurAsylum website

CCIS Director John Skrentny recently explained his research on regional variations in immigration law in an interview for EurAsylum, a UK organization that provides research and technical support services regarding immigration and refugee policy.

10/2011: Prof John Skrentny


Prof John Skrentny
Director of the Center for Comparative
Immigration Studies (CCIS), University of
California at San Diego


“Key variations in immigration policy in
East Asia, Europe and North America”

Eurasylum: One of the ongoing projects at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies (CCIS) aims to analyze the key variations in specific elements of the immigration policy of East Asia, Europe and North America. In particular, the project has so far looked into the ways in which the three regions deal with opportunities for low-skilled migrants to settle and the ways in which they approach ethnic return migration. Can you guide us through the key aims, methodology and early findings of this project?

Prof John Skrentny: In the study of immigration, I typically find two schools of thought regarding cross-regional comparisons. One is that the dynamics of immigration are the same everywhere, and so cross-regional comparisons are not very interesting. In this view, advanced industrialized states everywhere are facing the same problems—aging populations and more educated populations—and thus shrinking low-skilled workforces. At the same time, the demand for low-skilled labor is constant or even growing. Given these dynamics, it is assumed that all states in all industrialized regions will follow the same path toward more immigration. After all, East Asia has some of the lowest birthrates in the world.

Others take a different view: there is no point in comparing regions because they are too different for meaningful comparisons. These scholars may accept comparisons between the US and Canada with European states (even though the US and Canada are settler states whose populations are largely created through immigration). But they may argue that East Asia is just too different for comparison, pointing out that countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have very small immigrant populations, and in the case of Japan and South Korea, national identities that are squarely based on ethnicity. They may also claim that East Asia lacks liberal political institutions comparable to those in Europe, or an active civil society.

We agree with the first view that if you look very, very broadly, from a distance, so to speak, it is true that industrialized states in Europe, Asia and North America look similar. They have similar demographic problems, and they have similar demands for migrant labor. They also have functioning democracies, courts that are independent enough to make some pro-immigrant rulings, and in some instances thriving civil societies and NGO sectors. This is why we reject the second view: there are a lot of similarities here.

But we also reject the first view: if you look more closely at the two regions, you do see regional variations. Given similar challenges, policymakers have made different choices. There are patterns of policy that are characteristic of East Asia, and policies characteristic of Europe (it’s a bit harder to say there is a “North American” immigration region because there we are really only talking about two advanced, industrialized immigrant receiving states).

Of course, if you look even closer, you can see variation between states within each region. But what is fascinating are the regional commonalities.

Especially important is the role of family reunification rights. These are taken for granted in both Europe and North America for low-skilled migrants, but are nowhere guaranteed in East Asia—even in a multi-ethnic state like Singapore. Family reunification rights are very important because migrants who bring their spouses and especially those who bring children are much more likely to settle than single men and women migrant workers. And when you get migrant settlement, you transform societies: new cultures, new benefits, new dynamism, and new challenges and costs.

Methodologically, at this point, this is a project in comparative-historical analysis, where we amass great amounts of information and seek to make inferences based on the logic of the comparisons, though we hope to add a component based on interviews with policymakers, NGOs, and migrants themselves, as well as a quantitative component.

The early findings, which we have published in International Migration Review, show that there is no simple answer to the question of why there are no family reunification rights in East Asia but they are everywhere in Europe.

Eurasylum: In the article to which you have just referred you argue that, unlike states in Europe, East Asia settles very few migrants and has not developed a European-style multicultural society. You explain this by examining, in particular, the effects of several independent variables, including supranational institutions, independent courts, interest groups, political culture, and the perceptions of migrants themselves. Can you discuss the ways in which each of these variables can facilitate or affect the development of a settlement policy in each of these regions?

Prof John Skrentny: This is where it gets really interesting. There are several variables that social scientists use to predict policy change, including the opening of immigration policy. These variables are present in Europe—but they are mostly also present in East Asia. They just work differently there.

So, for example, there are independent courts in Asia, and they have ruled in favor of immigrants on occasion, but not on family reunification rights or on general rights to settlement. There are interest groups that push for more immigrant rights, but in Asia they have not made family reunification or settlement a priority. Employers in Europe wanted family rights because once they found good workers, they wanted to keep them, and bringing over their families gave them the stability they wanted. In Asia, employers have not made similar demands. Public opinion on immigration in Asia, incidentally, is not particularly hostile to migrant families or settlement.

The EU has promoted family reunification in Europe, and it is true that East Asia lacks comparable, rights-oriented supra-national institutions. But we should not make too much of this—European states provided family reunification rights before the EU promoted them.

Not surprisingly, we also observe that European states are much more open to settling asylees and refugees than their counterparts in industrialized East Asia.

At this point, we believe that there are cultural dynamics that shape policymaking to explain the regional differences. East Asian policymakers appear to exhibit a “developmental state” rationality that leads them to view immigrants differently. They seem to assume that their economies and societies are fragile, and they privilege economic growth and the minimization of welfare costs over human rights. European states, however begrudgingly, are far more likely to take human rights considerations for granted when they make policy – even if migrants with dependents lead to social welfare costs.

Put another way, East Asian states have been far more successful in instituting the temporary worker/rotation model that was part of the original plan in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. Their immigration/emigration policy is like similar to developmental state trade policies. In trade, East Asian states long pursued export-oriented economies while protecting their markets at home, or at least maintaining systems that were formally open but nevertheless difficult for foreign manufacturers to penetrate. The same is true with people: Asian states traditionally had their emigrants work abroad, but it is difficult for foreigners (at least the low-skilled migrants) to establish a permanent presence in them.

Eurasylum: You have also looked into regional comparisons of ethnic return migration policy and have concluded that, while all regions at least implicitly define the nation as existing across borders, East Asian states use co-ethnic preferences instrumentally for economic goals and also offer preferential treatment of co-ethnic foreign investors, while European states offer preferences to coethnics to protect these populations or express symbolic ties. You thus draw the conclusion that, while in Europe the state has an obligation to assist coethnics abroad, in Asia it is the foreign coethnics who tend to assist the state. Can you elaborate on these findings?

Prof John Skrentny: This is similar to the developmental-state logic I described above: In Asia as compared to Europe, migration is closely managed with an eye toward economic development and the minimization of costs. This is not to say that when European states give some kind of visa or naturalization preference to co-ethnics who live abroad, they do not benefit economically, or do not intend to benefit economically from this ethnic return migration. But they certainly leave a lot more to chance: ethnic return migrants may have difficulty finding jobs, and unemployed ethnic return migrants can get state aid. In some cases, such as Germany’s old policies toward ethnic German foreigners, they might be willing to spend a lot of money to aid their settlement. European states are also more likely to give some kind of cultural-familiarity test to those persons hoping to claim co-ethnic preferences.

East Asian states are more strategic. South Korea has created short-term work visas for specific industries open only to ethnic Koreans who live abroad, mostly used by Korean Chinese. It created a much more generous “green card”-like system that was targeted at wealthier, more skilled Korean Americans. When the Korean Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to discriminate against the Korean Chinese, the program was formally opened to all ethnic Koreans, but since it only allows occupation in skilled occupations, it still rarely benefits the poorer Korean Chinese. South Korea’s policy toward resettling North Korean refugees (still only about 21,000 in a country of nearly 50 million) has become increasingly stingy as those refugees became less skilled.

Ethnic return migration is a big part of the story in Japan as well. Most of Japan’s low-skilled foreign labor consists of ethnic Japanese from Brazil and Peru. Though they can renew their short-term visas, it appears that the majority takes their wage savings and goes back to South America.

Finally, we found preferences for co-ethnics living abroad to invest in their ancestral homelands to be very common in Asia, and government leaders sometimes exhort them to do so as a patriotic duty. This may exist in Europe, but we could not find any examples of it. Instead, states recognize ethnic ties more romantically and with a sense of duty to protect “their” people living abroad, or at least maintain a tie. The larger point here is that what is “rational,” what makes sense to policymakers as sound and smart immigration policy, is not the same all over the world, and it is not simply a matter of a state’s wealth or demographic pressures. There are regional patterns, and it is important to understand these if we are to understand immigration.

To read the interview, click here.