Q&A with David FitzGerald (U-T San Diego)

Q&A with David FitzGerald, associate professor of sociology and associate director, Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, at the University of California San Diego.


BY ELIZABETH AGUILERA JANUARY 1, 2012

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A Q&A with David FitzGerald, associate professor of sociology and associate director, Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, at the University of California San Diego.

Q: In 2009 you co-edited the book “Mexican Migration and the U.S. Economic Crisis.” Studies and figures show migration has slowed during the crisis. Will it return when the economy recovers? How do falling birth rates and improving economies in Mexico and Latin America affect such migration, or future migration to the U.S.?

New arrivals from Mexico dropped 60% from 2006 to 2010. The main reason for this drop is the weak U.S. economy, particularly in the construction sector that employs large numbers of Mexican men. The second-most important factor is increased U.S. border enforcement. Surveys conducted by the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego show that more than 95 percent of migrants from Mexico that attempt to enter illegally eventually succeed, even if about a third of them are apprehended by the Border Patrol. However, U.S. border enforcement strategy is pushing migrants into ever-more dangerous wilderness areas. An average of one person a day dies trying to get across the Southwest border. Our surveys show that many potential migrants are so afraid of the risks of crossing clandestinely that they are staying in Mexico, even as those who do try to cross without papers almost invariably make it.

If and when the U.S. economy starts creating more jobs, I expect immigration rates from Mexico to rise from their current levels. But I don’t think they will reach the historically high levels that they did in the early 2000s. First, fertility rates in Mexico have fallen dramatically, from 7 babies per woman in 1960 to 2.4 babies per woman in 2009. That means that over time, the relative number of young people entering the Mexican workforce, the demographic group most likely to migrate to the United States, will decline. Second, U.S. border enforcement strategy is driving up the risks and costs of unauthorized immigration, which will limit the ability of people in Mexico who are very poor and who don’t have close relatives in the United States to migrate illegally. And current U.S. immigration policy makes it impossible for people in that category to immigrate legally.

Q: Is it possible that enough time could go by that those in Mexico and Latin America lose ties with the U.S. and stop coming?

There are many examples of emigration rates dwindling in countries that were once major countries of origin. Think of Italy, Spain, and South Korea in the last fifty years, not to mention Germany and Scandinavia in the nineteenth century. Nobody would have predicted then that desperately poor countries such as Norway would eventually stop sending citizens abroad and become rich destinations for new immigrants instead. For emigration to stop from Latin American countries, their economies would have to grow much faster than the United States over many decades. Even if the wage gap narrowed, social ties across the border are so strong that family reunification migration would continue for years after the economic rationale to migrate had diminished. Brazil is growing so fast that it is conceivable that its emigration rate will soon slow. But I would expect large flows to continue from Mexico and Central America at least for the next several generations.

Q. Have has this trend, of low economic migration and increased enforcement, affected the citizen children of immigrants both in the U.S. and in Mexico or Central America?

Since the 1970s, there has been a trend away from the circular migration of men back and forth between Mexico and the United States, toward long-term settlement of whole families in the United States. The current disruption in new immigration is separating families. Wives and children in Mexico can’t see their husband and fathers in the United States, often for years at a time. Many small towns in Mexico are lonely places inhabited mostly by children, wives, and seniors. The Catholic Church, school teachers, and mental health providers are particularly concerned about how children are affected by the long-term absence of their fathers who are working in the United States to support their families back in Mexico.

Q: Your current project deals with racial and national origin preferences and citizenship policy. Has that history led to change in the U.S. under current policies?

For most of its history, U.S. immigration policy explicitly discriminated against particular racial and ethnic groups. Naturalization was restricted to whites in 1790, and it wasn’t until 1952 that all Asian immigrants were eligible to naturalize. Between 1882 and 1943, immigration of people of Chinese descent was banned. By the 1920s, immigration policy had all but ended Asian immigration, and a system of national-origin quotas preferentially treated people from northwestern Europe while restricting southern and eastern Europeans. The end of the national-origins policy in 1965 dramatically changed the ethnic composition of immigration flows. In 2009, 28 percent of immigrants to the United States were born in Asia, up from 5 percent in 1960.

There are still vestiges of the quota system in U.S. immigration policy. For people trying to become permanent legal residents based on their employment and some family reunification-categories, visas are restricted to 25,620 per country, regardless of the size of the country or its historical levels of migration. Mexico is treated the same as Monaco. As a result, the waiting period to process an immigrant visa for those categories varies widely. For example, unmarried adult daughters and sons of U.S. citizens are waiting 19 years if they are Mexican, 14 years if they are Filipino, and only 5 years on average if they are nationals of other countries. Congress is debating the possibility of ending the per country limits for employment-based visas, which have led to long waiting times for Chinese and Indians, and providing some relief to Mexicans and Filipinos in the family category.

Q: During this study of such policies and preferences over 150 years did you find anything surprising?

One of the striking features of U.S. immigration policy is how racist policies have been fueled by popular demand. An 1879 California referendum on whether Chinese immigration should be allowed received 883 votes in favor and 154,638 opposed. Restrictionists passed laws restricting the ability of Chinese to interact freely with natives, and then blamed them for clannish behavior and refusing to assimilate. The 1879 state constitution banned government and businesses from hiring Chinese and gave cities and towns the authority to segregate Chinese in particular neighborhoods. That’s why we have Chinatowns in San Francisco and Los Angeles, (and used to have one in San Diego in what became the Gaslamp Quarter). What might seem like a colorful tourist attraction today is the product of segregation imposed by the government at the behest of the electorate. One of the findings of the broader study is that democracy has actually enabled racist policies. The United States, Australia, and Canada were leaders in initiating racist policies in the nineteenth century, and those countries were among the last major countries in the New World to dismantle their racist policies. The turn away from racist policies was primarily due to geopolitical considerations during World War II and the Cold War.

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