Sociologist tackles immigration myths with data collection

STANFORD -- The camera was set up to count the number of migrants crossing the border, but it caught this scene at a dusty point not far from San Diego in December 1988: U.S. border patrol officers, one dressed as a Santa Claus, throwing a party, complete with beer served on the hoods of government trucks, for the migrants.

"Compare that view with whatever your view has been about the enforcement of the [U.S. immigration] law," sociologist Jorge A. Bustamante urged his Stanford audience as he flashed the photograph on a classroom screen in Stanford Law School on Friday, April 29.

The photo was one of several that Bustamante brought to campus to aid him in a lecture that questioned the sincerity of U.S. politicians who currently refer to migrant workers from Mexico as law breakers - "illegal aliens" and even as drug couriers whom they propose to stop by expanding U.S. law enforcement.

Bustamante, president of El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana, Mexico, and the Eugene Conley Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, has devoted his professional career to separating ideology from economics in the area of migration across the 2,000-mile-long border between the two countries.

He was at Stanford at the invitation of the Center for Chicano Research to deliver the ninth annual Ernesto Galarza Lecture. Galarza's work on Mexican labor migration provided the foundation for his own, said Bustamante, who first met the famous scholar, writer and labor leader in 1969 when Galarza was a research associate at Notre Dame and Bustamante was a graduate student.

The anti-immigrant rhetoric that is flowing now in Congress and in border states, Bustamante said, is part of "a precise pattern that happens in every U.S. recession since the beginning of the century."

In all eight 20th-century recessions, he said, he and other scholars have shown that the recession produces rising unemployment, which is followed by rising sentiment against immigrants, particularly those who are not authorized by the U.S. government to enter.

"There is always a politician who comes along and makes the causal link between immigration and the economic crisis," Bustamante said. "The undocumented worker becomes the easiest scapegoat because he doesn't have any power to retaliate - to say, wait a minute, Governor Wilson." A political debate ensues, he said, that "exacerbates xenophobic sentiment" among a segment of the U.S. population; tough-sounding legislation follows, border fraternizing goes down and violation of human rights of immigrants goes up. In past recessions, legal residents of the United States also have been targeted for violence and deportation, he said. "Then economic recovery comes, and the issue of immigration fades away," Bustamante said, because the United States - or at least segments of its employer population - benefit from the labor flows from Mexico.

To break out of this historical cycle, Bustamante told his Stanford audience, the two governments eventually have to address the labor migration issue together. But that won't happen, he said, until scholars from both sides of the border build a better factual basis for determining the costs and benefits to both nations. Without better statistics on unauthorized migration, he said, the subject is left to myth-makers who see the migration in starkly contrasting views.

In Mexico, he said, the general view is that someone who takes a job in the United States is a family hero who also contributes to the U.S. and Mexican economies. In the United States, he said, the predominant view that is especially evident in recessions is that the migrant is a "law breaker" who is harming the economy, with little attention to the profits made from his or her below-domestic-labor-market wages.

"But this is not a phenomenon that produces benefits to one country and costs to another. It produces costs and benefits to both. We just don't have the numbers to assess them accurately," Bustamante said.

Recently, the U.S.-Mexico Foundation agreed to finance a project aimed at getting better numbers. Bustamante will work with University of Southern California researchers on an expansion of a pilot project undertaken for the World Bank. The project's goal is to produce "the first- ever direct estimate of undocumented immigration," he said.

Borrowing techniques from biologists for studying other migratory species, Bustamante and his colleagues have been involved in the Canon Zapata project, which has helped to reveal a process of "circular migration" from Mexico to the United States.

The process, he said, involves short-term "migratory careers" for individuals who eventually settle in one country or another. Researchers have administered brief questionnaires to a random sampling of Mexicans as they approach the border from the Mexican side on each Friday, Saturday and Sunday since September 1987.

The technique cannot directly measure the total flow of undocumented migrants, but it is a vast improvement on U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service data, he said. The agency collects and disseminates its statistics on the detention of undocumented immigrants "as though they are statistics on different individuals, when, in reality, they are counts of events," Bustamante said. "That is, many of these detentions can correspond to a single individual, who could even have been detained by the Border Patrol several times in a single day."

The researchers' random sample, taken at several border cities, asks those approaching the border a number of questions, which allow the researchers to compare the patterns at border crossings and over time. This can then be used to develop a "migration index" and uncover factors related to the migrations, Bustamante said.

For example, he said, the researchers have found that the educational level of those migrating to the United States has risen since 1987, and the proportion of migrants from Mexico's cities is rising compared to those from rural areas.

An increasing circulatory pattern seems evident, he said, from increases in the numbers who say they have previously held a job in the United States. And, he said, an increasing proportion of those worked in urban jobs, particularly in construction and the service sector. There is also a clear decline in those reporting previous employment in U.S. agriculture, he said.

Sixty percent of total undocumented migrants tell the researchers they are heading for California, and 70 percent of those for the greater Los Angeles region, he said. The largest groups still come from the central and western Mexican states, where workers were historically recruited by U.S. employers. Women make up one quarter of the migrants from the metropolitan area of Mexico City, whereas men are more than 90 percent of those from rural Mexican states.

The majority of migrants are between the ages of 20 and 30, he said, presumably their most productive years economically.

Migrants from Mexican states not along the border are the most likely to be extorted by Mexican police, he said, which suggests local police are more likely to extort from strangers than their own neighbors.

The data, he said, are exciting to the researchers because "they are different from what people believe reality is."

The U.S. government, for example, he said, "never wavers from defining undocumented migration as a crime problem requiring law enforcement solutions" and has refused to include labor migration in negotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But the data will be "irrelevant" to both countries, Bustamante said, "if it is not translated to people's conscience. We [researchers] don't know how to do that. We are not politicians," he said.

Congressional proposals to build a fence along the U.S. border with Mexico, Bustamante said, suggest that ideology still dominates immigration policy development in the United States. One Congressman, he said, has even suggested such a fence would stop the flow of drugs into the United States.

"Unfortunately, what matters politically is not reality but what people believe the fence is for."

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