The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hosted a panel discussion in early February centering on current and historic immigration from Mexico as well as U.S. policy approaches. The discussion, “Understanding Immigration: How Can the U.S. Achieve a Fair, Human Policy for Accepting and Integrating Immigrants,” explored the trends, perceptions and realities of Mexican and other immigrants as well as American attitudes toward immigrants.
Sponsored by MIT’s Mens et Manus, an initiative focused on promoting discussion around the nation’s most pressing social, political and economic challenges, the focus on immigration comes as elected officials work to revamp the system almost entirely. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program comes in at the top of the list of immigration priorities with its scheduled end only a few weeks away. Other components of the immigration system– everything from family-based migration to finding the right balance in the allocation of work visas– are also in the legislative queue.
Sociologists Douglas Massey of Princeton University and Mary Waters of Harvard University headlined the panel. According to MIT News, the academics offered plenty of criticism around U.S. immigration policy, describing it as misguided, ill-timed and poorly understood.
“For me, watching immigration policy unfold over the last decades has been like watching a slow-moving train wreck,” Massey told the audience. “The great irony is that [the United States] spent $35 billion to try to stop the flow from Mexico that would have stopped of its own accord,” he said as he discussed the leveling off of Mexican immigration over the past decade.
In the 1960’s, politicians’ desire to avoid accusations of racism, Massey said, rules around immigration from Mexico changed to more closely reflect immigration rules for Western European countries. Previously, migrant farm workers from Mexico came into the United States resided in the country only at harvest or in other times of heavy agricultural need.
What’s more, Massey said the change in policy meant Mexican laborers who still needed to work came into the country without documentation. With this, U.S. officials responded with increased enforcement and more apprehensions, “which increased the impression among Americans that there was a problem– even though entries from Mexico leveled off after 1979,” MIT News reports.
As the costs and risk of crossing the border into the United States escalated, Mexicans began avoiding the illegal border crossings. “The border enforcement backfired,” Massey said. Mexicans avoided border enforcement “not by staying in Mexico, but by not leaving the United States.”
For her part, Waters told the audience that immigrants and their children represent one out of every four U.S. residents, and that immigration itself is an “engine of our success as a society.”
Where assimilation is concerned, Waters again gives immigrants high marks and cited research establishing that immigrants– even those who are undocumented– integrate well and quickly into American culture.
Similar to Massey, Waters also noted the high cost associated with immigration enforcement. She told the audience the expense is more each year than the combined amount spent on the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Secret Service.
“Most Americans don’t know the level to which we’re acting like a police state,” she said.