August 12, 2005


Common Misconceptions Underlying U.S. Border-Enforcement Policy

By Douglas S. Massey, Ph.D.

The current crisis of undocumented immigration to the United States has its roots in fundamental misunderstandings about the causes of immigration and the motivations of immigrants. A growing body of evidence indicates that current border-enforcement policies are based on mistaken assumptions and have failed. Undocumented migrants continue to come to the United States, rates of apprehension are at all-time lows, and migrants are settling in the United States at higher rates than ever before. Developing effective and realistic immigration policies requires overcoming five basic myths about immigration:

MYTH 1. Migration is Caused by Lack of Economic Development in Migrants Home Countries

- International migrants do not originate in the worlds poorest nations, but in those that are developing and growing dynamically. The largest single source of U.S. immigrants, Mexico, is not a poor nation by global standards. Mexico has a one-trillion dollar economy, a per capita income of almost $9,000 (compared to $9,700 in Russia), a fully industrialized economy, a high level of urbanization, and an advanced life expectancy.

MYTH 2. Migration is Caused by Rapid Population Growth in Migrants Home Countries

- The fertility rate in Mexico is about 2.3 children per woman, which is only slightly above replacement level. The highest fertility levels are generally observed in the Arab world and Sub-Saharan Africa, but these regions contribute few migrants to global streams.

MYTH 3. Migrants Move Mainly in Response to Differences in Wages

- Households use international migration as a tool to overcome failed or missing markets for insurance, capital, and credit at home. For example, because Mexico has virtually no mortgage banking industry, a large share of the money earned by Mexican immigrants in the United States is channeled into the construction or purchase of homes in Mexico.

MYTH 4. Migrants Are Attracted to the United States by Generous Public Benefits

- Immigrants are less likely than natives to use public services. While 66 percent of Mexican immigrants report the withholding of Social Security taxes from their paychecks and 62 percent say that employers withhold income taxes, only 10 percent say they have ever sent a child to U.S. public schools, 7 percent indicate they have received Supplemental Security Income, and 5 percent or less report ever using food stamps, welfare, or unemployment compensation.

MYTH 5. Most Immigrants Intend to Settle Permanently in the United States

- Mexico-U.S. migration has historically been circular: 80 percent of Mexican immigrants report that they made no more than three trips to the United States and three quarters stayed less than two years.

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