An Exercise in Self-Deception

By Massey, Douglas S. | Newsweek International, January 19, 2004 | Go to article overview

An Exercise in Self-Deception


Massey, Douglas S., Newsweek International


Massey is a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University.

The United States wants to have its cake and eat it, too. Since 1986 we have moved in two diametrically opposed directions in our policy toward Mexico. In that year, Mexico responded to pressure from the U.S. Treasury and joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Its leaders then began working closely with U.S. officials to create an integrated North American market, culminating in the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994. That lowered barriers to the cross-border movement of goods, capital, services, raw materials, agricultural products and many kinds of people: investors, students, exchange visitors, corporate employees, tourists. As a result, Mexico is now one of our top trading partners, second only to Canada.

In pursuing the goal of continental economic integration, however, we have sought to exclude workers. We tell ourselves that somehow, magically, we can integrate all markets except one: labor. But the interpersonal, institutional and cultural links that inevitably accompany market integration make international migration more, rather than less, likely.

To maintain the fiction that our borders will miraculously be permeable to all flows except labor, the United States has dramatically increased the size of the Border Patrol, raising its budget and personnel by a factor of six. It is now the largest arms-bearing branch of the federal government except the military itself, though what it defends both north and south is a peaceful border with a friendly neighbor. This exercise in self-deception has been costly. The militarization of the Mexican border did not raise the probability of apprehending undocumented Mexicans, reduce their numbers or induce those in America to go home. Washington is wasting in excess of $3 billion per year in border enforcement that needlessly kills hundreds of migrants annually by driving them into remote sectors where the risks to life and limb are great.

The paradoxical effect of militarizing the border has not been to lower the rate of entry, but to reduce the likelihood of return. Once they have run the gauntlet at the border, Mexicans are loath to do it again, so they hunker down, work hard and arrange for the entry of family members still abroad. As a result, over the past decade the rate of population growth among undocumented Mexicans has exploded. Mexicans now account for more than a third of all foreigners in the United States, up from 22 percent in 1990, and their numbers are growing at a rate of 6 percent per year.

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