Ecoscience: Mexican Immigration to the U.S.

Contrary to the prevailing media picture, Mexican immigration to the U.S. has not harmed and is in no way a threat to the economy.


Anne and Paul Ehrlich contend that on closer inspection, the U.S. economy hasn't suffered as a result of Mexican immigration.


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Over the past decade, the vast majority of Americans have become aware that population growth is no longer a blessing. In fact, most people seem to have accepted the conclusion—reached by the U.S. Commission on Population Growth and the American Future—that the nation has nothing to gain from an increase in the number of its inhabitants. One sign of the acceptance of this fact can be seen in the dramatic change in this nation's childbearing habits. Between 1960 and the early 1970's, completed family size dropped from about three children per couple to approximately two children.

A great many citizens rightly view the modification of our national reproductive habits as an investment in the future, and see themselves as exchanging the pleasures of a larger family for the knowledge that the few children they do have will stand a better

chance for a high-quality life. If the typical family's size remains close to what it is now, births and deaths will be balanced by around 2020 and natural population increase will end.

Mexican Immigration: A New Threat?

But population growth can also be caused by migration. Therefore, It's not surprising that—since the mid-1970's—there has been an increase in public concern about the pattern of immigration to the United States, especially about the numbers of immigrants coming into this country from Mexico. People have begun to receive the impression (advanced by the media) that we're about to be swamped by a brown-skinned horde from south-of-the-border. And that these illegal immigrants are taking jobs from Americans and worsening our employment problem, draining our welfare system, filling up taxpayer-supported schools with their children, and sending huge amounts of money back to their homeland, affecting America's balance of payments.

All of these notions can be traced in large part to the statements of General Leonard F. Chapman, Jr.—who served as Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) during the mid-70's—to the effect that there were some eight million Illegal immigrants already in the United States, and that thousands more were entering every day. According to a 1975 INS press release, "Studies done for the INS indicate illegal aliens cost taxpayers $13 billion or more annually...." Superficially—with over 800,000 illegals apprehended in 1975 alone (the vast majority of them from Mexico)—the concern seems justified, and people like Professor Garrett Hardin of the University of California, Santa Barbara—who realize that this country is already over-populated—see in this illegal flow the potential undoing of the good that's been accomplished by the dramatic plunge in the American birthrate.

Since we, too, are concerned with the problem of overpopulation, we began to study the migration from Mexico about two years ago. Working with Professor Loy Bilderback (of the Department of History, California State University at Fresno), we interviewed illegal immigrants, members of the Border Patrol, government officials, and academicians in both the United States and Mexico. We dug through official documents and looked at historical, cultural, and economic factors—operating on both sides of the border—that influence the flow of migrants. In addition, we studied human migration in general, in both its historic and its contemporary forms. As could probably have been predicted, we found the problems associated with illegal Mexican immigration to be astonishingly complex, and the "facts" and impressions given in the popular media to be seriously misleading.

The Facts Behind the Figures

For example, the press regularly quotes estimates of this country's illegal alien population of between 8 and 12 million. It's further asserted by the United States media that this figure is growing by at least 800,000 individuals per year, a statistic based on the official number of illegal aliens apprehended by the Border Patrol in each of the last few years. Also, the impression given in the press is that these immigrants have come to stay and that the "pool" is rapidly growing.

However, the information we were able to gather indicates that, while a very large portion of the illegal immigrants are indeed from Mexico, most of them are temporary residents; the large number of people apprehended at the border is not a reasonable measure of the increase in the "stock" of illegal aliens in this country.

In fact, such figures can't be counted on to provide any real reference to the scope of our illegal immigration "problem" for several reasons.

First of all, at least 80% of our Border Patrol is concentrated along the Mexican border. Therefore it's hardly surprising that most of the illegal aliens apprehended are Mexicans.

In addition, the INS runs what is essentially a "revolving door" along the southern border. Illegals are quickly expelled, and just as quickly return. It's quite possible for the same person to be apprehended and expelled three or four times in one week; one individual in Texas reportedly was caught five times in one day! Thus, a figure of 800,000 apprehensions in a year certainly can't be assumed to represent the number of individuals involved.

Furthermore, the total number of apprehensions tells us very little about the aliens who aren't caught. Some people assume that, if 800,000 are being detected, an even larger number must be getting through. Others argue that—since so many aliens are being apprehended—the Border Patrol must be stopping most of those who try to enter the country.

Finally, of course, the number of apprehensions tells us nothing about the reverse flow. After all, if 800,000 Mexicans were entering the country illegally each year at the same time that 900,000 were returning home, then the total number of non-citizens would be declining.

The most careful study—at least at this time—of the number of illegal residents in the United States compares various groups of government census and labor statistics, some of which would be expected to include most illegals and some to exclude them. The resulting estimate is of an unregistered alien population of about four million, which is one-half to one-third of the numbers most frequently heard previously. At the moment, this seems to be about the best available figure, but it doesn't amount to much more than an informed guess.

Temporary Employment

Another factor that's not often considered is the possibility that illegals are here only temporarily, expecting to make some money and then return to their homeland. Studies that have been done in Mexico—and interviews with Mexicans who are in the U.S. illegally—seem to confirm this possibility. They indicate that the vast majority will return home after a period in the U.S., perhaps to cross back again later when the accumulated money has been used up. Furthermore, these studies and interviews generally reveal that most Mexican illegals living here would prefer to stay in Mexico if they could make anything resembling a decent wage there.

Propaganda to the contrary, it's also apparent that the Mexican illegals are an economic plus for the United States. The schizophrenic claims of bigots (on one hand, illegals are said to work so hard that they displace native labor, and—on the other—are referred to as welfare bums) are utterly unsupported. There are many reasons to believe that very few American citizens are unemployed because Mexican laborers have taken jobs that otherwise would be open. It's also clear that illegals pay (through taxes, social security deductions, and workman's compensation payments) for a wide variety of services of which they only rarely take advantage.

A substantial portion of the current concern over illegal Mexican immigration seems to be just one more resurgence of the Leyenda Negra, an ancient northern European prejudice against Hispanics that can be traced back to English horror stories about the conquistadores and the Spanish Inquisition. Such prejudices have a rich history in the U.S. too, rooted in a misunderstanding of Mexican culture and in good old American xenophobia.

Few Americans seem to realize that much of the southwestern U.S. was taken from Mexico in a war of conquest, or that the Hispanic community was already in place when—in 1848—the U.S. annexed more than half of Mexico's territory through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the U.S.-Mexican War. American history courses rarely point out that the rights of the Mexicans living in the newly annexed territory were systematically denied them, even though those rights had been guaranteed by the Treaty.

Last-Resort Labor

As one famous student of the subject put it, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo "left the toilers on one side of the border and the best land and the capital on the other." Ever since modern agriculture and mining began to be developed in the Southwest, our country has exploited these "toilers" as a labor pool of last resort. They've been welcomed when their help was needed and expelled as shiftless "greasers" and welfare bums when they were no longer wanted.

It's obvious that anti-Hispanic prejudice is involved when the Mexican immigration situation is contrasted with our attitudes toward immigrants from Canada. Historically, the influx of people from the north has placed a far greater population pressure on the United States than has the movement from Mexico but we don't hear about a "Canuck" menace, and there's no call for fences along the Canadian border or for a beefed-up northern Border Patrol. (After all, less than a fifth of our border agents are stationed there!)

In a future column we will attempt to evaluate the current status and impact of Mexican illegals in the United States, take a look in our cracked and clouded crystal ball to see what the future may hold, and recommend some steps that might be taken toward a humane and rational solution to this "problem" as well as to a number of related problems of international migration.

A detailed discussion of the movements of people between nations—with special emphasis on Mexican-American relations—can be found in The Golden Door: International Migration, Mexico and the United States, by Paul R. Ehrlich, Loy Bilderback, and Anne H. Ehrlich (Ballantine, 1979. hard cover, $12.95).