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.

| November/December 1979

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

  • ecoscience-mexican-immigration-ehrlichs.jpg

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.


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