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Why Border Enforcement Backfired

On Friday, October 20th, we attended a program at the City Club of Cleveland titled simply, "Why Border Enforcement Backfired" in which Professor Douglas S. Massey, the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University made a more than convincing case as to why this is true by reviewing the history of undocumented immigration to the United States, namely from Mexico and other Hispanic countries, in the years after World War II to the present time.

He set the tone for his talk by demonstrating that in the early 1950's "Operation Wetback", contrary to the popular belief of many, was not a big success but what instead stemmed the flow of undocumented immigrants at that time was the expansion of temporary worker visas. This was an excellent example of how "get-tough" efforts don't often work but sensible, humanitarian-oriented actions often do.

He then moved on to discuss the time period of the mid-1960's when the "Bracero Program" was terminated and U.S. Immigration Reform was passed which placed limits on the amount of immigrants allowed to enter the United States from each country; obviously this created a problem since the amount of 500,000 people annually entering the U.S. from Mexico was then legally reduced to only 20,000 in spite of the need and demand for workers. Of course this didn't actually change the number of people coming to the United States-they just had to do it in an undocumented fashion.

Professor Massey discussed the up-and-down trends of undocumented people entering the U.S. between the mid-1960's until current times and the expensive efforts to attempt to stop them which became more intense after President Reagan issued the "Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986" leading to the launching of ambitious efforts like "Operation Blockade" and "Operation Gatekeeper" that didn't succeed as planned because they focused on particular areas of entry like San Diego and El Paso resulting in those who wished to cross the border choosing other points of entry often through the Arizona desert and relying more on "coyotes" aka "border smugglers" to get them here. As for efforts to apprehend them by the border patrol, these were largely futile.

An unintended effect of increasing border militarization was, due to the increased hazards of border crossing as well as expensive fees charged by the smugglers, the undocumented decided not to travel back-and-forth across the U.S./Mexican border but to remain in the United States permanently often sending for their families to join them.

Eventually however, as we know, the number of undocumented people crossing the border did radically drop but that seems to have had more to do with the aging population of Mexico (crossing the border through the desert tends to be a young person's inclination) and increased economic opportunities in Mexico making the risky venture unnecessary.

A slide displayed by Prof. Massey summed up the conclusions that we can draw from the 1986-2010 border militarization that cost $34.6 billion:

****Transformed what had been a circular flow of male workers going to three states into a settled population of families living in 50 states

****Reduced out migration while leaving in-migration unchanged to double the net rate of undocumented migration and population growth

****Created a population of 11 million undocumented U.S. residents: 60% of Mexican immigrants and two-thirds of all Central American immigrants

****All attempting to end an undocumented flow that would have ended of its own accord after 2000.

Of course, the issue of the proposed U.S./Mexican border wall came up and during the Q and A it was pointed out by Mr. Bill McLaughlin, a consistent City Club attendee, that an undisputedly good argument it is that many undocumented people living in the United States simply came here via a visa and remained here after the visa expired so, obviously, a wall would not have kept them out.

Prior to the start of the program, Mr. Dan Moulthrop, City Club President and CEO, announced from the podium that he would let us ask the first question because we were "sitting front and center" with our notebook out raring to go. Actually we found out later that Mr. Rick Taft, a frequent City Club goer, had urged Mr. Moulthrop to let us go first.

Accordingly, we used our moment to ask Professor Massey about his ideas for constructive immigration reform for the United States. Among the suggestions he made was that people who should be strongly considered for permanent residency and eventual citizenship are those whose "H" visas are due to expire. Regarding the DACA kids, he was of the opinion that they should be issued green cards and that their parents be granted some sort of residency because the spliting up of families did not say much for the "moral character" of the United States. He went on to share with us his knowledge about U.S. born children who have had to leave the U.S. with their parents because the latter were undocumented; we thus learned that they often have a very difficult time culturally adjusting to their new homes and the effects are often traumatic.

Subsequently, he talked about the negative psychological climate about immigrants/refugees that has at least fostered by the Trump administration. Professor Massey said that he did not know what the future holds but he has noticed that international students who would have been inclined to explore the possibility of remaining in the United States after graduation no longer wish to do so due to the current hostility about immigrants and this is our loss because they have the potential to contribute a lot. He also took a question from Ms. Catherine Smith from the "Cleveland Transformation Alliance" who asked about the system initiated by "Global Cleveland" wherein people who have immigrated to the United States work with newly arrived internationals to help them to achieve citizenship status. Professor Massey agreed that such efforts have proved very effective.

We really liked Prof. Massey and the values he professed. During his introduction, Mr. Moulthrop said that "throughout his career, his research focused on international migration, race and housing, discrimination, education, urban poverty, Latin America, especially Mexico. The thread running through these topics is his deep concern for social equality."


Michael Patterson

Community Liaison,

Margaret W. Wong & Assoc. Co., LLC



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