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Why Mexican Immigrants Can't Get Ahead

The real wages of Mexicans in the U.S. have declined since 1970, and Princeton sociologists say a “perfect storm” of anti-immigrant laws is to blame.

An annual Christmas pilgrimage used to see perhaps millions of Mexican immigrants, documented or not, return to Mexico from the U.S. for the holidays. But that flow has slowed as the U.S. militarizes its southern border and violence back home reduces the motherland's charms. But the economic charms of working in the U.S. are paling, too.

Among the so-called 99 percent of people in the United States who have not shared in the rising prosperity of recent decades, Mexican immigrants have fared worse than most. While the real wages of other groups have remained fairly stagnant since 1970, studies show that the wages of Mexican-born workers in the United States have actually declined, whether the workers were here legally or not.

A recent report by sociologist Doug Massey and Ph.D. candidate Julia Gelatt of Princeton University reveals that the average wages of Mexican-born immigrants in the U.S., adjusted for inflation, were no higher in 2007, on the eve of the Great Recession, than they were in the early 1960s. Massey says the trend continues today.

In the past, some scholars have attributed the falling wages of Mexicans in the U.S. to a decline in the skill and productivity of successive waves of immigrants. But Massey and Gelatt show that the educational levels of Mexican immigrants here have steadily improved in recent decades. They argue that a “new regime of immigration enforcement” is to blame for the stagnant wages of Mexicans in the U.S., beginning in 1986 with the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act under President Ronald Reagan; and continuing in bipartisan fashion through the administrations of presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. According to new Census data, Hispanics are now the poorest ethnic group in the country.

“Discrimination against a large number of Mexicans is mandated by federal law,” Massey said.

Since the mid-1980s, the Princeton research shows, the budget for the U.S. Border Patrol has increased sevenfold; there are five times as many border agents on the job; and they are spending nine times as many hours patrolling. Yet, paradoxically, rather than keeping undocumented immigrants out, the heightened surveillance keeps them in. What’s more, record numbers of Mexican immigrants are entering the U.S. with temporary visas that restrict their labor rights.

“Never before have so many Mexicans in the United States found themselves in such a vulnerable and exploitable position,” Massey and Gelatt write.

Last year, their research shows, 516,000 Mexicans entered the U.S. with temporary visas, primarily for seasonal farm labor, up from 36,000 in 1996. Some of the workers were using visas issued in earlier years, and some were entering more than once, but the total in 2010 was more than at the height of the Bracero Program in the 1950s. Although current rhetoric may suggest otherwise, nearly 80 percent of all Mexican migrants to the U.S. last year were not undocumented: They came in legally, as guest workers. And they are easy prey, Massey said, because they are not allowed to change jobs or join unions. Those who accept such visas are sometimes paid less than minimum wage, if they are paid at all, he said.

Meanwhile, he said, as the border has become militarized, the rate at which undocumented Mexicans return to their homeland within 12 months after entering the U.S. has dropped from 45 percent in 1986 to 15 percent today. That’s why the undocumented population in the U.S. has swelled to about 11 million, up from 5 million in 1986. Immigrants without papers are effectively marooned north of the border, Massey says; they don’t want to risk leaving because they would have to run a gantlet on their return.

“They really are between a rock and a hard place right now,” he said. “Nobody’s coming in, and the people that remain now are not going to be going back because they have lives here, and jobs, and families. They’re just hunkering down.”

A new report on immigration by the National Research Council of the National Academies cites the same phenomenon, noting that undocumented Mexicans who make it to the U.S. these days are reluctant to return even for short visits because they would risk losing their foothold in the U.S. economy.

“This ‘caging effect’ of tougher enforcement on return migration is one of the most notable consequences of the immigration enforcement build-up since 1993, accounting for a significant portion of the growth in the stock of undocumented Mexicans during this period,” the report states.

Based on data from the U.S. Census and the American Community Survey, the Princeton research shows that between 1950 and 1970 — a more welcoming era for immigrants in the U.S. — the average hourly wages of Mexican-born workers rose in tandem with the wages of native-born whites and Mexican Americans, though immigrant wages were lower overall. But from 1970 to 1990, it shows, the wages of native-born Mexicans in the U.S. dropped to early 1960s levels (about $15 per hour in today’s dollars), and have been stuck there ever since. By contrast, the average wages of native-born whites and Mexican Americans increased steadily overall after 1950, to an average $27 and $26 per hour in 2007, respectively. (The averages include all workers, from minimum-wage earners to well-paid CEOs.)

The 1986 immigration act allowed 3 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to legalize their status. But for the first time under the law, employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers faced the threat of fines and jail time. In response, Massey said, some employers stopped hiring anyone who looked like a Latino, even if applicants had proper papers. Many other employers, he said, turned to subcontractors to shield themselves from sanctions; and indirect hiring became the norm. Subcontractors take a cut of the total wage bill for their services, deducting a share that otherwise would go to the workers, including those who are here legally.

“With a large share of workers lacking rights and being so exploitable,” Massey said, “all wages are driven downward, legal and illegal, because all workers must compete with the cheapest and most vulnerable workers.”

To get a closer look at the experience of legal Mexican workers in the U.S., Massey and Princeton Ph.D. candidate Kerstin Gentsch studied a sample of 1,600 Mexican-born immigrants who were surveyed as part of Princeton’s Mexican Migration Project, a binational research effort that Massey co-directs. Those surveyed had made at least one trip legally to the U.S. during the past 15 years. Surprisingly, the sociologists found, the advantages that had traditionally helped legal immigrants get ahead in the workplace — longer time in the U.S., more years of schooling, and better English skills – did not translate into higher wages after 1996, on average.

In 1996, Congress funded the hiring of thousands of new Border Patrol agents and authorized the construction of an extended border fence. Other new laws made all immigrants subject to immediate deportation if they had ever entered the country illegally or committed a crime.

The crackdown in deportations in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks plays a role, too, according to Massey and his colleagues. By 2008, they note, deportations had soared to 349,000, or 32 times their 1986 level. In the 2011 fiscal year, a record 397,000 immigrants were deported, half of them for committing a crime.

“Rising levels of discrimination and exclusion directed against Mexicans, along with a militarized border that prompted immigrants to stay rather than return, created a perfect storm for wage depression among Mexican workers in the United States,” Massey and Gelatt concluded.

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