Every day Mexican migrants illegally cross the border into the United States. Many more are prevented from crossing, only to try again another day. This wave of migration from Mexico has been going on for decades and is an issue of great controversy in the United States. Politicians regularly argue about it, and some make immigration reform one of their rallying cries. In recent years the United States even has gone so far as to build a wall along the 2,000-mile United States-Mexico border to deter illegal migrants.
“Mexican migration to the United States is the longest sustained movement of people between two nations,” says Filiz Garip, Sociology. “It’s always interested me because it has been going on so long, and the two countries have such a big difference historically in their economic prospects. I’ve wondered what changes have gone on in the migration patterns over the years. Who is migrating across that border, and why?”
Who’s on the Move?
For years the general belief has been that most Mexican migrants are poor men from a rural background with little education. This stereotype was built on the most common sociological methodologies that depend on looking for general patterns in data and identifying what a typical case looks like, says Garip. “This was our impression of Mexican migrants, which I think is still sustained today. We think they are not as educated as other groups coming to the United States. But if you’re looking at the typical case, you’re missing the heterogeneity in the population.”
Garip recently took a new approach to analyzing the largest data set available on Mexican migrants, which covers more than 50 years. Her surprising findings are detailed in her new book, On the Move: Changing Mechanisms of Mexico-U.S. Migration (Princeton University Press, 2016).
“I began by asking, ‘What if there are different groups of migrants?’” Garip explains. “There may be people who fit the stereotypical profile, and they may make up the largest group, but what if there are other groups that could be equally as important?”
The Analysis, First-Time Migrants
To pursue her research questions, Garip turned to cluster analysis—a type of pattern recognition used in computer science that tries to find groups within larger data—and combined it with one-on-one interviews in the field. She focused on first-time migrants. “There’s something very specific about migrating for the first time,” she says. “You can migrate many times and your reasons may change over time, but that first time, there was something very compelling that made you take that leap and decide to go.”
“There’s something very specific about migrating for the first time.…You can migrate many times and your reasons may change over time, but that first time, there was something very compelling that made you take that leap and decide to go.”
Garip looked at data from 20,000 Mexican migrants who had first crossed the border sometime in the last 50 years. She discovered there were four very distinct groups represented. Members of these groups were present to some degree throughout the years, but they clustered in higher amounts in certain time periods.
First, in the 1960s and 1970s, the stereotypical migrants were most common: very poor, uneducated male farm laborers from rural, disadvantaged communities. In the 1980s a second group became prominent: teenage boys between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, also from rural areas but from middle or upper middle-class families. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the emergence of a third group comprised of mostly women, generally older than the men, with close family connections to migrants already in the United States. From the 2000s onward, people from urban areas with a high school or post-high school education began to dominate.
What’s Pushing the Migrant?
“For each group I looked to see what was going on in the two countries during the time they were dominant,” Garip says, “to see if different reasons could be driving different groups of people.” She found that, indeed, a different economic factor pushed individuals in each of the groups to migrate. For the poor, uneducated men, higher wages in the United States were a big draw. The impetus for the migration of the teenage boys, on the other hand, came from a series of economic crises in Mexico in the 1980s, during which the poverty rate tripled and families were forced to send their youngest sons to the United States to find work.
The big jump in older women coincided with the United States Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Among other things, that act gave amnesty to certain undocumented migrants who were then able to bring their family members over, so the women came to join their fathers, brothers, or husbands. The current dominant group of better-educated urban workers is tied to increasing trade relations between the two countries and the resultant economic pressures in the Mexican border states.
“The main takeaway point is that when we think of migrants, it’s not helpful to think about them as one giant group, even if they’re all from the same country or region,” Garip says. “People are diverse in their motivations, and different events trigger the movement of different types of people.”
Motivation and Deterrence
It’s also true that what deters one group of people from migrating may have no effect on another group. This is important to take into account when setting policies, Garip says. For instance, the group of poor, uneducated migrants who were attracted to the United States because of higher wages became deterred from crossing the border when the crossing became more difficult. If they managed to cross, they risked being trapped in the United States for years, cut off from their families. So many chose to stop making the crossing.
The teenage boys had no such conundrum. “As single, unattached people they weren’t as concerned about how long they had to stay in the U.S.,” Garip says. “And they were willing to try three, four, however many times it took to get across the border. So you deter one group with border enforcement, but you don’t deter the other one.”
After years of massive Mexican migration to the United States, the numbers are now dropping across all four groups. Falling birth rates and a rising economy in Mexico mean that fewer people are pushed to cross the border.
Garip’s findings are applicable to new waves of migration throughout the world, especially in light of climate change. “We need to be ready to face new reasons for migration, including these dire environmental changes of the future. There will be many environmental migrants. What are we going to do about that? How are we going to treat those people? Migration is not going away.”