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Migrants From Mexico Still Coming--and Staying

July 03, 1988|Wayne A. Cornelius | Wayne A. Cornelius is director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, UC San Diego

SAN DIEGO — The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act is not deterring the arrival of new migrants from Mexico and Central America, according to evidence from both sides of the border. The UC San Diego Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies conducted a year of detailed field interviews in three Southern California counties, including 100 employers, more than 420 workers and 150 recently arrived, undocumented immigrants. Meanwhile, Immigration and Naturalization Service apprehension statistics and systematic observation of illegal entrants by researchers at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana support our findings.

Last month, center representatives visited three Mexican communities that have traditionally sent large numbers of migrant workers to the United States. They were virtual ghost towns. Residents reported more migration to the United States in 1988 than in any previous year. The initial period of fear, uncertainty and confusion about the 1986 law has ended.

Those who delayed migration during 1987 are now coming, having observed that work is still available in the United States--even for new arrivals lacking papers. There have been no mass layoffs of undocumented workers by employers, and no mass roundups and deportations by the INS. These facts are now common knowledge in the communities from which migrants come.

Of the recently arrived undocumented migrants we interviewed--mostly at street corners and public parks--nearly two-thirds were in the United States for the first time. Half of them knew about the employer sanctions provision of the 1986 Simpson-Rodino law. Many of them were having a difficult time finding regular, permanent jobs. They were relying on casual day-labor to survive, but they were not deterred by the new law .

More than half the recent arrivals had come from parts of Mexico that are not traditional sending areas, including Mexico City; in fact, 20% of them came from the Mexico City metropolitan area. The traditional points of origin haven't dropped out of the flow, but new sending areas are being added as Mexico's economic crisis continues. Many rural Mexicans would once have migrated to cities within their own country but the crisis has largely eliminated the internal option.

Yet the law does seem to be deterring undocumented workers already employed from returning to their places of origin. The employer-sanctions provision, coupled with stepped-up border enforcement, is causing some first-time migrants to stay longer than planned. The traditional "shuttle" migration--for periods of six to 18 months of work in the United States--is becoming a luxury many migrants can no longer afford. Some of them fall into a debt trap, having borrowed from U.S.-based family and friends in order to support themselves, and being unable to return home until they earn enough money to pay off their debts. To the extent that employer sanctions have made it more difficult for some types of undocumented migrants to find steady work, the 1986 law may be keeping the most recent wave of migrants here longer . It is also inducing more migrants to settle permanently in the United States.

A key assumption of the 1986 law holds that employer sanctions will dry up employment opportunities for immigrants who failed to be legalized, thereby inducing their return to countries of origin. This is not yet happening, partly because the supply of jobs has not dried up and partly because even when it is somewhat harder to find jobs, most undocumented migrants are determined to ride it out. Only 15% of our interviewees were considering leaving because of the immigration law. Most say they will remain indefinitely, or until they "get kicked out" or make enough money to take home.

Some undocumented workers who did not qualify or failed to apply for amnesty feel trapped in their current jobs--however dissatisfied they may be with pay and working conditions--because they are likely to have to produce papers for any new employer. Nearly half of the undocumented workers we interviewed thought it would be harder to find another job comparable to the current one if they tried to switch. In fact, if they were employed in their current jobs before Nov. 6, 1986, they are "grandfathered in": Employers are not required to dismiss anyone on the payroll before that date, with or without legal-residence papers. But if an undocumented worker should try to change employers now, or if he returns to Mexico for a sojourn, he loses privileged "grandfathered" status.

Simultaneously, the cost, difficulty and danger of crossing the border without papers has increased significantly in recent years as a result of a steady buildup in Border Patrol capabilities. Thus, while the law is not discouraging new migration, it is making some Mexicans already in this country much more reluctant to leave, for fear that they will find it too difficult to come back, or to find regular employment here again.

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