“The era of great Mexican migration is probably over”

A long profile of a Mexican family who moved to Chicago and then recently moved back to Mexico contains some consequential big-picture information on migration: the flood of Mexican immigrants into the United States in recent decades is “probably over.”

With opportunities limited by a still-struggling economy, the historic wave of Mexican immigration appears to have reversed after decades of growth that transformed the U.S., according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonprofit research group.

With the change of direction that may again reshape communities in both countries, about 1.4 million Mexican immigrants in the U.S. returned home from 2005 to 2010, most voluntarily, the center reported last spring. That number, which also includes deportations, is roughly double the number of Mexicans who left the U.S. between 1995 and 2000.

“I believe the era of great Mexican migration is probably over,” said Allert Brown-Gort, a fellow at Notre Dame University’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies who has written extensively about Latin American immigration in the Midwest.

With jobs lacking, “slowly but surely your options start getting cut down,” Brown-Gort said. “What’s going to happen in Chicago if these workers go back, to the extent that they’re younger workers, is that it will be taking a wedge out of certain areas of the economy.”

This is a trend that has long-term implications for the United States. From the mid-1960s until the late 2000s, the United States experienced a large influx of immigrants. One way to measure this is to look at the foreign-born population in the United States which increased from 9.6 million in 1970 (4.7% of the total population) to almost 40 million in 2010 (12.9% of the total population). This flood of immigrants from Mexico and other countries led to opportunities, like new workers and population growth in cities and states that would not have had much otherwise, and new concerns. As suggested, we may look back at recent decades and see it as “the era of great Mexican migration.” Not having as many immigrants in the coming years will certainly lead to changes.

This also reminds me of the final pages of a recent book I just read: The Revenge of Geography by Robert Kaplan. After spending most of the book looking at pivotal regions of the world where a variety of civilizations and cultures have and will meet (Eastern Europe, the steppes of Russia, central China, northern India, Iran, etc.), Kaplan turns to the United States which has generally avoided such interaction by virtue of being across two oceans. Yet, Kaplan suggests while the United States has spent much of recent decades working on foreign policy concerns in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, it should pay more attention to its relationship with Mexico. In particular, Kaplan argues the American Southwest and northern Mexico could have a very productive relationship moving forward as they share a number of economic, social, and cultural concerns.

Implications of “illegal immigration hits net-zero”

Here is another consequence of the American economic crisis: the flow of undocumented immigrants to the United States has hit “net-zero.”

One million Mexicans said they returned from the US between 2005 and 2010, according to a new demographic study of Mexican census data. That’s three times the number who said they’d returned in the previous five-year period.

And they aren’t just home for a visit: One prominent sociologist in the US has counted “net zero” migration for the first time since the 1960s.

Experts say the implications for both nations are enormous – from the draining of a labor pool in the US to the need for a radical shift in policies in Mexico, which has long depended on the billions of dollars in migrant remittances as a social welfare cornerstone.

“The massive return of migrants will have implications at the micro and macro economic levels and will have consequences for the social fabric … especially for the structure of the Mexican family,” says Rodolfo Casillas, a migration expert at the Latin American School of Social Sciences in Mexico City.

Sociologist Douglas Massey provides more details about what has happened:

The migration explosion that since the 1970s had pushed millions of men, women, and children into the United States has fizzled, says Douglas Massey, a sociologist at Princeton University and codirector of the long-term, binational Mexican Migration Project. “We’re at a turning point, and what unfolds in the future remains to be seen. But I think the boom is over.”

Mr. Massey’s research shows that after the US recession hit, the illegal population fell from about 12 million to 11 million, where it has hovered since 2009. (About 60 percent of the illegal population is Mexican.)

Similarly, Homeland Security estimates released in March suggest that while the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the US grew 36 percent between 2000 and 2011, from 8.5 million to 11.5 million, that growth plateaued in 2010 and 2011.

“With no change in either direction, we’re roughly at a net zero,” says Massey, and adds that it’s something unseen since the late 1950s.

This bears watching. Now that I think about it, we have heard little about this topic on a national scale in recent months. Do the majority of Americans only care about this issue under certain circumstances? Thinking more broadly, does American news coverage focus on only a narrow set of issues (such as jobs, political responses and approval ratings, spending vs. accumulating debt, possible solutions) during an economic crisis rather than looking at the broad range of social spheres, including the relationships between the United States and other countries, affected by a downturn?

Picking the white doll or black doll in Mexico

The Mexican government has started a conversation about racism based on a video that shows an experiment where children have to pick between a black and white doll:

Is Mexico’s an inherently racist society? Does the culture overwhelmingly favor those with light skin over those with dark skin? And if so, is that a legacy of European colonialism or present-day images in television and advertising?

These are among the thorny questions emerging in online forums in Mexico since a government agency began circulating a “viral video” showing schoolchildren in a taped social experiment on race.

The kids are seated at a table before a white doll and a black doll, and are asked to pick the “good doll” or the doll that most resembled them. The children, mostly brown-skinned, almost uniformly say the white doll was better or most resembled them…

Mexico’s National Council to Prevent Discrimination, or Conapred, in mid-December began circulating the video, modeled on the 1940s Clark experiments in the United States. The children who appear in it are mostly mestizos, or half-Spanish, half-Indian, and a message said they were taped with the consent of their parents and told to respond as freely as they could.

See the full video here.

This reminds of Jane Elliott’s famous blue-eyed, brown-eyed experiment with a third-grade class (highlights here). One of the most powerful parts of this exercise is the fact that these are supposedly innocent children who are quite capable of reflecting the racist attitudes of society. Similarly, the doll video suggests that even young children know full well about race and what skin color is valued more.

I can only imagine the outcry if a US government agency released a video like this…

Sociologist predicts shift in American unskilled, immigrant laborers: they will come from China rather than Mexico

While the economic downturn has reduced the interest in immigration reform, a sociologist suggests a new trend in the immigrant unskilled labor force in America: in the future, such laborers will come from China rather than Mexico.

Q: Why might Chinese immigrants overtake Mexican immigrants in low-wage, unskilled jobs here?

A: Mexico for decades has supplied our country with low-wage laborers, legal and illegal, but that’s grinding to a halt. Increased border surveillance and high unemployment are keeping people away from the United States. Other things are holding people in Mexico. They have a lower unemployment rate than we do. And what a lot of people don’t realize is that their fertility is dropping to 2.2 children per woman. It used to be six or seven children a few decades ago. There are fewer young people available (to take jobs), and fewer mouths to feed. There are about 4 million or 5 million undocumented Mexican immigrants in our country (and about 11 million illegal immigrants total). They pick up garbage, work construction, agriculture – all the things in big cities that the local people don’t want to do. Who’s going to do that work? There’s already a network of migration from China to our country; probably 200,000 to 300,000 undocumented Chinese are here. They’re mainly on the East Coast, in Houston and Los Angeles. They’re mainly doing restaurant work. Undocumented Mexicans are much more visible.

Q: Why would they leave China for the United States?

A: You have all of these rural-to-urban migrants inside China who are essentially driving the Chinese economy, doing all the work in the big cities, doing all the construction, the nanny work, the low-level jobs. They’re not going to do that forever. The economy is starting to slow down in China. The first people to lose their jobs will be these rural-to-urban migrants. In China, to move from one place to another, you have to get permission at both ends. That never happens, so people move unofficially. There are already 10 million unemployed rural-to-urban migrants. There’s already a China-to-U.S. network of undocumented migrants.

Several pieces of this argument strikes me:

1. The Chinese economy slows down. This would be a big issue for the global economy. Would there even be much of a flow of people round the globe if this happens?

2. The urbanization process in China may only be picking up steam. Here is a 2009 report from the McKinsey Global Institute on the topic. Is China prepared for this?

3. Mexican laborers are finding it harder to come to the United States and have more reasons for staying in Mexico. Does this mean that the debate over immigration from Mexico is essentially over?

4. If this shift does happen, would the immigration debate simply turn to China and away from Mexico? If so, what might be the implications of this for the US-China relationship?

Quick Review: Stellet Licht/Silent Light

(This is a guest post written by Robert Brenneman, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont. His book Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America (Oxford University Press) will be released in October.)

A well-regarded sociologist who studies Latin America and publishes regularly in the area of theory and qualitative methods recently recommended that I watch the film “Stellet Licht” / “Silent Light” (2007). The film takes an existential approach to explore the tension between morality and desire in a conservative community of Mennonites in rural Mexico. I had not heard of the film until David Smilde recommended it to me, and so I was delighted to see that Netflix has made it available by streaming. I had high hopes. Smilde shows the film to his students in social theory at the University of Georgia and I am always on the lookout for films that both inspire and instruct students. Alas, watching the film was a disappointment to me as a Mennonite and as a sociologist.

First, the good. Mexican film-maker Carlos Reygadas is both talented and gutsy. Both the decision to write a film about Mexican Mennonites and his insistence that the film not rush its characters or its story paid big dividends in the realm of cinematic beauty, if not at the box office. A New York Times reviewer rightly raves about the opening scene, which gives a powerful sense of both the visual and aural beauty that surrounds–no, engulfs–the Canadian Mennonites who moved to this region in the 1940s in search of religious freedom and the right to educate their children in non-state, German-speaking schools. Reygadas shows us some of the power and the glory of rural Mexico in this story of piety and pleasure. But unlike the rural Mexican “whiskey priest” in Graham Greene’s classic novel, Reygadas’s protagonist is neither compelling nor instructive. That is not a criticism of Cornelio Wall Fehr’s portrayal of Johan, the Mennonite father torn between his love for his family and his desire to be with his mistress Marianne. In fact, most of the actors carry out their roles with impressive ability and subtle grace. Opting to fill the major roles with Canadian Mennonites, not professional actors, was another bold move, and one that allowed Reygadas to film almost entirely in the same low German dialect spoken by the Mexican Mennonite communities themselves. Indeed, when the attention is on the actors, it’s easy to forget that the film was shot on-site in Chihuauhua, Mexico.

The problem here is not in the direction, which is unusually bold and beautiful, incorporating long, still shots and unconventional camerawork to patiently unfold the narrative, but rather with the story itself. Reygadas does not understand the community he has entered and wishes to narrate. I do not make this accusation lightly nor out of a suspicion that the director/writer had some sort of voyeuristic desire to expose or profit from a tightly-knit, little-understood community. In fact, I think Reygadas does the best he can to develop his characters as individuals. But ultimately, the story fails because the lives led by these individuals make little sense absent the backdrop of a tightly-knit community that holds to a particular religious narrative–one that derives ultimate meaning from submission to God and to the community of faith. Mennonites (whether in Mexico, Canada, or the United States) believe that their Christian faith cannot be lived out in solitude but relies upon active participation in a community that seeks to model Jesus’ non-violent love by living simply, non-violently, and without the status-judging of hierarchies of title or prestige. Of course, ideals do not easily translate to reality and so conservative Mennonites and their religious cousins, the Amish, have relied on explicit rules and strict measures of social control in order to enforce simplicity and “right living.” Sociologists like Peter Berger have pointed out the irony of a pacifist religious group that practices excommunication through shunning–one of the harshest penalties imaginable given the social world of those who grow up in such a community. But rule following and and punishment for violators must be understood through the lens of belief in a God that entrusts discipline to the community itself. Sociologically speaking, discipline ensures the future of a community with such high ideals. In some cases, it also protects the weak. Take Esther, Johan’s unlucky, even pitiable wife, whose suffering is only enhanced by her husband’s unbelievable commitment to honesty about his on-going affair. Such commitment is beyond belief not because no Mennonite could do such a thing, torn by a belief in truth-telling and a desire to experience love, but rather because no Mennonite community would allow it. Extra-marital affairs do happen, even in very conservative Mennonite communities, but when they do, the leadership of the community moves with exceeding swiftness to expose and discipline them. I once witnessed such discipline when I visited my grandmother’s church in Middlebury, Indiana. The disciplinary service actually replaced the sermon–this was serious business as far as the church was concerned. It was seen as an assault not just on a family but on the whole community. The service was videotaped and a copy was sent to the violator, who was not in attendance despite the multiple pleadings of the church leaders. I was told that the individual repented and later returned to his family.

The point is not that conservative Mennonite or Amish communities are idyllic or that “the ban” is not so onerous, but rather that strict piety and even its enforcement can have the effect of protecting not just communities but families and individuals. Specifically, the proscription of extra-marital affairs protects women from suffering in ignominy and silence of the way portrayed by Johan’s wife. Ethical misconduct of this magnitude would never stay put in a densely-networked Mennonite community. It has a way of getting round to the light of day. And when they do, their protagonists are not given Johan’s luxury of ponderous indecision at the expense of a tortured-but-submissive wife. Reygadas’s film, because it focuses only on individuals and never moves beyond the scope of the family, cannot hope to capture the sense of what it is like to grow up–or grow old–in a dense, strict religious community. The longish final scene of a funeral is a perfect example of the director’s myopic misunderstanding.* In the scene, Johan and his family is surrounded by a handful of resigned family members, shell-shocked but stoic in the midst of their tragedy. I have never heard of a tiny, sparsely-attended Mennonite or Amish funeral. They are actually very large social affairs, with tons of food and hundreds of guests. I once spent a weekend in the home of some elderly conservative Mennonites in Belize (an off-shoot of the Mexican group) who told me that they were spending much of their time going to the funerals of friends and family in Belize and Canada. Nor are conservative Mennonites heroes of emotional stoicism like Esther’s children, who gaze perplexedly at her coffin, almost in wonderment.

In short, I found Reygadas’s film disappointing and the story unconvincing because I saw little evidence in it of the network density that characterizes typical conservative Mennonite communities. That density can be oppressive for sure, but it does not leave individuals alone, in existential wasteland, in their suffering. Johan and Esther (not to mention Mistress Marianne) are adrift in this film. If I had to put it in sociological terms, I would say that the film lacks “understanding” of the Mennonite social world or what Weber called “Verstehen” and therefore fails to meet the criteria for good classroom film–film that helps students understand a social world that is distant from their own. I’m disappointed to report that I won’t be showing it to my students any time soon.

*I recognize that this scene is intended to recall a similar ending in the film Ordet by Carl Theodor Dreyer, so I won’t critique the bizarre nature of the conclusion in the scene. In any event, any film should stand on its own strengths.

New data for American debate over immigration

The debate over immigration to the United States should incorporate some new data:

An important article in the New York Times reports that illegal Mexican migration to America has “sputtered to a trickle”. According to Douglass Massey, a professor of sociology who co-directs Princeton’s Mexican Migration Project, “a trickle” may overstate it:

“No one wants to hear it, but the flow has already stopped,” Mr. Massey said, referring to illegal traffic. “For the first time in 60 years, the net traffic has gone to zero and is probably a little bit negative.”

Why? Lots of reasons. Ramped-up border policing and harsher treatment of undocumented Mexicans living in the US has probably had some effect. But, much more importantly, Mexico has become a better place to live. Here’s the Times:

Over the past 15 years, this country once defined by poverty and beaches has progressed politically and economically in ways rarely acknowledged by Americans debating immigration. Even far from the coasts or the manufacturing sector at the border, democracy is better established, incomes have generally risen and poverty has declined.

Read this data here and here.

As I read this piece, I was reminded that Americans seem to know very little about what is happening in nearby countries like Mexico or Canada. Most if not all of what I have heard in recent months about Mexico has to do with drug cartels and their violence. Do we not hear much because of American exceptionalism, narrow-mindedness, a lack of media attention, jingoism, or something else?

The piece also suggests that Americans would benefit by helping Mexico develop. I wonder if most Americans would buy into this logic or rather think that if Mexico improves, America loses (a zero-sum game). Would Americans even approve the Marshall Plan if it came up today?

Statistic: “More Than 1,000 Mexicans Leave Catholic Church Daily”

Statistics are often put into terms that the average citizen might understand. Or, more cynically, into terms that grabs attention. Here is an example from a sociologist/historian looking at data about Catholicism in Mexico:

More than 1,000 Mexicans left the Catholic Church every day over the last decade, adding up to some 4 million fallen-away Catholics between 2000 and 2010, sociologist and historian Roberto Blancarte told Efe.

Put this way (and a headline built around this daily figure), this statistic seems noteworthy as it looks like a lot of people are making this decision every day. But later in the article, we get a broader perspective:

In 1950, 98.21 percent of Mexicans said they were Catholic, in 1960 the percentage dropped to 96.47 percent, in 1970 to 96.17 percent, in 1980 to 92.62 percent, in 1990 the percentage dropped to 89.69 percent, in 2000 the country was only 88 percent Catholic, and now that percentage is lower still at 83.9 percent.

This signifies that the last decade has seen a drop of more than 4 percentage points, equivalent to almost 4 million people or an average of 1,300 people a day leaving the Catholic Church.

From this decade-by-decade perspective, there is a clear decline from 98.21 percent to 83.9 percent in 2010, a drop of just over 14 percent over 60 years. But this longer-term perspective also helps show that the daily average isn’t really that helpful: are there really 1,300 people each day that make a conscious decision to leave the church? Is this how it works among individual citizens? In this case, it might be better to look at the percentage change each decade and see that the 4.1 percent drop in the 2000s is the largest since 1950.

Additionally, can the average person easily envision what exactly 1,300 people means? This is a large room of people, bigger than even a decent size college classroom but not quite enough to fill a decent sized theater. The Metro in Chicago holds about 1,150 so this is a close approximation.

At least we didn’t get down to another type of common statistic: this data from Mexico breaks down to about 1 Catholic leaving the church every 1.11 minutes.