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LatAm in Focus: Why There Isn't and Won't Be Mass Latino Migration

Salvadoran migrants at a Texas border crossing. (AP)

Salvadoran migrants in Texas. (AP)

July 12, 2018

For decades, migration across the U.S. border with Mexico was dominated by laborers coming up to the United States for seasonal work and then returning to be with their families in a phenomenon called circular migration, explains Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey. But during the 2008 economic recession, net undocumented migration from Mexico ended and it’s been negative since then, says Massey, who cofounded the Mexican Migration Project in 1982.

I would like to see the [Latino] threat narrative disappear.”

Migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, on the other hand, is not related to labor, but involves families escaping threats at home, Massey told AS/COA Online’s Holly K. Sonneland. And while he expects Central American migration to continue as long as the “horrific” and violent situations persist at home, “the potential for massive migration out of Latin America is really small compared to what the Europeans are dealing with in Africa and the Middle East,” due to the lower birth rates and population sizes to begin with.


Douglas Massey

There’s a possibility, too, that in the coming years Mexico will become an immigrant-receiving country within the region for a variety of factors, the sociologist says. One, Mexico’s birth rate has fallen dramatically—from 6.8 children per woman in the 1960s to 2.2 children today—and the country needs workers, particularly in the agricultural sector to maintain production. Two, Mexican law, while not always administered correctly now, grants immigrants more rights and protections than does U.S. law. And three, the country’s migration policy could see shifts under incoming President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

For the United States’ part, Massey noted a change when immigration enforcement shifted in 2003 from being under the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the Department of Justice to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency under the Department of Homeland Security. “In the DOJ, you’re presumed innocent until proven guilty. In DHS, you’re assumed to be a threat until proven otherwise,” says Massey.

Twenty years from now, the Latino influence in American life will be quintessentially American.

That said, this isn’t the first time we’re seeing an anti-immigrant wave in the United States, he says. Just go to the 1850s (the Know Nothing Movement), the 1880s (Chinese immigration exclusion acts), or the 1920s (reaction against southern and eastern Europeans). But, white nativism and the promulgation of a supposed “Latino threat” narrative aren’t going to work much longer in the twenty-first century as political strategies, says Massey. The main reason is demographic shifts as the majority of births in the United States are now to minority women and the most rapidly growing Latino populations are in states like North Carolina and Iowa—and due to these births, not new migration.



Elizabeth Gonzalez produced this podcast episode. The music in this podcast was performed by Orquesta Pasatono in New York. Learn more about Americas Society's upcoming concerts at musicoftheamericas.org.