By Elizabeth Aguilera
Sunday, January 22, 2012

David FitzGerald is a sociology professor and associate director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California San Diego. He studies a broad range of immigration issues, including international migration, transnationalism, comparative immigration and nationality laws.
FitzGerald, 39, earned his masterís and doctorate degrees in sociology from UCLA and a masterís degree in Latin American studies from UC San Diego.

Q: Why are you engaged in this wide area of research?

A: Iíve been interested in migration my whole life. I grew up in the Middle East, where my father worked as a doctor. Crossing borders was part of my everyday experience. As a researcher, Iím fascinated by how different kinds of physical and legal borders develop. A societyís values are reflected in its immigration policy.

Q: In 2009, you co-edited the book ďMexican Migration and the U.S. Economic Crisis.Ē Studies show that migration has slowed since the Great Recession. Will it rebound, and what other factors are at play?

A: New arrivals from Mexico dropped 60 percent from 2006 to 2010. The main reason for this drop is the weak U.S. economy. The second-most-important factor is increased U.S. border enforcement. Surveys conducted by the center show that more than 95 percent of migrants from Mexico who attempt to enter illegally eventually succeed, even if about a third are apprehended by the Border Patrol. However, U.S. border enforcement strategy is pushing migrants into ever-more-dangerous wilderness areas. Our surveys show that many potential migrants are so afraid of the risks of crossing clandestinely that they are staying in Mexico.

If and when the U.S. economy starts creating more jobs, I expect immigration rates from Mexico to rise. But I donít think they will reach the historically high levels that they did in the early 2000s. First, fertility rates in Mexico have fallen dramatically, from seven babies per woman in 1960 to 2.4 babies per woman in 2009. That means that over time, the relative number of young people entering the Mexican workforce, the demographic group most likely to migrate to the U.S., will decline. Second, border enforcement is driving up the risks and costs of unauthorized immigration, which will limit the ability of people in Mexico who are very poor and who donít have close relatives in the U.S. to migrate illegally.
Q: Is it possible enough time could pass that those in Mexico and Latin America lose ties with the U.S. and stop coming?

A: There are many examples of emigration rates dwindling in countries that were once major countries of origin. Think of Italy, Spain and South Korea in the last 50 years, not to mention Germany and Scandinavia in the 19th century. For emigration to stop from Latin American countries, their economies would have to grow much faster than the U.S. over many decades. Even if the wage gap narrowed, social ties across the border are so strong that family reunification migration would continue for years after the economic rationale to migrate had diminished.

Q: Your current project deals with the history of racial and national origin preferences and citizenship policy. Where does the United States fit into this?
A: For most of its history, U.S. immigration policy explicitly discriminated against particular racial and ethnic groups. Naturalization was restricted to whites in 1790, and it wasnít until 1952 that all Asian immigrants were eligible to naturalize. Between 1882 and 1943, immigration of people of Chinese descent was banned.

There are still vestiges of the quota system in U.S. immigration policy. For people trying to become permanent residents based on their employment and some family reunification categories, visas are restricted to 25,620 per country regardless of the size of the country or its historical levels of migration.

As a result, the waiting period varies widely.

For example, unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens are waiting 19 years if they are Mexican, 14 years if they are Filipino and only five years on average if they are nationals of other countries.

Q: In your study of policies and preferences over 150 years, did you find anything surprising?

A: A striking feature of U.S. immigration policy is how racist policies have been fueled by popular demand. An 1879 California referendum on whether Chinese immigration should be allowed received 883 votes in favor and 154,638 opposed. People passed laws restricting the ability of Chinese to interact freely with natives, and then blamed them for clannish behavior and refusing to assimilate. The 1879 state constitution banned the hiring of Chinese and gave cities and towns the authority to segregate them. Thatís why we have Chinatowns in San Francisco and Los Angeles (and used to have one in San Diego, in what is now the Gaslamp Quarter).

Democracy has actually enabled racist policies. The U.S., Australia and Canada were leaders in initiating racist policies in the 19th century, and those countries were among the last in the New World to dismantle their racist policies.

The turn away from racist policies was primarily due to geopolitical considerations during World War II and the Cold War.

One Old Vet

For expert on migration, a lifelong interest in it |