Emily Ryo on the Norms and Economics of Unauthorized Migration

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    Roberto Suro

    Can the potential costs imposed by U.S. law enforcement outweigh the potential economic benefits in the minds of Mexicans contemplating unauthorized migration to the United States?
    That question is—or rather, should be—at the heart of policy debates in Washington. It has also been Meanwhile, has been a long-standing preoccupation for immigration scholars probing the drivers of migration.
    Professor Emily Ryo, who joined the law and sociology faculties at the University of Southern California in August, added an important new chapter to this inquiry with an article in the American Sociological Review (ASR), “Deciding to Cross: Norms and Economics of Unauthorized Migration” (78 (4) 574-6030 or online at http://asr.sagepub.com/content/78/4/574.
    Analyzing unique survey data collected by the Mexican Migration Project, Ryo proposes and tests a new decision-making model for potential unauthorized migrants. The model weighs moral and normative considerations as well as standard economic motivations. The result is a new means to analyze the effects of U.S. law enforcement efforts on prospective migrants. This analysis considers not only worries about getting caught and punished but also the potential migrants’ views of the morality of violating U.S. law, the legitimacy of U.S. authority to regulate international crossing and the migrants’ perception of social norms about border crossing.
    Ryo’s analysis of the survey data finds that several normative variables play an important role in the decision to migrate in addition to the economic variables that arise in neo-classical theory. These normative considerations include belief that violating the law is morally justified in search of economic opportunities—opportunities for improved economic standing not mere survival. Moreover, and more specifically, Ryo finds that the intent to migrate is heightened by a belief that Mexicans have a right to be in the United States without the U.S. government’s permission and that family and friends have tried to get that permission to migrate legally but have been denied.
    The article leavens well-established aspects of immigration theory with a big scoop of scholarship on legal noncompliance and a dash of behavioral economics. It comes to a conclusion that challenges the very foundations of U.S. immigration policy. Ryo argues that moral ambiguity infuses the policy regime because the law itself lacks credibility. Both would be migrants and the U.S. citizens who benefit from unauthorized migration question the moral standing of a law that seeks to prohibit a beneficial economic activity.
    This argument raises important questions about the extent of policy reform that would be necessary to regain credibility and hence effectiveness. More immediate questions to researchers regard the implications for our understanding of the deterrent effects on potential migrants in Mexico of U.S. law enforcement efforts as well the caging effects on migrants already living in the country.

    Rene Zenteno

    In the absence of adequate systems to secure legal cheap foreign labor to the U.S. economy, all immigration reforms are designed to fail to prevent undocumented migrants to enter the U.S. Remember IRCA. Legal noncompliance is not only a matter of how future migrants perceive violating U.S. immigration law, but also a matter of how, in the absence of intelligent legislative provisions to regulate economic behavior, prohibitions create perverse incentives for employers to prefer cheaper unauthorized workers. This is the other side of Ryo`s thinking, a more structural and historical side.

    Ryo´s paper is undoubtedly interesting. It offers a fresh look at the economic and sociological thinking about individual decision-making models of undocumented labor migration. It also relies in one of the best data sets on U.S.-Mexico migration, the Mexican Migration Project. The paper is full of conceptual and technical merits. However, unintentionally it gives the impression that these underlying values and norms about legal noncompliance are particularly attached to Mexican migrants.

    The unauthorized foreign population in the United States comprises citizens from Canada, France, Germany, Russia, Spain, China, India, Brazil, etc. Of course, proximity, history and demographics play an important role on explaining why the vast majority of them are from one single country, Mexico.

    Moreover, illegality has become a key future of the global economy, as argued by Peter Andreas.

    Context is everything.

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