Ignoring Sociological Research Makes for Bad and Ineffective Policy

Here is another example that makes my blood boil: when newspapers suddenly discover something that sociological has long established. Here are a few notes I jotted down during an ASA plenary session in 2008:

“Bottom line: the current immigration situation is absurd: the backlog at the INS, the stupid wall, the militarization of the border, the raids, all these things, according to Doug Massey to increasing illegal immigration into the US… before the current trend of nativism (which increased after 9/11… never mind that Mexico has never been a base of terrorism, no terrorist has ever come from Mexico… as far as terrorism is concerned in North America, the US should look North: Canada… there are real cells there and there is recruitment going on).

How has this increased immigration? Because the strengthening of border controls makes it difficult for Mexican to enter the US but it also makes it hard for them to go home the same way. Before the current situation, individual men would come, work here for years, send back remittances. Some of them would settle but many would return. Now, it is entire families who come undocumented, because they know it is going to be hard to return. This situation creates hybrid families as far as immigration status is concerned. One spouse may have a visa but not the other, some of the children were brought over from Mexico (therefore undocumented) while others are born in the US.

The result is that whereas the Latino population used to be concentrated in the Southwestern states (where there are still in large numbers), they are now in the 50 states and especially in the South (Massey conducted studies in North Carolina, among other states) where nativist reactions have been quite strong.”

And here is an excerpt from a WaPo article from a few days ago:

“But will more boots really seal the border? Immigration reform has a long history of unintended consequences: More than two decades of increased enforcement since the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 has done little to reduce the number of illegal immigrants. In fact, its seems to have increased their numbers. Meanwhile, the question of jobs, which are the true driver of legal and illegal immigration, has been largely neglected.

Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey pointed out nearly a decade ago that measures to secure the border seemed to produce almost the opposite of what was intended. By making the northward crossing more dangerous and expensive, Massey and co-authors Jorge Durand and Nolan J. Malone wrote in 2002, the border buildup discouraged seasonal laborers from going back to Mexico when they were not working.

With increasing border enforcement, workers who used to shuttle between jobs in California or Texas and home in Zacatecas or Michoacán simply began to stay put and sent for their families, becoming permanent, if sometimes reluctant, residents. According to Massey, post-IRCA border enforcement may have increased the size of the permanent Mexican population in the United States by a factor of nearly four.

More unintended consequences: The anti-immigrant backlash that sparked Arizona’s string of anti-immigration legislation — the new law seeking to drive illegal immigrants out of the state most famously among them — was produced in large part by tighter border controls in Texas and California. That enforcement squeezed the smuggling of immigrants and drugs into Arizona’s Sonoran Desert and mountains.”

Well, Massey has been working on this for over a decade, why does the newspaper suddenly discover this? How many journalists actually do keep up with sociological research on issues they cover or specialize in? Even further back, at another ASA annual meeting, Barbara Ehrenreich deplored the lack of database of sociologists + topics that journalists should be able to tap into when they conduct research. This was a great idea and I don’t know that it has happened. Part of the problem is often that journalists probably do not think of consulting sociologists all that often. They consult psychologists, economists or political scientists. Sociologists? Not so much.

But the result of this lack of public hearing for sociological research (either in the media or the political arena, although they are increasingly the same “Village”) may very well contribute to bad policy.

And to wake up to research done over ten years ago and consistently validated since is way too late because by then, the debate has been framed in a faulty fashion.

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