Are immigrants from states passing tough immigration laws leaving in droves? Since Alabama grabbed headlines after passing a restrictive law, accounts and images of idle store fronts, vacancy signs, empty pew aisles, and dips in school enrollment swept the airwaves. News coverage of similar experiments in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Georgia also featured accounts of imminent flight. The mass exodus storyline is tempting because it stokes immigration control advocates and outrages immigrant rights advocates.
But are these accounts reliable? The answer is more complicated than the headlines. As I wrote recently in The Journal of Latino-Latin American Studies, growing evidence suggests that most immigrants (especially families with school-age children) are here to stay, except perhaps where local economies are particularly weak.
When parsing these stories of mass exodus, I learned three key lessons. First, it’s tough to tell whether (and how many) immigrants have left a community if you are looking right after a state passes a law. It can take years of evidence to test claims of a mass exodus. Once available, even the most reliable sources can only estimate certain groups of foreign born people. Worse still, estimates are less precise where immigrant populations are small, and estimates of unauthorized immigrants are usually limited to state level figures. In Oklahoma, home to a perceived exodus, net migration has remained steady since the state began experimenting with immigration policies in 2007.
Second, immigrant families with school-age children have local roots. Parents have invested a great deal in their children’s future by settling down and enrolling their children in school. These families rank among the least likely to flee for good. In addition, a Migration Policy Institute study found key instances where drops in school enrollment later rebounded, which recommends caution when reading headlines about dips in attendance.
Compiling school and birth statistics, I found that one out of eight students in Oklahoma is Latino, an increase from 2007. Even if immigration halted, the state’s youth profile would continue to change since 13.5 percent of Sooner State newborns have Latina mothers, counting both lawfully present and unauthorized women. Unlike Oklahoma, Alabama is trying to implement provisions of a law calling for public schools to collect student citizenship data and deny mobile home permits to unauthorized immigrants. If that happens, the long-term effects of Alabama’s law may be different than Oklahoma’s experiment. Meanwhile, gathering definitive evidence will take time.
Third, restrictive state laws explicitly target unauthorized immigrants, and unattached immigrant men are the most likely to flee or go under the radar. I found that several thousand unattached Latino men may have left Oklahoma. I’d call that a river, not a flood. Besides, the estimates aren’t precise enough to put much faith in those numbers. Researchers at the University of Virginia and the Public Policy Institute of California found evidence that unattached and working age men left (or sought self-employment) after 2007, when the recession took hold and enforcement measures were implemented in Virginia and Arizona. At Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania, new research attempts to directly disentangle the effects of the economic downturn from those of tough immigration measures. So far, that work suggests immigration enforcement measures alone don’t effectively repel immigrants.
Immigrants living in states with restrictive policies find themselves caught between a rock (tough immigration measures) and a hard place (making a living in a struggling economy). Immigrants who stay in their neighborhood must weather a culture of fear and struggle with dislocation. Maybe Oklahoma’s immigrant communities didn’t shrink because the state’s economy is relatively resilient? In any case, I turned up new questions requiring more evidence still: If most long-duration unauthorized immigrants are here to stay, how do they get by while living under the radar? What happens when people decide to live in “doubled-up” households to save money and avoid detection? And what does living in a culture of fear do to individuals, families, and communities?