A Sociologist Does the Math on Immigration Reform

Filiz Garip is fascinated by the unintended consequences of public policy. Take border security. “When you propose something like a wall, it feels like a great solution,” says Garip, a sociology professor at Cornell University. But her research suggests otherwise.

Consider that in 1965 there were 1,500 border-patrol officers and today there are more than 20,000, yet from 1986 to 2010 alone, when annual spending on border security increased tenfold, the number of undocumented migrants crossing into the United States still tripled.

The more obstacles you build, the more organized crime becomes involved. That puts our border patrol officers in jeopardy as well.

That’s because border policy fails to consider the big picture, Garip says. For example, former President George W. Bush authorized the construction of 700 miles of steel fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. But an economic crisis in Mexico made people desperate to flee, no matter the risk. So rather than deter migrants, the fence only compelled people to take more remote routes. In so doing, they made both their own passage and the job of U.S. border patrol officers more dangerous.

“The more obstacles you build, the more organized crime becomes involved,” she says. “That puts our border patrol officers in jeopardy as well, because now they don’t have to just deal with immigrants trying to cross but also actual criminals who are guiding them and will do anything to keep their business going.”

Garip was born in Bulgaria and raised in Turkey, where her family moved when she was 8 months old. She grew up in a small, conservative town, and attended high school and college in Istanbul, graduating with an engineering degree and gaining acceptance to a graduate program in operations research and financial engineering at Princeton University. But a high-paying job at a financial consulting company in New York City made her  miserable. “I felt empty. I couldn’t find meaning in that line of work,” she says.

She did find inspiration in a social-science class, however. “I realized I could spend my time thinking about pressing social problems and social issues,” she says.

Her professors told her that quantitative skills would also be useful in an increasingly data-rich field like sociology. “Now there are so many new information sources, so anyone who can analyze the data is really helpful,” she says. In her research, Garip started employing methods that are popular in engineering but rarely used in the social sciences. For instance, by analyzing survey data from 145,000 Mexican migrants, she was able to identify four primary waves of immigration over the last 50 years, each with a distinct demographic. The 1960s and ‘70s were dominated by men from rural areas, for example, but by the early 2000s, educated, urban migrants dominated.

Just as migrant groups don’t leave their native lands for the same reasons, immigration policy shouldn’t rely on a one-size-fits-all approach to tackle complex immigration issues. Immigration reform must consider all the circumstances that drive particular groups to immigrate.

A naturalized citizen since 2014, Garip lives in Ithaca, New York, with her husband and 5-year-old twins. “I’m really grateful for the opportunities that I could achieve just by hard work, not because of any background or family connections. It has been merit-based,” she says. “This is not the case in every country. The academic system in Turkey is more hegemonic. You have to be someone’s student, or you have to have someone’s connections. Here, if you work hard and if you’re lucky, the doors are open for you. That is what makes America amazing.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…