Ana Gonzalez-Barrera MPP'08, Pew Research, and the Decline of Immigration from Mexico

To hear the rhetoric about immigration in the United States today, one might be led to believe that the number of undocumented immigrants and illegal border crossings are at an all-time high. As with many hot-button issues that have become political fodder for partisans on both sides, however, the truth is more complicated – and the current narrative has little resemblance to what is actually happening on the ground.

Ana Gonzalez-Barrera MPP'08

Ana Gonzalez-Barrera MPP’08, has spent most of her career studying immigration patterns and trends. The statistics she has gathered and analyzed in her current role as a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center – a nonpartisan collector and analyzer of data that does not take sides in policy discussions— would likely surprise most Americans, as they tell a far different and more complex story than the one coming out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

Immigration from Mexico is, in fact, at its lowest level in decades, according to her analysis. Meanwhile, the would-be immigrants most affected under current policies are asylum-seeking refugees fleeing troubled Central American countries.

“We found that between 2009 and 2014, there were actually more Mexicans going back to Mexico than there were coming to the US. However, even though this data is out there, and we actually saw it being used by some candidates during the last presidential campaign, the truth about immigration isn’t sinking in,” said Gonzalez-Barrera.

That the facts often get lost in heated political rhetoric is likely a point of frustration for Gonzalez-Barrera and her fellow graduates of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, an institution focused on gaining a better understanding of statistical analysis, data, and facts, to shape programs and policies that will impact society and change people’s lives for the better.

Born and raised in Mexico City, Gonzalez-Barrera has long held an interest in the relationship between the US, Latin America, and their respective citizens. Before attending Harris Public Policy, she worked for nearly five years at one of Mexico's top think tanks, Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE), where she coordinated significant public opinion surveys between Mexico and the Americas.

To learn more about how to better analyze and use the data she was helping to collect, Gonzalez-Barrera knew she had to continue her education, thus beginning her own immigration story.

“I actually looked around a lot. I looked into the US; I looked in the UK and Canada. Those were, in my view, the best countries to go to for grad school. I applied to a number of places, but Harris was among the top schools for public policy, for policy analysis, and had the hard skills that I wanted to gain,” said Gonzalez-Barrera.

"I had a very rudimentary hold on math and statistics. I had not gotten a BA in a very exact science; I studied international relations. At Harris, I gained all the quantitative and analytical skills that you get with the core curriculum and elective classes. After that, I was able to build a career doing data analysis which, to me, is just mind-blowing. I am now able to go to meetings with people who earned a Ph.D. in demography or statistics and almost feel like an equal among them," she added.

Gonzalez-Barrera has put her Harris education to work in trying to bring more clarity to the immigration debate. Before joining Pew Research, where she focuses on Mexican immigration to the US and border apprehensions and deportations, she served as director of population distribution at the Mexican Population Council.

Currently, much of the discourse surrounding the issue employs misleading information, fear, and emotional pleas. Whatever the cause, the American public remains largely misinformed when it comes to immigration trends. 

In one example of a statistic that might surprise most Americans, Gonzalez-Barrera cited data indicating that at least 40 percent of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the US are individuals who came here legally but have simply overstayed their visas. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that the biggest violators of visa duration limits are Canadians, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Despite statistics like this, so much of the immigration discussion continues to revolve around illegal immigration from Mexico, which is at historic lows. According to Gonzalez-Barrera, immigration from Mexico is at its lowest level in 50 or 60 years, particularly compared to the 1980s and 1990s, when there was a boom in immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, coming from Mexico to the US. 

“People think that Mexicans are still coming in huge numbers. And yes there's still some flow coming from Mexico, but it's nothing compared to what it used to be. Particularly, when we are talking about people trying to cross the border illegally,” said Gonzalez-Barrera. 

Immigration from Mexico is at historic lows.

“What we have seen is an increase in the number of undocumented immigrants coming from Central America, particularly from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. And this has been rising at a very high pace in the last five to 10 years, particularly since 2014, when we also saw an increase in the number of unaccompanied children coming through the border to the US to ask for asylum or some kind of relief in immigration," she added.

However, policy changes under the current administration have significantly reduced the number of these refugees allowed into the country. The US accepted more than 3,000,000 refugees since 1980, or roughly 80,000 per year, according to data cited by the International Rescue Committee (IRC). However, there has been a radical shift in these policies under the current US administration, the effects of which are already being felt.

The IRC reports that refugee admissions have dropped 70 percent from last year, with no more than 21,000 refugees expected to be admitted in the fiscal year 2018. Surprisingly, despite this sharp decline in refugee admissions, 60 percent of Americans believe the US has a moral obligation to help refugees.

In addition to virtually stopping the flow of refugees coming into the country, Gonzalez-Barrera points to far more aggressive policing and enforcement policies as another significant change implemented under the Trump administration.

“We've seen an increase in the number of arrests in the interior for immigration. ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is really going out and making a lot of arrests trying to find fugitives and others. We have not seen that type of enforcement and internal enforcement in a very long time,” she said.

While Gonzalez-Barrera is prohibited from discussing policy recommendations based on the research she conducts for Pew Research, she can offer recommendations for prospective and current Harris students.

“I think that the key is to find something that you're passionate about and to be persistent. Perseverance, I think, is one of the key skills that brought me to where I am right now,” she concluded.