The history of illegal immigration in the United States
It’s estimated that as many as 12 million undocumented migrants now live in the United States, a country with a population of just over 300 million people. Although it’s a nation with a strong immigrant history, unauthorised migration has become a political headache for both sides of American politics. It’s an issue with two main facets—what to do with unauthorised workers already in the US and how to secure the borders against further illegal entry.
The American republic was established by Europeans in the unquestioned expectation that those who came to settle would also be Europeans. The first significant restrictions on immigration were embodied in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Chinese workers had been welcomed during the building of the transcontinental railroad during the 1860s, but their perceived social and cultural differences from the white Protestant mainstream ultimately made them unwelcome migrants.
In the following decades, other categories of undesirable migrants were added to the list—criminals, prostitutes, Communists and so on. In the 1920s, quantitative limits—a worldwide quota and quotas by country—were added.
The Mexico – U.S. border is 3,200-kilometre long. In the early 1980s there were 2,000 border patrol agents, today there are 20,000. In the early 1980s there was almost no fencing on the border; today there’s about 1,000 kilometres of relatively secure fencing. (PROFESSOR PHILIP MARTIN, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA).
During both world wars, the United States government looked to Mexico to help with a perceived shortage of labour. During World War II, the bracero program brought hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to work as unskilled labour in agriculture and on the railways.
‘From 1942 to 1964, five million Mexican workers were admitted to the United States to perform temporary services of labour,’ says Dr Mark J. Miller from the University of Delaware. ‘Most of them went to the south-west and worked in agriculture and during that period, there was a parallel inflow of illegal or undocumented workers.’
‘It’s important to understand this in order to understand ongoing American debates about the future course of US immigration policy, because during the entire period from 1942 to 1964, more Mexicans were repatriated as illegal entrants to the United States, as were legally admitted to legal employment as temporary foreign workers.’
The Second World War proved to be a watershed in the US history of immigration. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 meant an end to restrictions on the basis of nationality and led to an explosion in demand for legal migration, although it came from unexpected places, according to Professor Susan Martin from the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University.
‘Legal migration began to increase, and the geographic origins of the immigrants did a definite shift. They gave priority to people entering for family reunification, the fact that they already had family members in the US. It was actually thought that this would lead to European migration restarting, but by that point in the mid-1960s, a lot of the European countries had seen their economies take off. They were actually starting to import guest workers, immigrants to come into their countries. But there was an interest in Asia and in Latin America in coming into the US.’
‘At the same time, the other thing that occurred in 1965 was an end to the bracero program, which was seen as being very exploitive of the workers, and encouraging American farmers to hire domestic workers. What ended up happening is the origin of our current illegal migration because a lot of the people who came as braceros or in the future might have wanted to come as braceros, instead came illegally and the farmers continued to hire them, only they hired them now as illegal workers rather than as guest workers.’
As the number of Mexicans and other Latin Americans working illegally in the United States continued to grow, the administration of President Ronald Reagan passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. It proposed the creation of a kind of identity card and made it illegal for employers to knowingly hire or recruit undocumented workers. It also granted amnesty to millions already in the US. It was the first attempt to really deal with illegal immigration.
‘The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 tried to satisfy what I would call admissionists, who are people who say “let more people in”, and restrictionists who say “let fewer people in”,’ explains Professor Philip Martin, from the Comparative Immigration and Integration Program at the University of California. ‘For the admissionists, we legalised 2.7 million illegal foreigners, the largest legalisation in the world until now, and most of them were Mexican, and they one day were illegal and the next day were legal immigrants with the right to try to unify their families, although there were long waiting lists for that.’
‘On the other hand, we introduced sanctions or fines on employers who knowingly hired illegal workers. So the legalisation worked [but] the sanctions did not work, and the net result was that illegal Mexico-US migration surged in part because those family members of newly legalised Mexicans did not wait, as they were supposed to, for their immigrant visas and there became a whole lot more anchor points for Mexicans to enter the US, find supportive friends and relatives and get jobs, even though they did not have legal authorisation to do so.’
The enforcement mechanism was not at all effective. Employers did not have to verify that a worker’s documents were genuine and the 1986 law simply sparked a new industry—one creating false documents, available for as little as $25-$30. During the 1990s, the Commission on Immigration Reform was set up to advise the US government on illegal immigration, but the Clinton administration also failed to adopt a counterfeit-resistant identification document or provide the funding necessary for the enforcement of employer sanctions. Instead, by 1996, the US government was looking to border control, not labour law enforcement, to deal with illegal migration.
In 2006, President George W Bush, then in his second term in office, signed a law authorising the construction of more than 1,000 kilometres of fencing along the United States-Mexico border.
‘It’s a 3,200-kilometre long border,’ says Professor Martin. ‘In the early 1980s there were 2,000 border patrol agents, today there are 20,000. In the early 1980s there was almost no fencing on the border; today there’s about 1000 kilometres of relatively secure fencing. Initially people came without the services of a local guide or smuggler, or coyote, and as the number of border agents increased and as the fences got built, more people turned to smugglers.’
‘One way to think of the increased difficulty of getting into the United States is the cost of being smuggled from Mexico to Los Angeles, which in the early 1990s was in the order of $200 or $300 and today it’s in the order of $2,000 or $3,000.’
‘So what has happened is that today almost all migrants use smugglers, the smugglers often use stolen vehicles, often covered trucks. They often have teenage drivers and they may come with several vans, one of which may have drugs, one of which may have migrants, and a couple that might be empty decoys, and the effort is made to come across the desert where there’s no fence in Arizona, and to have the trucks with the things being smuggled into the US elude the border patrol and make it in.’
Although almost half of unauthorised migrants enter the US legally on tourist or student visas, the rest, mostly Mexicans, slip across the southern border. About a quarter of undocumented migrants live in California, although many now live and work far from the border states. The landmark 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act continues to apply the same maximum number of visas to all countries, regardless of their population.
Although family reunion and migrants with special skills or education still remain the focus of legal migration, these country limits have severely restricted the legal immigration of people outside those categories wanting to come from places like China and the Philippines, as well as Mexico. The lag for a legal migrant visa to the US for an unskilled worker from places like the Philippines and Mexico is over 20 years: a long time to wait if you are trying to immigrate to seek economic opportunity during your most productive working years. For most people most of the time, legal status doesn’t make a big difference day-to-day.
‘It does limit how far they can rise in an organisation, however,’ says Professor Martin. ‘There is clearly a 10 per cent to 15 per cent wage disadvantage for being illegal in many cases. The biggest danger is state and local police who do not enforce immigration laws but do enforce traffic laws, stopping people and discovering they don’t have a drivers licence or they don’t have insurance.’
‘That stop, which can be for something totally unrelated to immigration, can in the end lead to deportation. So that’s a real fear. Somebody is driving to work but without a licence or without insurance because they can’t get a licence and can’t get insurance because of their status, can wind up encountering the police and being removed from the US.’
Although immigration law is a matter for the federal government, many states, cities and towns have tried to make life more difficult—and in some cases,easier—for undocumented migrants.
‘St Paul and Minneapolis, where I live, have declared themselves sanctuary cities where they would not have local police look for immigrant status or explicitly try to root out undocumented immigrants,’ explains Erika Lee from the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota.
‘But there are other places that are passing what might be called nuisance laws. So in the areas that they do have jurisdiction over, such as rental, you cannot rent to someone unless they show a valid form of a certain type of ID. Or there were some places, I believe in Georgia, that also allowed certain cities to deny utilities—electricity and water—unless you had a certain type of documentation, and it is absolutely trying to target undocumented immigrants from Mexico.’
Although both the Bush and the Obama administrations tried to introduce comprehensive immigration reform, neither succeeded, despite immigration becoming a political issue at campaign time.
‘George W. Bush ran in 2000 and 2004 on immigration reform and he was supporting a path to citizenship for some of these illegal immigrants,’ says historian Robert Fleegler from the University of Mississippi. ‘In 2006, 2007, I think he was hoping to make this kind of a legacy issue, and there were many Democrats who supported him, so it looked to be an area where Bush and the Democrats could come together but there was a strong opposition from the conservative wing of the Republican Party, from talk radio, and it fell through.’
‘President Obama ran on it in 2008 but got caught up in the recession and with Iraq and with Afghanistan and then healthcare, and it sort of fell by the wayside as an issue. I think many people expected after 2012, given the really poor performance the Republicans had with Hispanics, there was a lot of talk that, okay, now Republicans are going to support immigration reform because of they don’t get the support of this growing Hispanic community, they won’t be able to win national elections.’
‘The Senate passed a bill last year but then it got bogged down in the House for all the same reasons. Conservatives feel it’s rewarding unlawful behaviour to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.’
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