"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, July 7, 2017

Illegal Immigrants: Congress Created the Problem, and Then Made It Worse

In last month’s post, I summed up the source of our problem of illegal immigration:  the combined effects of Congress terminating the Bracero Program in 1964 and enacting the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965.  As a result, I wrote, “A large number of Mexicans, whose life had been tending crops in the U.S., while technically living in Mexico, faced a cruel dilemma.  Their migratory living had been eliminated, but Mexico had no work for them (which was largely why they became migrant workers in the first place).  They could not legally immigrate to the U.S, where there was work to sustain their families, as the 1965 Act and subsequent restrictions had capped the legal residence options at much too low a number.  The result was obvious, at least in retrospect: a migration that had been circular and legal became one-way and illegal.”  Let’s call that Unpleasant Conclusion Number One. 

So, here’s some evidence for Unpleasant Conclusion Number Two: Congress made the problem worse by doing what it does best, playing politics.  The story also contains a timely example of how one’s efforts can produce exactly the opposite results from what one intended.

After Congress had finished its terminating and enacting, legal and organized migrant labor ceased to exist.  The need for it, however, did not.  As a result, the actual migration of people didn’t initially change, only the “legal and organized” part.  A recent scholarly paper on the subject summed it up this way:  In essence, in 1965 the United States shifted from a de jure guestworker program based on the circulation of bracero migrants to a de facto program based on the circulation of undocumented migrants….the well-established migratory flow simply continued informally without authorization.”*

Migration kept taking place, largely because the migrants had no other option.  We should also note that, in the absence of legal organizations to facilitate their border crossings, illegal organizations stepped in to fill the gap.  As all this merely continued a by-now well-established pattern, it initially received little attention.  But that changed.

By the late 1970s, the arrival of illegal Latinos began to be perceived as a problem.  In the following decades, the continued influx steadily became first a bigger problem, and then a threat.  Politicians and pundits pronounced the situation bad, as our border came “under siege” and then worse, because our nation faced “the Latino threat.”  Congress responded, and proceeded to make things worse.

Mind you, they did this by taking the obvious action, steadily increasing the money and personnel dedicated to stopping the illegal influx of Latinos.  From 1977 to 1995 the number of Border Patrol agents increased by 250%, while the Agency’s budget rose by about 650%.  The effort continued, and continued to expand.  It may surprise some of those on the Right to know that among some of those on the Left, President Obama was known as “The Deporter-in-Chief.” 

All of this was to little effect, however, a fact that the American public had clearly perceived in advance of the 2016 election.  The numbers of Latin Americans residing in the U.S. “without documentation” continued to rise.  The numbers are, in fact, quite unsettling.   There were an estimated 1.13 million undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. in 1980.  By 1990, that number had almost doubled, to 2.04 million, then more than doubled during the next decade, to 4.68 million by 2000.  The total number (supposedly) peaked at 7.03 million in 2008.  In other words, after 1980, the number of undocumented Mexicans not only continued to rise, it demonstrated an increasing rate of increase, by decade.

So what happened?  Why did the problem not only continue, but also increase, despite drops in the number of undocumented Mexicans entering the U.S.?  The simple answer is, of course, the story of Mexico’s continued inability to absorb its growing population into its workforce compared to the better economic conditions just north of the border.  They just kept coming.  But they did so despite much greater law enforcement aimed at preventing exactly that.  The American public was even treated to amateur videos of how easy it was to cross somewhere.  Mind you, the numbers of those caught and returned did rise, but to absolutely no net effect.

On the face of it, this is evidence that throwing more money at the problem did not solve it.  Look a little deeper and you find evidence that throwing more money via dramatically increased law enforcement at this particular problem actually made it worse, much worse.  There is evidence that increased border security efforts amid the rising volume of political rhetoric had the opposite effect of what was intended.

After the end of the Bracero Program, Mexicans continued to enter and leave, much like before.  But after 1980, the increasing public pressure and legal enforcement efforts steadily ratched up the risk of being caught en route.  The result was, once again, what we should have expected.  Faced with steadily greater risks (not to mention costs), many of those who had been migrants decided that continued migration was just too dangerous.  Instead, they remained in the U.S., and did what minorities suspicious of their government have always done: hunker down, stay out of sight, and wait until conditions improve.  In other words, increased law enforcement failed to affect inflow, but instead discouraged outflow.

But all of this reaction began some forty years ago, and we are long past the time of talking about just farm workers.  The largest numbers of Latinos may live in the Southwest, but they have spread throughout the country.  Hispanics are estimated to be about one third of the total population of Norristown, Pa., a long way from Mexico.  If we take the lesson about “hunkering down,” we should probably add to that percentage.  What to do about those who are “illegal” will be decided in Washington, but the result will be felt in towns like Norristown all across the nation.  We’ve done a great deal to stop the flow, but failed miserably.  We live today with the results of that failure dominating our politics.

*Douglas S. Massey and Karen A. Pren, “Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Policy: Explaining the Post-1965 Surge from Latin America”

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