IT IS commonly accepted that the United States was "invaded" by an unprecedented wave of illegal immigrants beginning in the 1980s. According to the Department of Homeland Security, by 2008 there were 11.6 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, 61 percent from Mexico. The next-closest source was El Salvador, at just 5 percent. Hence the "invasion" was framed as a Mexican issue, with pundits from Lou Dobbs to Patrick Buchanan warning of dire consequences for America if it was not checked, by force if necessary.
The only problem with the invasion is that it never happened. The U.S.-Mexico border is not now and has never been out of control. From 1950 to the present, the total number of migrants entering the United States from Mexico has varied very little. There has certainly been no massive upsurge. What changed were the auspices under which Mexicans entered the country, their place of entry, their ultimate U.S. destination and their tendency to remain here rather than return home. Workers previously labeled immigrants became illegals. The border was fortified. States with high immigrant populations cracked down. Walls were built. Immigration turned into a militarized policy issue. And since it became increasingly risky for Mexicans to cross the border, once here, they remained. All these changes are a consequence of our own misguided immigration and border policies.
THE FOREGOING assertions may seem outlandish given the prevailing wisdom, but there is no arguing with the numbers.1 U.S. policy has in many ways created our immigrant problem. During the 1950s, the United States took in hundreds of thousands of Mexican migrants each year. Most entered as temporary workers under the Bracero Program, a bilateral agreement with Mexico in force from 1942 through 1964. In the late 1950s the inflow of temporary Mexican workers was on the order of 450,000 per year. At the same time, there was no statutory limit on legal immigration from Mexico and around 43,000 Mexicans settled each year as permanent residents. Given ample options for legal entry, illegal migration was nonexistent.
All this changed in 1965. Though in fact the total number of Mexicans entering the States was declining, new U.S. policies reclassified Mexicans as illegals. This changed America's entire sense of immigration. Against Mexican protests, the United States unilaterally shut down the Bracero Program and passed amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act that set limits on immigration from the Western Hemisphere. A hemisphere-wide cap of 120,000 visas took effect in 1968, and in 1976 Mexico was placed under a country-specific quota of 20,000 legal immigrants per year. The conditions of labor demand in the United States did not change, however, and in the absence of legal avenues for entry, that demand was met by what was now illegal migration. Although Congress reauthorized a temporary-worker program in 1976, it was limited to a few thousand visas per year. By 1986, the net inflow of new undocumented migrants had skyrocketed, rising to around 230,000 per year from essentially none three decades earlier. When including those on temporary visas and with permanent legal residency, the total number of Mexicans entering the United States was now around 300,000. Even though this was well below the nearly half a million who entered each year during the 1950s, the framing of migrants as "illegal" imbued the issue with an entirely different sensibility. The seeds for our future immigration battles were thus sown.
The authority to undertake the enforcement of caps had come at a political price. While we were making an illegal-immigration problem out of whole cloth, we were simultaneously creating an "upsurge" in Mexican permanent residents. Pressured by immigrant and employer lobbies, the government added two legalization programs to the caps in the 1980s: an amnesty for undocumented migrants who could demonstrate five years of U.S. residence, and a special legalization for farm workers who were employed during the 1985-86 growing season. Ultimately, 2.3 million Mexicans came forward and received temporary legal status-the first real expansion in legal migration since 1965-creating exactly the problem the policies hoped to avoid. When these migrants became legal permanent residents, they caused what seemed like a massive upsurge in legal immigration; but of course most of these people were already in the country-they just weren't showing up in official statistics.
With more Mexicans residing permanently this side of the border and a sense that more illegals were crossing into North America, military metaphors to describe the entire issue became commonplace. A war on immigration began. In the media, the U.S.-Mexico border was increasingly described as a "war zone" where "outgunned" immigration officials sought to "hold the line" against "armies" of alien "invaders."
IN REALITY, of course, nothing had really changed except the legal categories in which Mexicans were arriving. But the battle lines were already drawn, and fear trumped data. The invasion metaphor carried the day. It led to the passage, in 1986, of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which ushered in a new militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border. In 1993 this militarization was supplemented by an all-out blockade launched in El Paso. The next year a similar operation was set up in San Diego. Walls were erected, enforcement matériel concentrated and agents massed in both areas of the border. By 2000, the number of border-patrol agents had more than doubled, the number of hours spent patrolling the border rose by a factor of eight and the agency budget increased nearly sevenfold. These measures did lessen immigration. But in particular they lessened immigration to the regions that needed migrant workers, sending them to entirely different states.
As the adjustment process proceeded, Congress did quietly expand the temporary-worker program to meet the labor demand (raising the number of Mexican visas from 12,000 in 1986 to 104,000 in 2000). But by then it was too late. This increase in legal access, combined with the drop in labor demand associated with the post-cold-war recession, meant that by the 1990s the volume of undocumented migration had peaked and begun to trend downward.
But America's declaration of war on immigrants had already transformed what had been a modest seasonal flow of workers going to just three states and largely returning to Mexico within two years into a much-larger settled population of families living in all fifty.
Prior to the hardening of the border, the vast majority of undocumented migrants entered the United States through two gateways: San Diego and El Paso. As walls went up and crossing in these sectors became increasingly difficult, migrants naturally circumvented the new barriers, and flows were diverted to formerly quiet sections of the border, especially in Arizona. Whereas in 1986, 64 percent of undocumented migrants entered the United States through San Diego or El Paso, by 2000 the share had dropped to 29 percent.
Once diverted away from job markets in California and elsewhere in the West, migrants kept on going to new destinations throughout the country. Two-thirds of Mexicans arriving between 1985 and 1990 went to California, but between 1995 and 2000, only one-third did so. The fastest-growing Mexican populations in the United States are now in places such as North and South Carolina, Georgia, Minnesota, Iowa and Florida. Although the underlying volume of undocumented migration had not increased, these shifts reinforced the narrative of invasion.
Perception makes all the difference. U.S. policies made undocumented migration much more visible by shifting where people crossed the border from areas that were used to seeing Mexicans to ones that were not. Whereas tens of thousands of migrants arriving regularly in the San Diego metropolitan area did not create much of an impression on its 3 million residents, the same number arriving in Douglas, Arizona, made a big impression on its 15,000 inhabitants and neighboring ranchers. The American media predictably flocked to the Arizona border to report on the "new" invasion from Mexico.
U.S. policies for the first time brought immigrants into direct contact with natives in places that had known no immigration for generations, particularly in the South and Midwest, by diverting immigrants away from California to new destinations throughout the country. As immigrants poured into what had been exclusively native communities, residents in Iowa, North Carolina and Georgia could only conclude that a "new" alien invasion was indeed under way.
BUT POLICY has done more than just transform the geography of migration and border crossing. Harsh immigration enforcement also shifted the cost-benefit calculus of returning home versus staying in the United States. The cost of hiring a guide to help an undocumented immigrant make it across the border quadrupled between 1986 and 2008. A so-called coyote now costs $2,200. Moreover, as migrants were diverted away from urban crossing points into open deserts, high mountains and wild sections of the Rio Grande, their death rate tripled. This diversion did however lower the odds of apprehension because the wild country contained fewer border-patrol agents. Yet another irony of our immigration policies.Image: Pullquote: In the media, the U.S.-Mexico border was increasingly described as a "war zone" where "outgunned" immigration officials sought to "hold the line" against "armies" of alien "invaders."Essay Types: Essay