Unauthorized Immigration: The Storm of Our Own Making



unauthorized immigration

As the new wave of legal immigration swept through the United States in the middle of the 20th Century, another wave picked up speed.  Changes in immigration policies coupled with changes in migration flows throughout the world led to a decades-long increase in unauthorized immigration in the U.S.

As of the latest count, approximately 11 million unauthorized immigrants live in the U.S.  Around 71% of these individuals are from Mexico and Central America.  Six million of them (56%) come from Mexico alone.  Around 1.5 million unauthorized immigrants, or 14%, come from Asian countries.

This population grew rapidly during the 1990s and early 2000s, increasing by approximately 5 million people before peaking in 2007.  Since then, the numbers have actually declined.  Unauthorized immigration from Mexico has dropped significantly since 2007.  At this point, the unauthorized population growing at the fastest rate is actually from India.


The remarkable growth of unauthorized immigration into the country began with significant policy changes in the middle of the 20th Century.

Before the 1940s and 50s, immigration from Latin America to the U.S. was very limited.  The Great Depression decreased demand in the labor market, and few people crossed our southern border looking for work.

When the U.S. entered World War II, however, the country needed more workers to fill the labor shortages left by soldiers fighting overseas.  To combat these shortages, the U.S. and Mexico signed a formal agreement in 1942 to incentivize temporary migrant workers to come to the U.S.  This was the Bracero Program.  For the next 20 years, this program built an entirely new economic system for the agricultural workforce in the U.S.

The Bracero Program increased demand for low-wage foreign workers within the U.S. agricultural industry.  It also increased demand for such work in Mexico.  As Rosenblum and Brick put it,

“Entire communities in Mexico came to rely on emigration as their primary source of employment, and an industry of labor contractors emerged on both sides of the border to match willing workers with employers.  Migration was now structurally embedded in the social and economic systems of a growing group of migrant-sending and migrant-receiving communities.”

An Abrupt End, a New Beginning

Demand for a migrant workforce on both sides of the border remained steady for decades. Despite this, President Kennedy capitulated to pressure from Democrats and worker’s rights groups to abruptly end the Bracero Program in 1964.

Though this program ended, the demand remained.  As is the case today, farmers could not find U.S. citizens to fill the jobs popular with migrant workers.  So, migrant workers continued to cross the border illegally to look for work.

A perfect storm began to brew for illegal immigration.  Congress had exempted certain businesses from liability for hiring unauthorized immigrants in the 1950s.  This left plenty of incentive for employers to keep hiring such workers.

Then, the passage of the Immigration and Nationalization Act in 1965 limited the number of work visas approved.  Later, in the 1970s, Congress introduced more limits on immigration in general and long lines formed for visas.  Finally, political and economic upheaval engulfed Latin America.

A steady flow of unauthorized immigration ensued and remained through the beginning of the 21st Century.  The only power able to stop it came in the form of the Great Recession.

Turning Away

The evidence demonstrates that United States policy contributed significantly to this wave of unauthorized immigration in the last 50 years.  Yet, the U.S. public and our lawmakers struggle to accept this truth.

Instead, the large majority of laws related to immigration since the 1960s have focused on enforcement.  We have not created policies that have allowed us to envision immigration in a different way.  We are patching the holes in our system rather than truly solving the problem.

In first week of September of 2001, President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox reached the beginnings of an agreement on major immigration reform.  Unfortunately, the attacks of September 11 halted that reform and turned the focus right back to enforcement.

Our ability to understand unauthorized immigration in the United States requires an understanding of history.  Armed with such an understanding, we have the ability to see there is more to the story of unauthorized immigration than many people would have us believe.

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