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October 01, 2005

Immigration Landmark Reached

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A new study of immigration by the Pew Hispanic Center has turned up a startling fact that might give pause to supporters of current policies: We now receive more illegal immigrants than we do legal immigrants. According to Pew demographer Jeffrey Passel, never before in the history of the U.S. has such a thing been the case. "This is what differentiates this from 100 years ago," says Passel. "There really wasn't anything like what we call illegal immigration today."

A couple of questions:

  • If illegal immigration from Mexico is inevitable, as some make it out to be, then why was there so little illegal immigration from Mexico prior to the mid-1960s?

  • During the era of immense immigration that took place circa 1900, no one country of origin dominated our immigrant population the way that Mexico dominates it now; the Pew report describes Mexico as "the largest single source of U.S. immigrants by far." Given this fact, why do so many fans of diversity defend current arrangements? That's right: Although today's immigration enthusiasts often pose as advocates of diversity, they're in fact advocating an immigration policy that results in nothing like immigrant diversity.

Here's the Pew Hispanic Center's study (PDF). Here's a Washington Post article about the study.



UPDATE: Randall Parker links to a Robert Samuelson column explaining that, since 1980, Hispanics have "represented almost three-quarters of the increase in [the U.S.'s] poverty population." If we're serious about attacking poverty, perhaps we might think twice about continuing to import ever more of it.

UPDATE 2: Tyler Cowen explains some of the reasons why immigration from Mexico today is so much more of a problem than it once was.

posted by Michael at October 1, 2005


I think there are some obvious factors addressing your first question, but nobody wants to hear them publicly. The price floor of labor (aka "minimum wage") inevitably creates incentive for extralegal sources of cheaper labor. As with union membership or credentials/certifications in economically restricted professions (and I'm not kidding myself that quality control is all that's behind the hoops set up in education, medicine, or law), in-group status becomes a commodity. So, on the one hand, the out-group workers are helping to repair a market imbalance, but, on the other hand, they really want to get *in* as much as possible. Absent abolishment of the barrier (just about the least politically feasible move conceivable), the trick is to keep the out group out as much as possible while giving them reason to think they're getting in.

Posted by: J. Goard on October 1, 2005 1:26 PM

why was there so little illegal immigration from Mexico prior to the mid-1960s?

Answer: There were no numerical quotas on immigration to the US from within the western hemisphere until 1965. Therefore, all immigration from Mexico "prior to the mid-1960s" was legal. Immigration from mexico - or central america, or south america - just wasn't perceived as a social problem, and was as uncontrolled as immigration from Canada. Immigration from the western hemisphere was somewhat controlled in 1965 but wasn't significantly restricted until 1976.

So if you want the problem of illegal immigration from Mexico to be reduced to what it was "before the mid-1960s" the course is clear: drop the barriers. I think I can pretty much guarantee that if you make immigration legal, the problem of "illegal immigration" will go away.

Posted by: Glen Raphael on October 1, 2005 2:14 PM

Here's an immigration law timeline.
Note particularly this part:1952—The multiple laws which governed immigration and naturalization to that time were brought into one comprehensive statute. It (1) reaffirmed the national origins quota system, (2) limited immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere while leaving the Western Hemisphere unrestricted, (3) established preferences for skilled workers and relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens; and (4) tightened security and screening standards and procedures.

1965 added "a separate 120,000 ceiling for the Western Hemisphere.", and in 1976 "The 20,000 per-country immigration ceilings and the preference system became applied to Western-Hemisphere countries."

So 1976 was the first year in which a specific quota applied to Mexico.

Posted by: Glen Raphael on October 1, 2005 2:21 PM

The timeline link doesn't seem to have worked. Here's the URL again:

Posted by: Glen Raphael on October 1, 2005 2:23 PM

If there were no legal restrictions on Western Hemisphere immigration, what function did Operation Wetback serve?

Posted by: Jim Kalb on October 1, 2005 2:47 PM

Eisenhower sent back over a million illegal immigrants in the fifties. Back then, immigration was controlled. Today, big business wants the cheap labor and they are determined to have their way. Follow the money.

Posted by: Xenophon on October 1, 2005 3:09 PM

"The price floor of labor (aka "minimum wage") inevitably creates incentive for extralegal sources of cheaper labor."

The highest level of the minimum wage relative to the average wage was in the late 70s, it was considerably higher then than it is now. Have you noticed a decline in illegal immigration relative to the 70s?

It is much more logical to look toward business pressure for lower wages than labor pressure for higher wages as an explanation of illegal immigration, and why our government looks the other way about it.

If we got rid of minimum wages, eliminated barriers to entry for immigrants, and counted on the free market to end illegal immigration the logical end result would be the equalization of wages and working conditions for unskilled labor between the U.S. and Mexico. We are on our way there now unless something is done, but perhaps this is not actually a desireable outcome.

Posted by: MQ on October 1, 2005 5:31 PM

Correction: There were a few legal restrictions, but no numerical quotas and no restrictions that were particular to Mexicans or those from Latin America generally.


"Also contributing to the unique situation of Mexicans is their special place in the history of U.S. immigration policy. The national-origin quota system established in 1924 applied only to European and Asian countries, not to Mexico or indeed to any other Western hemisphere countries. While there were various qualitative restrictions on immigrants from within this hemisphere (for example, literacy and public charge tests), there were no quantitative restrictions. These did not come until 1968. Even before this date, the so-called Texas Proviso, which effectively exempted U.S. employers of illegal immigrants from any penalties, was in effect. As a result, for much of the twentieth century there was a virtually open border between the United States and Mexico--punctuated by periods of forced repatriation, such as occurred during the Depression and again during the 1950s (an effort notoriously called "Operation Wetback")."

So it looks like the mexican "illegals" in the 50s were temporary workers who didn't want to bother with the trouble of going through the standard process or could have flunked some qualitative test in place at the time - literacy or solvency. But there was no /quantitative/ test - no numerical limit on immigrants from Mexico.

So I still say the reason illegal immigration soared after the mid-60s is because that was when we started applying hard numerical restrictions to our next-door neighbors.

Posted by: Glen Raphael on October 1, 2005 8:55 PM

It appears that in 1940 the Hispanic population of the United States was less than 2 million, in 1970 it was about 9 million , and in March 2002 it was 37.4 million. Immigration from Latin America, mostly from Mexico, has definitely been soaring. On those figures it's hard to believe that the growth of illegal immigration has just been a result of additional legal restrictions.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on October 2, 2005 6:28 AM

Jim: Why /immigration/ increased is of course a different question than why /illegal/ immigration increased, but it does seem clear tha some part of the reason "the hispanic population" increased is due directly to the restrictions. When it was easy to cross the border, people who came came here to work would return home again knowing that they could always come back next season. With stricter borders, crossing repeatedly became a riskier and more expensive proposition, so those who were prompted to come here for economic reasons were driven to cross once and stay to raise a family and make a career out of it. Thus we have more permanent residents relative to guest workers. So relaxing border restrictions for temporary labor would have the effect of reducing immigration.

Not that I think reducing immigration is a good thing, mind you. As I see it, a country can never have too much cheap labor or too many great ethnic restaurants.

Posted by: Glen Raphael on October 2, 2005 2:42 PM

If you substitute the word fracture for the word diversity you are on to the true motivation of the diversity crowd. They don't want a diversified America, they want a fractured America, a collection of populations rather than a people. And they're well on their way to achieving that end. The final goal is the dismemberment of America. It's insane but when was that ever a hindrance to ideologues?

Posted by: ricpic on October 2, 2005 2:59 PM

"Not that I think reducing immigration is a good thing, mind you. As I see it, a country can never have too much cheap labor or too many great ethnic restaurants."

Glen, I finally get it. You are just kidding us up, aren't you?

Otherwise, if you're serious that having laws -- however ill-enforced -- restricting immigration is the cause of illegal immigration, I must readjust my thinking about quite a few things.

Clearly, brushing one's teeth causes tooth decay. Changing a car's engine oil makes it wear out faster. Too much sobriety causes hangovers.

You are one bold thinker, Glen.

Posted by: Rick Darby on October 2, 2005 4:40 PM

There are two sides fervently in favor of illegal immigration: The Bush Administration and some conservatives, and many Democrats and open-border progressives. Throughout his administration, Dubya has consistently spoken in favor of various guest worker programs, has undermined border enforcement programs, and punishes any Republican who goes off the reservation by not supporting his immigration policy. Here in California, when a Republican officeholder recently endorsed a strong independent anti-illegal immigration candidate, another congressman, Darryl Issa, suggested that the officeholder be drummed out of the party. Other California Republicans blatantly lie about their immigration stance, or softpedal anything that is not open border.

The Wall Street Journal and various conservative think tanks are all for allowing illegal labor under the guise of promoting free markets, even though this creates a dangerous asymmetry since Mexico strictly enforces its immigration policies and also restricts the flow of non-Mexican capital and labor into the country (for example, non citizens can lease homes, but not own them outright, and there are similar barriers against non citizen businesses and investment). Meanwhile, banks make big money on the remittance business ($5 billion outflow to Mexico annually), S&Ls and mortgage companies willingly sell homes to illegals, making it less likely that they will return to their home country, and the construction industry lives on illegal immigrant skilled and semi-skilled labor, where a $20 an hour average wage, paid under the table without employment taxes or worker’s comp contributions, still beats out having to pay union wages – and unions look the other way because this scheme protects more senior members.

But to answer the question, why is it easier now than in the past: corruption and oligarchic practices chokes off employment and economic development in Mexico, but there are millions of working age adults who want to work. Border enforcement is extremely lax. Employers, from corporations to small business owners to middle class women looking for housekeepers, are eager to hire illegals at a lower wage. Progressives are willing to subsidize illegals by making sure that social services, education, and health care are easily available even if taxes on everyone else are higher. The existence of strong, stable citizen and legal resident Latino communities makes it easier to absorb illegals, and a kind of tipping point has been reached where there is a de facto open border, with many moving fairly easily back and forth between Mexico and the US.

Any discussion about eliminating the minimum wage to ameliorate illegal immigration is largely a dodge. Except for some unskilled jobs like the car wash industry, some seasonal agricultural work, and the fashion industry, most illegals make more than the minimum wage. The benefit to business is in employment and insurance taxes, workers comp, overtime and other amounts that would have to be paid by the employer on behalf of citizens and legal residents. In some coffee shops and restaurants, almost all the workers, from the wait staff to the busboys to the cooks, are illegal. But whereas a cook formerly made about $15 an hour, an illegal cook will work for $9 an hour, which puts citizen job applicants at a permanent disadvantage. An informal network exists, so that when an illegal moves up or on, another illegal takes his or her place, and some jobs are never advertised to the larger workforce. Some Asian businesses, which formerly employed family members or friends from the same village or province, increasingly employ illegals, and recently there have been news stories about a new phenomenon, bi-lingual workers whose second language is another non-English language (e.g., Korean and Spanish) to accommodate these new employment realities.

Posted by: Alec on October 2, 2005 6:03 PM

As a Mexican who lives in the U.S., I never cease to be amazed misconceptions most non-Hispanic white Americans have about my fellow countrymen who also live in this country. A few pointers:

1. DON'T WORRY about Mexicans eventually developing Quebec-style separatists ambitions. After all, like all previous immigrants, they're grateful for receiving an opportunity to vastly improve their living conditions and understand that to prosper they have to assimimilate. The fact that they are proud of their culture and traditions, just like the Irish or Italians that came before, does not change this one bit.

2. DON'T WORRY about hearing Spanish everywhere. Remember that most Hispanic immigrants came here during the last 20 years. Focus on their US-born children: nearly all speak English fine (or want to do so). In my case, I mostly worry about my two sons forgetting Spanish (for some reason Americans have a hard time understanding that individuals can be perfectly bilingual or that, perish the very thought, this is even desirable).

3. DO WORRY about the immigrants' lack of skills. The gap between the education level of the average Mexican and the average American has kept on growing, which certainly has negative consequences. Since the educational success of children often depends in part on their parent's educational level, this implies that Mexican immigrants will take three or four generations to fully catch-up to the mainstream, making it likely that those living in areas with poor shcools will end up in perpetual poverty traps.

4. DO WORRY about U.S. policy in Latin America. For the last three decades, U.S. policy towards Latin America has been dictated by loony, far-right Cuban exiles and the DEA. These people don't give a rat's ass about economic assistance, the promotion of democracy/human rights, efforts to assist civil society, etc., which could really make a difference in the long run and thus reduce emigration. In fact, the U.S.-led war on drugs is the biggest destabilizing force in Latin America, while American's remaining diplomatic efforts in the region usually focus on getting LA countries to sign onto some meaningless UN resultion condemming Cuba (not that I'm in favor of Castro, but there are far nastier and more dangerous people in this world).

Posted by: Andres on October 3, 2005 1:40 AM

Andres --

Your post implies that you believe that Mexicans should have an absolute, unqualified right of entry to the United States to work and to live. If so, this gets to the heart of the current immigration issue.

I have no problem with legal immigration, and certainly do not fear Mexicans, Mexican language or Spanish language culture, nor do most people who want to eliminate or restrict illegal immigration. But as I noted, there is a curious assymetry here. I might support open borders if there were a North American federation in which all people could freely travel between the United States, Canada and Mexico in order to work, live and start businesses, and there were uniform labor laws and reasonable tax laws to support this. But I'm not holding my breath waiting for this to happen.

Also, I think that US foreign policy is less an issue than the rampant oligarchic cronyism and corruption that still infects the Mexican government and that nation's economy. And the idea that the US should offer economic assistance to Mexico is just not acceptable. Mexico is a rich country with abundant natural and human resources, including substantial oil wealth. I find it frustrating that Mexico is not more productive, and has not provided more opportunities for its people.

Posted by: Alec on October 3, 2005 12:15 PM

If we got rid of minimum wages, eliminated barriers to entry for immigrants, and counted on the free market to end illegal immigration the logical end result would be the equalization of wages and working conditions for unskilled labor between the U.S. and Mexico.

Well, yes, I think that's another way of phrasing my point about artificial price barriers for labor. So where do we disagree?

There would still be differences, based upon local supply and demand of labor, cost of travel, other factors governing cost of living, and the like, just as there are across the U.S. today. I believe that a job at Starbucks pays quite differently in San Francisco versus Redding. But, in general, yes, some of the people in the lower two-thirds of North America would not have pieces of paper granting them the right to supply an artificially restricted quantity of labor at a higher price, while the rest have to fight for those pieces of paper while simultaneously rectifying the artificial restriction in an extralegal manner. This situation would be called a pernicious monopoly if it concerned any commodity other than labor.

Posted by: J. Goard on October 3, 2005 8:03 PM

Mr. Goard:

If eliminating a 'pernicious monopoly' on labor by permitting free movement of labor were all there was to it, then the matter would be simple. However, over here in the real world, we have a large number of income redistribution mechanisms in place, designed generally to benefit the same class of citizens currently enjoying that pernicious monopoloy. If those redistribution programs are not eliminated, that redistribution will occur not merely to the current recipients of transfer payments but with the large majority of people on Earth. Are you really prepared to pay that bill?

Likewise, free movement of labor into this country puts no pressure at all on the truly pernicious monopolists (i.e., the political elites of the Third World) who currently mismanage the economies of most of the earth for their own fun and profit. In fact the movement of labor into the U.S. that currently exists, as best I can tell, makes the lives of this elite (check out Mexico's governing class) more happy and prosperous. Is this an end you approve of?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 4, 2005 2:00 PM

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