The Wall Won’t Solve the Illegal Immigrant Problem, It Will Make it Worse

by Tony Wyman

Americans have lived with the problem of millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally for so long we don’t remember a time when the problem didn’t exist.  But there was such a time, before politicians discovered making Americans fear Mexican immigrants was political gold. Back then, migrants crossed the border with ease, staying long enough to help American farmers harvest crops before going back home in the winter.  But that all changed when politicians rewrote the laws that made migration across the Mexican border easy and created an immigration crisis that didn’t exist before.

And now, working to fulfill a campaign promise he made in 2015, President Donald Trump wants to go a step further than his predecessors by building a wall on the Mexican border.  He believes his wall will make it less likely that migrants will cross the border illegally.  But, what history tells us, is the wall will have an unintended effect: it will make it much less likely that illegal immigrants already living here will go home.

Latino Immigration Into the U.S. is Nothing New

America’s immigration crisis didn’t happen in a vacuum.  Rather, it was the result of poor immigration laws and practices over the past five decades, going back to the 1960’s.  It was that mismanagement by the U.S. federal government that created today’s illegal immigrant problem.

Flows of immigrants entering the United States from Central and South America started in earnest in the early 1900’s, but the modern period of immigration began in 1942 when the U.S. actively recruited temporary workers from Mexico under the Bracero Accord to fill agricultural jobs left open by Americans called to armed service during World War II.

Mexicans working in American farm fields.
Under the Bracero Accord, American employers recruited hundreds of thousands of workers from Mexico to work in farm fields and factories to fill labor demands unmet by American labor levels.

The program grew dramatically after the war ended when American employers warned lawmakers that continuing labor shortages would adversely impact America’s post-war booming economy.  The program brought in about 500,000 workers a year legally, with 90% entering as temporary workers and the remaining 10% staying as permanent resident.

Mexican immigrants coming into the country through this program were overwhelmingly male and primarily worked in farm fields in California and, to a lesser extent, Texas.  Some also traveled to Illinois, where Mexicans had immigrated in the 1920’s, to fill open factory positions.

As the number of permanent and temporary Mexican workers grew in the United States, social networks began to grow, connecting employers in the United States to available workers in Mexico.  By the 1960’s, these networks provided factory and farm employers with a steady and reliable source of ready laborers willing to fill positions left open by Americans.  These workers traveled back and forth across the border as seasonal jobs became available, a practice that employers institutionalized in their normal business plans and that was accepted by the American public, at large.

These cross border sojourns were entirely legal and authorized at the time, while illegal immigration was practically non-existent and, largely, restricted solely to criminal activity.  Since it was easy to get a permit to enter the country for work purposes, there was simply no reason for Mexicans to cross in perilous and illegals ways.

The Civil Rights Movement and Illegal Immigration

That all changed in 1965 when Congress made two sweeping immigration law changes in response to pressures from the civil rights movement.  The first was when Congress eliminated prohibitions against Asian and African immigrants, as well as discriminatory quotas on immigrants from Eastern Europe, and replaced them with amendments to the Immigration and Naturalization Act that established national quotas of 20,000 immigrants per country, based on American labor needs and family reunification criterion.  Congress also eliminated the Bracero Accord, reacting to accusations from civil rights activists that the program was little more than a way for employers to exploit desperate workers for cheap labor.

While the motivations behind the changes in the law regulating immigration were commendable, the results were disastrous. Prior to the changes, 500,000 Mexicans entered the country legally each year, but after, that number was restricted to just 20,000.  The demand, however, for Mexican labor didn’t drop in accordance with the new laws.  American employers still needed 500,000 Mexican laborers to fill open positions.  The changes in the laws turned the normal migration patterns of Mexican workers responding to American labor market demands into illegal immigration.

Chart on immigration.
The explosion of illegal immigration in 1965 was caused by poorly thought out legislation by the U.S. Congress.

Decades of legal migration back and forth across the border, migration that benefitted both Mexican laborers and their American employers, was disrupted, not by conditions in Mexico or criminal activities of citizens of that country, but by American politicians and activists legislating changes to the economic system of labor supply and demand.  With the stroke of a pen, they created a crisis from thin air.

The Latino Threat Narrative

By the 1970’s, American politicians began to see political opportunities arising from the issue of illegal immigration that they, themselves, created. Demands for greater border security led to increased patrols and the hiring of more agents.  The growing number of illegal immigrants captured crossing the border illegally became a major political issue, leading to the head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Leonard Chapman, writing an article in Reader’s Digest in 1976, titled “Illegal Aliens: Time to Call a Halt!”  He raised the spectrum of an invading army of immigrants threatening to overwhelm America’s ability to resist them, threatening the safety and security of the nation.  He wrote: “When I became commissioner in 1973, we were out-manned, under-budgeted, and confronted by a growing, silent invasion of illegal aliens. Despite our best efforts, the problem — critical then — now threatens to become a national disaster.”

William Colby, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Gerald Ford, warned that year that illegal immigrants from the south would create a “Spanish-speaking Quebec” in the country. “The most obvious threat,” said Director Colby, “is the fact that there are going to be 120 million Mexicans by the end of the century. . . . [The Border Patrol] will not have enough bullets to stop them.”

This “Latino Threat Narrative,” as UC-Irvine social science professor Leo R. Chavez called it in his book, “The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation,” became a rhetorical device politicians used to create an image of immigrants as a horde of invaders seeking to “destroy our way of life,” even though those who came before them, those who came legally before Congress created barriers to legal migration, did no such thing.

By framing migration across the border, migration in response to American agriculture and industry’s demand for low-cost labor, as “illegal,” it became easy for politicians to describe those crossing the border as “criminals.”  After all, it was now illegal for them to cross and that, in and of itself, was a crime, making them de facto criminals. Politicians, looking for issues to motivate and impassion voters, latched on to this narrative and began using military terms when discussing those crossing illegally and the situation at the border.  No longer were the migrants simply low-cost laborers, they were now an “invading army” of potentially dangerous criminals “threatening” our safety, presenting such a peril that border agents must “fight back” and “hold the line” against the danger.

The use of military rhetoric escalated dramatically during the 70’s and 80’s, emotionalizing the situation and making it difficult for more rational voices to be heard in the midst of responding to the “crisis.”  This led to an array of amendments passed by anti-immigrant politicians to the Immigration and Naturalization Act, all designed to reduce the problem of illegal immigration.  In the meantime, in response to the growing barriers to migration across the border, the number of immigrants permanently living here illegally grew as more and more chose to avoid the risk of not being able to return to the States by staying in the U.S. rather than going home when their labor was no longer needed.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, 1996

The decision to stay illegally and hunker down became substantially more common for immigrants following the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996.  Seeking to position himself as “tough on immigration,” President Clinton wanted to pass a law that significantly fortified the border and increased the presence of agents and barriers to immigrants crossing illegally.

Bill Clinton
Pres. Bill Clinton, seen here with Senior Adviser Rahm Emanuel (L) and other staff members, signed an act intended to curb illegal immigration that actually more than tripled the number of illegals living permanently in the U.S.

“It’s certainly the case that the administration was enforcement-minded where illegal immigration was concerned. The administration was taking a position that immigration enforcement needed to be strengthened,” said Doris Meissner, Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the Clinton Administration. “Under those circumstances, you’ve got to try to get as good a bill as you can get.”

The law they got basically created the law enforcement response to illegal immigration that we understand today.  It also directly led to the dramatic increase in the number of illegal aliens choosing to stay in the US, climbing nearly seven million to record highs in just 10 years from 5.4 million to 12.2 million.  The reason why is the IIRIRA changed immigrant math, the calculation they made every year that, in the past, led them to return home.  Now, thanks to the barriers the Clinton law put in their path, the math told immigrants it was too risky to go home, that it made more sense to stay illegally in the U.S. year round rather than take the chance they couldn’t come back.

Whereas, in the past, migrants would come and go, along with the seasonal jobs they often did, like those in the agricultural, construction or service industries, they now stayed in the U.S. waiting for those jobs to start back up.  And, of course, during the off season, these migrants had to find other work, which often led to them finding permanent jobs in industries outside of those traditionally relying on Latino workers.  Forced into staying during periods when they would normally return to Mexico, these migrants were now staying in the U.S. and competing with American workers for blue collar jobs, driving down wages and reducing employment opportunities for the country’s low-skill laborers.

Instead of solving the problem and reducing the number of illegal immigrants living permanently in the United States, President Clinton’s bill made the problem worse, driving the number of illegal aliens residing full-time in the country to record highs.

Trump’s Wall Will Do the Same

In 2011, Douglas Massey, professor of sociology at Princeton University, studied the likelihood of illegal immigrants returning to their native country at different periods in American history that coincided with changes in border enforcement policies.  What he found was the more difficult it was to cross the border, the less likely it was that migrants would go home.

“The growth of the undocumented population depends not only on the number of unauthorized entries, of course, but also on the number of undocumented departures,” he wrote. ” By 2009 the probability of returning from a first trip had dropped to zero while the probability of returning from a later trip had fallen to 0.30. Return migration fell because the militarization of the border dramatically increased the costs and risks of undocumented border crossing.”  

At a time when illegal immigration into the country is way down, reaching the lowest level in more than a decade in 2016 before Mr. Trump took office, does it really make sense to make it even less likely that illegal immigrants will return home by erecting an expensive and vast barrier across thousands of miles of the Mexican-American border?  If history provides us an indication of what greater obstacles to migration across our southern border will do, the answer, clearly, is no.

The likely outcome is the way illegals enter the country will change.  In 1992, only one in three illegal immigrants living permanently in this country entered the U.S. legally on a tourist or temporary business visa and overstayed their permit.  As border security tightened, the number increased to a high of 58% in 2012.  Not only will a wall have absolutely no impact on stopping immigrants from entering legally and overstaying their visas, if historical trends continue, it is likely to actually make the problem worse.


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7 thoughts on “The Wall Won’t Solve the Illegal Immigrant Problem, It Will Make it Worse

  1. Fabulous article! I now understand our immigration politics! I say we need immigrants from all countries and with diverse backgrounds.

  2. I’m afraid you’ve lost me… It sounds like you’re theorizing that the immigration problem currently facing the US is that it’s efforts to control immigration at the southern boarder have resulted in more illegal immigrants deciding to stay permanently in the US, rather than risk participation in the annual labor migration cycle. Carrying that a step further, and that an increasingly porous boarder will result in fewer illegal immigrants siphoning benefits away from needy US citizens and taxpayers!
    I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve misconstrued your message so badly, as evidenced by the simplistic and foolish conclusions I’ve drawn…

    1. Ken, thanks for the comment and, please, don’t feel embarrassed at all. You are very close. My point was not so much that we should make the border “porous,” but that we should consider returning to the policies prior to 1965 that allowed legal migration of workers to come and go freely in concert with the demand for labor in the agricultural, construction and service industries. When, under the Bracero Accord, migrant workers knew they could come to America, work, and then return home to their families in Mexico, they did just that. They didn’t stay. Once we put obstacles in their path that led them to believe they would be unable to return should they go home, they stayed. Building a wall might make it more difficult for immigrants to enter the country, but it won’t do anything to address the demand for laborers that our native-born population is unable to fill. The labor shortage in this country is only going to worsen as Americans age and continue to have fewer and fewer children. Until we address that issue, there will be a powerful incentive for migrants to cross our border to fill jobs Americans don’t fill. If we create a program that makes it safe, legal and affordable for workers we need to enter the country, we should see significant decreases in the numbers of people living in this country illegally. Hope that helps and, again, thanks for reading my article.

      1. Tony,
        I always appreciate your articles, as well as those of the other National Compass contributors.
        So if it’s not a porous boarder that you advocate, then exactly how would you describe it?
        Much has changed on both sides of the boarder in the fifty-plus years since the Bracero Accord, and the notion that implementation of similar policy today would result in the the same migratory behaviors of the 1960’s is beyond absurd. I’m not an advocate for a wall per se, but enhancement and extension of the physical barriers that already exist today, to improve effectiveness and cover additional critical locations, would seem but one reasonable element of a much needed increase in boarder security.

        1. Ken, I’ve had conversations with dozens of immigrants living and working here illegally. Without exception, they tell me they would leave to go home to Mexico, if they were assured they could return to the seasonal jobs they do here in the States. The jobs they do here afford their families in Mexico a standard of living they would not have if the immigrants left and could not return. While you may believe a modern Bracero Accord wouldn’t work, those trapped here by our current immigration policies say otherwise.

  3. Great information that supports my position of not building the Wall, and putting the burden of paying for it on the American Taxpayer, as well as our children, and their children having to pay for it. I highly recommend that the POTUS read Tony’s well written and historical information, something I suspect he wouldn’t understand anyway.

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