Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Battlefield: El Paso

by Douglas S. Massey

From the July/August 2009 issue of The National Interest.

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.

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