The recent influx of unaccompanied minors crossing illegally into the U.S. from Central America has prompted many elected officials, particularly conservatives, to strike a more hawkish tone on immigration. Republicans and a handful of Democrats in the House of Representatives voted symbolically to end President Barack Obama’s policy of deferring deportation for immigrants brought here illegally as children this month. Last week, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he also supported ending the 2012 policy, known as deferred action for childhood arrivals, or DACA. In other words, conservatives are responding to the border crisis by calling for the deportation of the so-called "Dreamers," undocumented youth who once rallied behind the Dream Act.
As we’ve written before, this view that DACA spurred this crisis isn’t based on much evidence. Today’s irrational immigration debate shows that elected officials still don’t understand why Latin Americans are crossing the border illegally and they have no idea how to address the problem.
To understand why the United States has the immigration problem it has, it’s best to look past the current crisis. Numerically speaking, it's not particularly significant. Since Mexicans are the largest national-origin group of undocumented immigrants in the United States, looking back at the case of Mexico can help provide a better understanding of the issue. U.S. policies implemented long before DACA played a role in exacerbating the problem of illegal immigration, while some economic and demographic causes responsible for it have nothing to do with U.S. policy.
Spanish colonizers arrived in North America about a century before the first Anglo settlers
The Church of San Jose de los Jemez, which was built in the 17th century during Spain's colonization of New Mexico. (AP)
The people who set out to colonize North America set out on expeditions from the territory today known as Mexico throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Though they worked on behalf of the Spanish empire, the people themselves were often not Spaniards, but people of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage, as well as indigenous and black people. The people known today as Mexicans have populated North America for longer than English-speaking people.
Mexicans helped launch the Texas Revolution
Two-time Texas State Sen. José Antonio Navarro
Anglo settlers from the newly independent United States immigrated in large numbers to the Mexican territory of Texas in the early 19th century, often illegally, seeking land and opportunities for commerce.
Local Mexican elites, alienated from a distant government seated in Mexico City, favored liberal immigration and many of them -- including politicians who would go on to hold public office in Texas after the revolution, like José Antonio Navarro and Juan Seguín -- supported the rebellion that led to Texan independence in 1836.
A lot of Mexicans lived here at the time of the Mexican-American War
Map of the United States of Mexico, 1847. This was appended to the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo which ended the Mexican American War (1846-1848) (Getty)
The war has that name for a reason: the territory that became the U.S. Southwest belonged to Mexico before the United States won the war.
The two countries share a border
That may seem obvious, but this fact is more significant than it first appears. The U.S.-Mexico border is one of the few places on the globe where what used to be known as the “First World” and the “Third World” meet. (The “Second World” referred to the now nearly defunct Communist world.) And at nearly 2,000 miles, it’s a long border. So it’s not a surprise that when jobs are scarce, Mexican workers would view the more prosperous labor market just next door as attractive. Mexican nationals have migrated across the border for short-term agricultural work routinely since the 19th century.
Mexican migrant workers, employed under the Bracero Program to harvest crops on Californian farms, are shown picking chili peppers in this 1964 photograph (AP)
The program fueled circular migration patterns that continued long after the Bracero program was terminated. It’s not surprising that after the United States sought Mexican laborers, others agricultural workers followed in their footsteps.
Congress irrationally restricted the number of immigrant visas for Mexicans
FrozenShutter via Getty Images
Despite the fact that the United States showed consistent demand for Mexican labor over the course of the mid-20th century, Congress capped the number of immigrant visas available to Mexicans after shutting down the Bracero Program.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 prohibited unskilled Mexican laborers from receiving Legal Permanent Resident visas, despite U.S. demand for labor and a large pool of unskilled labor in Mexico. Unsurprisingly, the number of undocumented Mexicans caught crossing illegally tripled from 1965 to 1970, according to a 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service.
By 1976, the backlog of Mexican applicants to immigrate to the United States topped 300,000. Congress responded by capping the number of immigrant visas for Mexicans at 20,000 in 1977 -- a number grossly out of sync with U.S. demand for Mexican labor and the supply of qualified and interested applicants.
Mexico went through a demographic boom
The wave of mass migration in the 1990s was fed in part by a demographic boom that petered out years ago, policy analyst Shannon O’Neil writes in her book Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico the United States, and the Road Ahead. Mexico’s birth rate stood at about seven children per mother in 1970. By 2007, that figure stood at slightly more than two children per mother.
The United States may soon envy the time when it easily attracted workers from Mexico, as the U.S. population ages and it becomes more difficult to attract foreign labor, according to O’Neil. “The 30-year wave of supply-led migration between the United States and Mexico has now passed, and will likely never happen again,” she writes.
NAFTA killed low-skilled jobs in Mexico, while creating them in the United States
Mexican farmers take part 31 January, 2008 in Mexico City in a march of hundreds of corn producers protesting against the NAFTA (Getty)
The generation that was born into Mexico’s baby boom years, however, hit the labor market right as globalization was beginning to profoundly change both the Mexican and American economies. The North American Free-Trade Agreement accelerated those changes in some industries.