History of Illegal Immigration in U.S.

A Brief History of Illegal Immigration in the United States

“We should honor every legal immigrant here, working hard to become a new citizen. But we are also a nation of laws.”
President Bill Clinton, State of the Union Address, January 23, 1996

Illegal immigration has long been a problem in the United States, especially since the latter half of the twentieth century.

The origins of illegal immigration date to the late nineteenth century. In 1875, a federal law was passed which prohibited entry of convicts and prostitutes. In 1882 President Chester A. Arthur banned almost all Chinese immigration to the United States, and shortly thereafter barred paupers, criminals and the mentally ill from entering. Although this affected only a small percentage of immigrants, there were now distinctions between legal and illegal immigration. Before this, immigration was barely regulated.

Ellis Island, the New York portal for immigrants, opened in 1892 and became the nation’s premier federal immigration station. New arrivals were required to prove their identities, answer a series of questions, find a friend or relative who could vouch for them, and were scanned for physical ailments. When it ended operation in 1954, Ellis Island had processed over 12 million legal immigrants.

During the large wave of immigration from 1881 to 1920, nearly 23½ million immigrants poured into the United States from all over the world. In 1921, Congress passed a Quota Law that reduced immigration to 357,000 a year and limited the number of immigrants from any one country. In 1924 immigration was reduced further to 160,000 a year, and in 1929, immigration was cut to 157,000 and quotas were again reset based on national origins in the 1920 U.S. Census. The rationale was that these laws would ensure the existing ethnic composition of the country and help assimilate the 15 million southern and eastern Europeans who had entered the previous forty years.

history of illegal immigration in US
“In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person’s becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American … There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag … We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language … and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.” — Theodore Roosevelt 1907

However, the door was left open for Mexicans (who even then were desired by employers for their cheap labor) and northern Europeans. As history would show, this legal immigration led to illegal immigration and foreshadowed today’s debate on these topics. During the 1920s illegal immigration was the subject of heated Congressional debates. Edward H. Dowell, vice-president of the California Federation of Labor, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Immigration in February of 1928 about the burden of the unrestricted flow of Mexicans on the state’s taxpayers, prisons, hospitals and American workers’ wages. He estimated that while 67,000 Mexicans entered the U.S. legally the prior year, many times that number entered illegally.

Furthermore, a Los Angeles Times story from April 1926 noted that many of the ranch workers in California’s Imperial Valley entered the U.S. illegally without passing the (then) literacy test and did not pay the $18 entrance fee. In February of 1929, the U.S. House Immigration Committee heard testimony from government officials about problems with illegal immigration at the border with both Canada and Mexico, including steps that were taken to eliminate the “visa mill” at Juarez (opposite El Paso), where were found “the most lax conditions imaginable in connection with inspection of persons wishing to enter the United States.” Visas were required for legal residency.

Immigration dropped sharply during the lean years of the Great Depression. After the stock market crashed in 1929, the U.S. tightened visa rules which markedly reduced Mexican immigration. Local, state and federal government officials debated what to do with those already here. Some Mexicans repatriated themselves either voluntarily or under pressure from local welfare officials. Others were deported. Eventually between about 500,000 to 1,000,000 Mexicans left the United States between 1929 and 1939. This was due to deportation, as well as other factors such as the threat of deportation and acute unemployment.

This repatriation began during President Herbert Hoover’s administration and reached its peak in the early 1930s. It also applied to all alien groups, not just Mexicans. Hoover believed they were taking jobs from Americans, and endorsed a vigorous effort to reduce legal and illegal entries and expel “undesirable aliens.” Deportations and repatriations of Mexicans and others decreased (along with legal immigration) during President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, during the Great Depression, but did not end. In July 1935, for example, Roosevelt ordered a large deportation of alien criminals (such as mail robbers), but exempted Mexican and Canadian criminals due to the fear that they would sneak back in.

Today’s high level of illegal immigration originated during the war years of the early 1940s. Labor shortages caused the federal government to set up a program to import Mexican laborers to work temporarily in agriculture, primary in the Southwest. This was called the Bracero Program. The goal was to import foreign workers (originally thought to number in the hundreds) during agricultural harvest and then encourage them to go home.

Over the next two decades about 4.8 million Mexican workers came into the country and provided cheap labor to many U.S. employers. Although braceros were supposed to be hired only if an adequate number of Americans could not be found, employers preferred the foreign workers who were willing to work for lesser wages. The program finally ended in 1964 due to complaints from unions and Mexican-Americans that these foreigners were taking jobs from them. Not surprisingly, many of the former braceros reentered and worked in the U.S. illegally — many for the same employers. Illegal immigration increased greatly during the years of the supposed “temporary work” Bracero Program. The Los Angeles Times reported in May 1950 that 21,000 Mexican nationals had “flooded across Mexican border into the United States during April” and complained about the overworked, understaffed border patrolmen and the “the endless wave of line jumpers, unprecedented in the nation’s history.” The argument about jobs “Americans won’t do” was recited by an employer, while the authorities stressed the need to enforce the law.

During President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first term, it was estimated that illegal immigration statistics showed illegal Mexican border crossings had grown to about 1 million. Such a massive illegal workforce had a devastating impact on the wages of American workers. Eisenhower, concerned about corruption that resulted from the profits of illegal labor, took decisive action. In 1954 he appointed General Joseph Swing to head the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Shortly thereafter, “Operation Wetback” was launched. With only 1,075 Border Patrol agents, tens of thousands of illegal aliens were caught and sent back deep into Mexico. Hundreds of thousands more returned to their homeland voluntarily. Illegal immigration deportation proved to be affordable and humane and illegal immigration had dropped 95% by the end of the 1950s.

history of illegal immigration
President Eisenhower’s successful & popular deportation program called “Operation Wetback”

But it was not to last, as seen in prior decades, after the 1965 Immigration Act passed, while legal immigration increased sharply, illegal immigration rose right along with it. As the Center for Immigration Studies noted, this increased immigration in part because Congress “shifted the legal preference system to family relations and away from employment needs and immigrant ability.” Senator Edward Kennedy said at the time: “The bill will not flood our cities with immigrants. It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society.” However, this bill spurred “chain migration” which fueled illegal immigration, along with a sense of entitlement amongst illegal immigrants. In subsequent decades, Mexico has become the primary source country of both legal and illegal immigration.

Many illegal aliens also use the lure of “birthright citizenship,” (a/k/a “anchor babies”) to circumvent U.S. immigration laws and gain permanent residency, if not citizenship. This is a misinterpretation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that grants U.S. citizenship on those born on American soil, including children of illegal aliens. Illegal immigrants know that the odds are low that U.S. immigration authorities will deport them, if they have a child who is an American citizen (and who as a bonus also qualifies for taxpayer-funded benefits).

Since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Congress has passed seven amnesties:

1. Immigration and Reform Control Act (IRCA), 1986: A blanket amnesty for over 2.7 million illegal aliens

2. Section 245(i) Amnesty, 1994: A temporary rolling amnesty for 578,000 illegal aliens

3. Section 245(i) Extension Amnesty, 1997: An extension of the rolling amnesty created in 1994

4. Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA) Amnesty, 1997: An amnesty for close to one million illegal aliens from Central America

5. Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act Amnesty (HRIFA), 1998: An amnesty for 125,000 illegal aliens from Haiti

6. Late Amnesty, 2000: An amnesty for some illegal aliens who claim they should have been amnestied under the 1986 IRCA amnesty, an estimated 400,000 illegal aliens

7. LIFE Act Amnesty, 2000: A reinstatement of the rolling Section 245(i) amnesty, an estimated 900,000 illegal aliens

The largest of these amnesties was the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) which amnestied about 3 million illegal aliens. This law was supposed to be a compromise — an attempt to finally limit illegal immigration through strengthened border security and increased immigration enforcement against employers — combined with amnesty for the millions of illegal workers in the United States. Illegal immigrants who had resided in the U.S. for five years and met other conditions received temporary legal status, which could be later upgraded to citizenship.

President Ronald Reagan approved this “path to citizenship” amnesty due to what was believed to be a relatively small illegal immigrant population. Unlike many current politicians and amnesty proponents, Reagan called this what it was: amnesty. Unfortunately, there was widespread document fraud and the number of illegal aliens seeking amnesty far exceeded expectations. Most importantly, there was no political will to enforce the law against employers. The 1986 IRCA amnesty failed and actually led to millions of more people entering the United States illegally.

While President Bill Clinton made some efforts to combat illegal immigration during the 1990s, the problem remained. In 1996 the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 was passed. Still, leaders from Central American and Caribbean nations relied heavily on untaxed remittances sent back to their countries from the United States, and worried that Clinton would support mass deportations. While at least paying lip service to enforcement of laws, Clinton assured these leaders that there would be no mass deportations. There were about 7 million illegal aliens residing in the U.S. when he left office.

The eight years of President George W. Bush’s administration saw a marked increase in illegal immigration and a drop in immigration enforcement throughout much of his tenure. For example, the number of illegal aliens arrested in workplace cases fell from nearly 3,000 in 1999 to 445 in 2003, with the number of criminal cases against employers during this period falling from 182 to four. Not surprisingly, by 2005, there were an estimated 10-20 million illegal aliens living in the United States. Even at the end of 2007 after the Bush administration’s enforcement crackdown had been underway; only 92 criminal arrests of employers had taken place, in an economy that, according to the Washington Post, includes 6 million businesses that employ more than 7 million illegal foreign workers.

Despite the failure of past amnesties and the fact that these increase illegal immigration, Bush repeatedly pushed mass legalization (amnesty) schemes for illegal immigrants using the well-worn line that they “are doing jobs Americans will not” or “are not” doing. One scheme was the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act 2007 which was defeated by widespread popular opposition.

Today, over 1 million immigrants enter our country legally per year, while the illegal alien population grows by about 500,000 per year. Most of those who violate our borders and enter illegally come from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Only about 6 percent of the illegals come from Canada and Europe. Close to half of all illegal immigrants now residing in the U.S. did not enter illegally but rather overstayed their visas. Just as the federal government has historically failed to secure its borders, it has concurrently failed to closely monitor visa holders.

About 12-20 million illegal aliens currently reside in America according to several professional estimates of how many illegal immigrants are in the United States. California has more illegals than any other state, at about 2.4 million. Others states with high illegal alien populations include Texas, Florida and New York, although many states are now impacted.

Americans of all backgrounds are still seriously concerned about the negative impact of illegal immigration, such as with the number of bankrupted hospitals, overcrowded schools, and increased crime. Taxpayers pay dearly for this, illustrating the high cost of so-called “cheap labor” for some unscrupulous employers and their political allies who for decades have watered down immigration laws. For example, in California alone, as of 2004 the net cost of illegal immigration to taxpayers is estimated to be nearly $9 billion annually.  This is why so many American citizens want to fight illegal immigration to reverse it!

Despite Americans’ opposition to illegal immigration and amnesty, open border advocates are pressuring President Barack Obama to pass yet another mass amnesty for illegal aliens. These special interests and their allies in the mainstream media continually attempt to re frame the debate away from the core issues (e.g., illegality, sovereignty, overpopulation, fiscal costs), and redefine the terms used in the debate. The most common euphemisms for amnesty used by the open-border lobby are: “comprehensive immigration reform,” “pathway to citizenship,” “earned legalization,” “guest” or “temporary worker plan,” and bringing “undocumented immigrants” “out of the shadows.” Citizens concerned about illegal immigration should also be aware that pro-illegal alien advocates often offer the false choice between either mass deportation or mass amnesty. They say that since we can’t “round up and deport 12 million people” we have to provide them with a “pathway to citizenship” (i.e. amnesty).

However, there is a common sense, humane and cost-effective way to solve the problem of illegal immigration, without resorting to either mass deportation or amnesty. This is called “attrition through enforcement” wherein if our existing immigration laws are consistently enforced and jobs cut off, the number of illegal aliens will return to their home countries over time. This middle-ground strategy is endorsed by real immigration reform groups and illegal immigration expert sources such as ALIPAC and NumbersUSA.

Acknowledgments: Special thanks to NumbersUSA for the history of amnesties and Americans for Legal Immigration PAC for archived information.  For a more in-depth review of this subject please visit our illegal immigration articles collection.