Immigration’s Border-Enforcement Myth

Congress has about another month before Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that protects young undocumented immigrants from deportation (and which President Trump terminated in September), officially comes to an end. It remains to be seen whether Congress will legalize these so-called Dreamers, and what concessions will be made in return. But this much is certain: Any deal will include appropriations for enhanced border enforcement.

We’ve been here before. The last major immigration reform bill, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which was signed by President Ronald Reagan, legalized nearly three million undocumented immigrants in exchange for increased enforcement along the United States-Mexico border. (It also legislated sanctions against employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers.) The law was more than just a compromise between pro-immigrant liberals and pro-enforcement conservatives. It embodied the idea that we could “wipe the slate clean” by legalizing the undocumented already here and preventing future unauthorized entries.

This idea, which continues to shape the national debate about immigration, is based on the false premise that the nation’s borders can be made impregnable. In truth, undocumented migration is not an aberration of “normal” immigration. It is the inevitable result of any general policy of immigration restriction. Restriction creates two streams of immigration, lawful and unlawful. It is a conceit of the sovereign power to think that it can have only legal immigration.

The history of immigration in the United States demonstrates this. The Chinese exclusion laws of the late 19th century led to unlawful entry by so-called paper sons (those born in China who claimed they were sons of United States citizens) and spawned an immigration bureaucracy based on extreme vetting, detention and deportations, all tactics that were largely unsuccessful.

The National Origins Act of 1924 reduced general immigration to 15 percent of pre-World War I levels, setting quotas that discriminated against Southern and Eastern Europeans. It also created the Border Patrol. The result was to make undocumented migration a mass phenomenon.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 kept a low ceiling on immigration but replaced the racist quotas with a system based on equal quotas for all countries and preferences for family members. That created long lines for visas for countries with large emigration demand (Mexico, India, China and the Philippines). As a result, there was a spike in unauthorized entries.

The 1986 law, with its provisions for legalization and increased border enforcement, aimed to correct the problem. Since then, the United States has spent $263 billion on immigration enforcement, much of it along the southern border. These efforts have slowed, but not eliminated, unauthorized entry. They also had the unintended consequence of encouraging undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States rather than risk the increased dangers that became attached to seasonal migration.

Migration is propelled by irrepressible human desires for family unification, economic improvement and physical safety. It is very difficult for national states to stop migration, short of taking draconian measures that democratic societies will not tolerate. More than 80 percent of Americans support legalization for the undocumented. Large majorities oppose mass deportations, because they are cruel, as well as President Trump’s proposed wall along the United States-Mexico border, because it will be ineffectual as well as expensive.

Read the entire op ed here:


Mae Ngai