Latin American Migration and U.S. Policies

In its current form, Latin American emigration disproportionately affects the United States.

There are an estimated 52 million people of Hispanic origin living in the United States, of which 33 million (64%) were born there and are thus citizens. Many of these families have been in the country for generations, especially in the American Southwest.

Nearly 19 million were born abroad. While many of these immigrants have legal right to remain, demographers estimate that 60% are here without authorization. The unauthorized immigrant population has more than tripled since 1990 from 3.5 million to 11.5 million, and the largest percentage increase has been in the Old South and the Mountain West states.

Latin America and the Caribbean account for nearly 80% of unauthorized residents in the United States, and Mexicans represent two-thirds of Latin Americans and half of all unauthorized migrants.

With numbers in thousands, this graph represents the country of birth of unauthorized immigrants in the United States in 2009.

The regulations that the United States has put in place over the years to manage immigration are important in defining the patterns and experiences of migration.

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act repealed the nationality-based quota system erected in the 1924, replacing it with a visa system targeting skilled labor and preference for family members. The latter component continues to be a central feature of contemporary immigration policy.

The three decades following the bill’s signing into to law witnessed the arrival of more than 18 million legal immigrants, equaling a threefold increase over the period between 1935 and 1965. From 1965 to 1990, an important shift emerged as Mexicans became the largest group of immigrants while the number of Europeans fell precipitously.

Yet, perhaps the most consequential law was 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

Pedestrian border crossing Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico.

This law allowed unauthorized residents to apply for legal status, which they could gain provided they met a set of criteria such as not having a criminal record and having maintained continuous presence in the country since January 1, 1982. In return, they gave up access to public welfare programs for five years. This latter provision did not apply to Cubans and Haitians. Nevertheless, an intensification of Latin American immigration, especially from Mexico, started.

The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act augmented resources for border security and announced penalties for employers of unauthorized immigrants. Section 287(g) of the 1996 law had been used to empower local law enforcement with certain abilities to enforce federal immigration law, in particular allowing a law enforcement officer to inquire about a person’s immigration status. The program was scaled back in December 2013 due to criticism that it promoted racial profiling.

Instead, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has utilized the Secure Communities program which was piloted in 2008 and is operational all jurisdictions nationwide. This program, which does not allow law enforcement to ask about residency status, calls for an arrested person’s fingerprints to be run against a national residency database. This practice, too, has generated criticism by civil rights and immigration reform activists and the Obama administration announced in November 2014 that it would discontinue the program.

These combined programs, nevertheless, have led to the deportation of nearly 300,000 convicted criminal aliens and over 1 million total people in the U.S. without authorization since President Obama took office in January 2009. The overwhelming majority of those deported are Latin Americans.

One of the immediate political consequences of the number of migrants from Latin America has been the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.

More armed personnel and border patrol agents guard the frontier now than ever before, growing from 9,800 in 2001 to 21,394 in 2012. The government has erected physical barriers and enhanced surveillance equipment.

The perceived crisis about a decade ago also led to the rise of vigilante groups, such as the Minutemen, who took it upon themselves to watch the border. In response, migrants increasingly use so-called “coyotes” (guides) and thus pay more for traveling across the border.

The great irony of this militarization after the 1996 law is that it did little to stanch the flow of unauthorized immigrants. Rather, it led immigrants who successfully crossed to settle permanently in the United States. The new difficulties and dangers of crossing acted as a strong disincentive for circular or seasonal migration. In this sense, increased border security ended historical patterns of movement back and forth and created a disincentive for migrants ever to return.

A photo of "Border Control at Sea"  by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Another political consequence is the polarization of activists largely into two camps, namely those that look at migration and family unification as a fundamental human right and those that emphasize the importance of the rule of law and the right of nations to secure their own borders.

According to one pernicious current of discourse, all Latin American immigrants are criminal by virtue of their unauthorized status. As political scientist Greg Weeks points out, being in the United States without authorization is a civil offense, not a criminal one; it’s more akin to a traffic ticket than arrest for assault.

When discussing the issue of immigration, it is worth distinguishing between people of Latin American origin born in the United States, those born abroad but with legal residence in the United States, and those here without authorization. In the discussion surrounding immigration reform, the term “Hispanic” is used to denote people from primarily Spanish American countries and also includes Brazilians and Haitians.

Obviously, this term as well as “Latino” flattens the diversity of these different Latin American and Caribbean immigrants and an Argentine living in Miami will likely view himself as having very little in common with a Salvadoran in Monroe, North Carolina or a Mexican in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Yet these catchall terms shape the contours of the debate.

Immigration and Economy in the Americas: What is Gained, What is Lost

Many critics assert unauthorized immigrants take from U.S. public services without paying into them.

Yet, nearly $1 trillion, most of which was contributed by unauthorized residents, has been deposited into the “Earnings Suspense File” of the Social Security Trust. By virtue of their status, they will never be able to claim these funds and thus, as the Center for American Progress (CAP), among others, points out, unauthorized immigrants have helped keep the Trust solvent.

On May Day, 2006 - a march in downtown Los Angeles calling for illegal immigrants' amnesty

In addition, all residents pay consumption taxes, whether at the grocery store, the movie theater, or the gas pump. Further, whether unauthorized immigrants rent or own they pay property taxes.

Opponents of illegal immigration argue that such people use medical services at hospitals, which by law have to serve all who arrive, without paying for it. Yet Greg Weeks observes in his 2010 book Irresistible Forces that these immigrants tend to be healthier and use the services less.

Finally, much rhetoric swirls about whether or not unauthorized Latin American immigrants take jobs from U.S. citizens. As commentators from comedian Stephen Colbert to Harvard economists have pointed out, the anecdotal and empirical data suggest that if any class of Americans is affected by the presence of illegal immigrants, it is high school dropouts.

More generally, these immigrant workers often help grow the economy. Economist Heidi Shierholz told the New York Times Magazine in 2013 that among her peers “there is a consensus that, on average, the incomes of families in this country are increased by a small, but clearly positive amount, because of immigration.”

In sum, much of the scholarly research demonstrates unauthorized immigrants pay taxes, use fewer services than presumed, and benefit the U.S. economy.

Similarly, there are important economic consequences for the sending countries, especially in the form of remittances. Immigrants remit billions of dollars to their families in their country of origin. While Mexicans return the most money, it is a small portion of that country’s massive economy.

Cash infusions from Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan emigrants, however, account for 16.5%, 15.7%, and 10% of their respective nations’ GDPs. This importance cannot be understated. Economists suggest that El Salvador’s poverty rate would spike sharply if remittances stopped.

While there is some concern in Latin American countries about “brain drain” to the United States, they do not discourage emigration for work in lesser skilled industries because the remittances are vital.

As a result, Latin American states have become proactive in engaging their diasporas by establishing mobile consulates that travel to areas with concentrations of their nationals and defending them to U.S. officials.

Latin American Immigration and the Future of U.S. Politics

Shortly after the November 2014 elections, President Obama announced a new executive action expanding deportation relief to parents residing without authorization in the U.S. whose children were born there. This decree built upon the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which provided deportation relief for children and young adults who were brought to the United States without authorization by the parents.

The two programs permit the undocumented to receive a federal Employment Authorization Card and a social security number; the former must be renewed every two years. These documents enable many immigrants to secure a driver’s license in their states of residence. This has allowed many unauthorized immigrants to come out of the shadows and more fully integrate into local communities and labor markets.

Both programs provoked angry reactions from Republican politicians, who accused the president of ruling by fiat.

Immigration reform activists experienced mixed feelings because the new program was not as expansive as they had hoped. In one of its first actions of the new session, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed a bill containing language rolling back the president’s November program.

A fuller understanding of global processes that shape the conditions in which millions of people personally decide to migrate is vital for the crafting of a comprehensive and holistic set of policies both in the United States and in the sending countries.

Students sit in on Senator John McCain's office to protest on behalf of the DREAM Act in May of 2010

For instance, the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras announced in November 2014 the creation of the “Alliance for Prosperity,” a program designed to transform emigration from an economic necessity to one of many options by investing in productive development, human capital development, citizen security, and strengthening of local institutions in their own countries.

An initial estimate of the program’s cost was $15 billion, most of which would need to be provided by foreign donors. Given the impoverished nature of these countries and the inability to effectively collect taxes, it is unclear how the plan will be implemented without outside donors.

Nevertheless, investing in people and institutions to develop local economies is vital to stemming the flow of emigrants in the middle and long terms.

In the United States, history suggests that immigration policies must reflect two basic elements, namely the reality of labor markets and the reality of the millions of immigrants residing in the country without authorization.

Migrants look at laws as simply one consideration of many when deciding to move. Yet a robust and sensible set of policies, such as a clearinghouse in which firms in need of lesser skilled labor can be matched with those desiring employment, is a first step to regularize labor migration that is otherwise contingent upon demographics, wages, and labor demand and less so on current immigration laws.

Secondly, laws utilized by the United States a century ago and with IRCA in 1986 provide a guidepost for the current phenomenon. Allowing unauthorized residents the opportunity to come out of the shadows and petition for legal residence (and not necessarily citizenship) provided they meet a set of criteria, such as demonstrating the payment of taxes and good behavior (e.g. no arrests), will strengthen communities and the economy.

Thus, combining programs in the sending and receiving countries is a necessary step to better allow nation-states to navigate the larger global forces that impel their citizens to migrate. Without these approaches, punitive laws will not dissuade people from entering without authorization.

The Americas have long featured prominently in global immigration processes, initially serving as primary destinations for migrants. Over the course of the twentieth century, Latin America transformed to an exporter of people, disproportionately affecting the U.S.

If the history of mass migration teaches us anything, it is that migrants will find a way to seek out new opportunities, and laws largely will not affect the flow of people so much as influence how these migrants integrate in local societies once they arrive at their destination.