Attempts at immigration reform have been undistinguished at the federal level. The last serious bipartisan effort — the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 — failed. Since then, states have enacted their own legislation, which go to great extents to deter illegal immigration. For example, in one of the most extreme provisions — that was struck down in Arizona, but upheld in Alabama — officers must check the immigration statuses of individuals who they stop or arrest when they suspect them to be in the country illegally.
Severe immigration laws like these at the state level appear to differ drastically and unprecedentedly from legislation previously debated at the federal level and are gaining momentum in at least six states. These laws are noteworthy because they come at a time when illegal immigration to the United States is declining dramatically.
According to Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, a professor of globalization and education at New York University and co-founder of the Harvard Immigration Project, since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, illegal immigration has significantly decreased while lawful immigration has remained steady. But if illegal immigration is declining, why is legislation that drastically deters it becoming more prevalent, and what will it achieve? There’s probably no single or simple answer, but much could be understood by considering the history of Mexican immigration to the U.S.
As early as the 1850s, and well into the 1920s, Mexicans filled labor shortages created by the U.S.’s expanding agricultural and railroad industries. Mexicans were crucial to the American economy. Moreover, central Mexico in the 1920s was essentially a backwater of Mexico’s faltering economy. As agricultural economist Paul Taylor documented in his pioneering work, jobs there were scarce, and those employed in agriculture could likely earn five times more building railroads in America. Since Mexicans could easily cross the border at this time, many migrated.
This trend reversed when the stock market crashed in 1929. As unemployment escalated during the Great Depression, so did opposition to Mexicans and beliefs that Mexicans drain the country’s welfare. For several reasons the federal government and Legislatures nationwide passed laws that restricted Mexican immigration. These laws also restricted Mexicans from getting jobs, denied them welfare when they became unemployed and, eventually, encouraged their deportation from the country. In cities as north as Dearborn, police were known to coerce Mexicans to prove their legal residence to immigration authorities — something alarmingly close to what the current Alabama legislation requires. By 1937, approximately 453,000 Mexicans were deported. Then during World War II, this trend reversed. In response to labor shortages, Mexicans were once again recruited to the farms and factories they left just 10 years prior.
In hindsight, the essence of pre-Depression Mexican immigration policies resonated in immigration legislation debated by Congress before the 2008 recession. The 2007 legislation, for example, would have introduced a guest worker program and given many illegal immigrants paths toward citizenship. The Depression-era anti-Mexican policies were somewhat extreme manifestations of immigration legislation that’s emerged during our recession. Though immigration regulations have evolved since the Depression, two things remain clear: when the economy roared, policies were more lax toward illegal immigrants, even though they came illegally. When the economy crashed, policies became harsher toward illegal immigrants because they came illegally.
Considering this history, it’s troubling that the emerging harsher immigration laws come at a time when illegal immigration is dramatically declining, illegal immigrants fill a labor shortage in unskilled farm jobs that more Americans avoid today than during the Depression and a significant number of illegal immigrants come from rapidly industrializing nations that provide far more economic opportunities for its citizens — and therefore far less push for them to leave — than Mexico did from 1850 to 1940.
This raises two questions. If illegal immigration is declining as a result of the recession, to what extent will drastic measures at the state level further this decrease? When the economy recovers, our labor shortage for unskilled farm jobs will rise. We will require more migrant workers. But if the new fences staked by emerging harsher legislation significantly curtails illegal immigration, will enough migrant workers climb the extra fences to come to the U.S., legally or illegally, when the economy recovers? Unlike deported Mexicans who rushed back during WWII, 21st century migrants come from countries far wealthier than 1940s Mexico.
States that now wish to enact even harsher legislation to deter illegal immigration need to understand that illegal immigration is now both informed and complicated by our history and our current and future economy. Perhaps this change in complexity is the only thing that is drastic and unprecedented about illegal immigration reform today.
Lou Wang is an LSA senior