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Illegal immigration

Definition: Undocumented entry into the United States in circumvention of U.S. immigration laws

Significance: Although a self-professed nation of immigrants, the United States has historically shown ambivalence toward newcomers who enter the country illegally. Despite massive government efforts to curb illegal immigration, an estimated 12 million people who entered the country illegally were living in the United States during the early twentyfirst century, when some sectors of the national economy would have been devastated without their labor.

The reception of illegal immigrants in the United States has ranged from open arms in a number of cities that have officially declared themselves immigrant sanctuaries to nativist hostility. Some politicians have regularly demonized illegal immigrants for their purported contributions to crime. The federal government’s immigration laws contain exceptions for economic need or political persecution, but the government also maintains a large border-police apparatus that catches only a fraction of those who try to cross the borders without permission.

A Special Problem

An important aspect of illegal immigration in the United States that is almost uniquely American lies in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Its definition of citizenship makes all persons born within the United States American citizens, regardless of the citizenship of their parents. Few other countries are similarly generous in awarding citizenship, but the U.S. principle has given rise to a difficult problem in combating illegal immigration: Many children are born in the United States to parents who are in the country illegally.

According to a 2008 study for the Pew Hispanic Center, 73 percent of all children of undocumented immigrants—the majority of whom are Hispanic—have been born in the United States and are thus American citizens. Consequently, when government immigration raids deport illegal immigrants who are parents, they often separate parents from their citizen children. This poses a contradiction in American immigration principles, as separating family members runs counter to the stated U.S. immigration goal of family unification. Immigration raids that have led to the deportation of parents while leaving their American-born children homeless have occasionally provided federal immigration agencies with public-relations embarrassments.

Demographics of Illegal Immigration

Between 1990 and 2006, the numbers of immigrants who entered the United States illegally increased rapidly. After 2006, the rate stabilized, in part because depressed economic conditions in the United States reduced employment opportunities, and in part because of more stringent security controls, including a doubling of the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents working along the Mexican border, from 9,000 to 18,000.

According to early twenty-first century U.S. Census estimates, three-quarters of undocumented immigrants in the United States were Hispanic. Amajority, 59 percent, had come from Mexico, with 11 percent from Asia, 11 percent from Central America, 7 percent from South America, and smaller percentages from other areas. According to estimates of the Pew Foundation Hispanic Center, of the 12.7 million Mexicans living in the United States in 2007, roughly 55 percent were in the country illegally. Illegal populations in 2006 were estimated at 2.8 million in California, 1.6 million in Texas, 980,000 in Florida, and about half a million each inNewYork, Arizona, Illinois, and New Jersey.

The main motivation for crossing the border has long been the quest for better employment. Undocumented immigrants, who have generally outnumbered legal immigrants, can be found in many sectors of the economy. Various surveys, including one by National Public Radio and another by USA Today, indicate that 3 to 4 percent of undocumented immigrants are employed in farmwork, 21 to 33 percent in service industries, 16 to 19 percent in construction and related jobs, 12 percent in sales, 15 to 16 percent in production industries, 10 percent in management, and 8 percent in transportation.

Changing Economic Conditions

By 2005, the tide of immigration into the United States had slowed substantially, at least for a time, as increasing numbers of Mexicans and other Hispanics left the United States to return to their home countries. Between August, 2007, and August, 2008, the number of Mexicans immigrating to the United States declined by 25 percent, according to Mexico’s own census figures. In 2008, the amount of money that Mexican immigrants remitted fromthe United States to relatives in Mexico declined by $1 billion.

By 2008, the numbers of arrests at U.S. borders had declined for three consecutive years, dropping to levels not witnessed since 1973, when the total population of the United States was much lower. In 2008, the U.S. Border Patrol reported making 724,000 arrests, 17 percent fewer than in 2007. Ninety-seven percent of these arrests took place on the southern border, and 91 percent of the persons arrested were Mexicans. The number of border arrests actually had peaked two decades earlier, in 1986, at 1.7 million. The Border Patrol credited tighter security, including the construction of fences along parts of the border, for the long-term decline.

Undocumented Mexican farmworkers waiting to be sent back to Mexico at Calexico in 1972
Undocumented Mexican farmworkers waiting to be sent back to Mexico at Calexico in 1972, during a period when an estimated 300,000 Mexicans were entering the United States illegally every year in search of employment. (NARA)

Supporters of Illegal Immigration

Anumber of American communities—including the three largest cities in the United States—have declared themselves as “sanctuary cities.” Their governments have instructed city employees, usually including police, to avoid cooperating with federal immigration authorities seeking illegal immigrants. Opponents say that sanctuary city measures violate federal law because the cities are in effect creating their own immigration policies, an area of law that only the U.S. Congress has authority to change. City authorities in many of these urban areas have countered by saying that undocumented immigrants have brought them more benefits than they have cost. Illegal immigrant workers pay about $7 billion per year into the Social Security system fromwhich they will receive no benefits. According to a paper in The Tax Lawyer, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Bar Association, illegal immigrants pay more in taxes than they cost in social services.

During the early twenty-first century, members of a group calling itself No More Deaths patrolled the Mexican border to offer medical aid, food, and water to immigrants crossing the desert regions during hot weather. The organization’s aim is to reduce deaths and serious injuries that plague many who make the difficult crossing.

Opponents of Illegal Immigration

Onthe other side of the issue, groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), cite other studies asserting that illegal immigrants cost American governments more than the workers pay in taxes. According to this view, illegal immigration degrades public education, health care, and other services for citizens, with the heaviest burdens falling on the poor.

The Minuteman Project has lobbied Congress for increased enforcement of immigration laws as some local people, including white supremacists, have formed posses to prevent immigrants from crossing parts of the border. Sometimes these vigilante groups have assaulted people they believe to be illegal immigrants. Other people have complained that the large number of illegal immigrants have been ruining U.S. public lands on and near the border. For example, Arizona’s Fish and Wildlife Service reported finding forty-five abandoned cars on the state’s Buenos Aires wildlife refuge and nine tons of garbage during only two months in 2002. Park officials reported that fires set by immigrants flared out of control often enough to char more than 68,000 acres and cost $5.1 million to extinguish.

Immigration Scams

The intense desire of impoverished foreigners to work in the United States legally has spawned many criminal activities that prey on would-be immigrants. Creators of these schemes have developed many ruses, all with the attitude that their victims are unlikely to complain to legal authorities. “Coyotes” routinely conduct many people across southern borders for fees ranging in the thousands of dollars per person. Entire cargo ships of illegal immigrants have arrived from Asia and unloaded people at sea after charging each of them tens of thousands of dollars. So-called Mohawk “warriors” have brought immigrants into the United States from Canada through the Akwesasne (St. Regis) reservation on the U.S.-Canadian border. These crossings have often occurred during the winter months, when the St. Lawrence River is frozen over.

On May 27, 2009, twelve Uzbekistani nationals were arrested in Kansas City, Missouri, on charges of recruiting hundreds of prospective workers from Jamaica, the Philippines, and the Dominican Republic, with promises of obtaining for them H- 2B visas so they could do seasonal work legally in the United States. However, after they arrived in the country, the workers were held in debt bondage for years and charged fees for work uniforms, food, and rent as they performed menial labor in hotels and office buildings in and near Kansas City. The traffickers, having created a company they called Giant Labor Solutions, collected the workers’ paychecks and turned the workers into virtual slaves.

In and near New York City, pastors of a supposed Pentecostal church in Queens, La Iglesia Roca de la Salvación Eterna, asserted that they possessed a special allocation of green cards earmarked for members of church congregations, for paperwork and an $8,000 to $16,000 processing fee. More than 120 illegal immigrants, most of them from Ecuador, were defrauded out of more than $1 million before the bogus pastors were arrested in early 2009. Many of the immigrants lost their life savings in the scam.

Bruce E. Johansen

Further Reading

  • Buchanan, Patrick J. State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2006. Visceral discourse asserting that continued illegal immigration will ruin the U.S. economy and culture. 
  • Conover, Ted. Coyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America’s Illegal Aliens. New York: Vintage Books, 1987. Compelling account of the dangers of crossing the United States-Mexico border from the street level, with an emphasis on the “coyotes” who guide illegal immigrants into the United States for fees. 
  • Frank, Thomas. “Modern Slavery Comes to Kansas.” Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2009, p. A11. Account of a human-trafficking ring that recruited illegal workers with promises of work visas and then held them in debt bondage. 
  • LeMay, Michael C. Illegal Immigration: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif.:ABC-CLIO, 2007. Encyclopedic reference work on many issues pertaining to illegal immigration and related subjects. 
  • Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. Detailed study of illegal immigration into the United States from 1924 to 1965. 
  • Semple, Kirk. “Green Cards, Belief, and Betrayal at a Storefront Church.” The New York Times, June 17, 2009, p. A17-A18. Detailed account of how 120 illegal immigrants were defrauded of more than $1 million by fake preachers who promised them green cards. 
  • Urrea, Luis Alberto. The Devil’s Highway: A True Story. Boston: Little, Brown, 2004. Detailed account of a harrowing journey of would-be immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border in 2001, during which at least fourteen people died. 
  • Williams, Mary E., ed. Immigration: Opposing Viewpoints. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Greenhaven Press, 2004. Collection of essays presenting opposing viewpoints on the questions of whether immigration should be restricted, how serious a problem immigration is, how the United should address illegal immigration, and how U.S. immigration policy might be reformed. Also contains a directory of organizations devoted to immigration issues. 

See also: Border fence; Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S.; Deportation; Florida illegal immigration suit; Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996; Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Sanctuary movement; Sweatshops.

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