Illegal Immigration in the United States: Are people getting their facts straight?


The issue of unauthorized immigration is far more complex than most people realize. Solutions which have been proposed have not worked well. Despite the apparent failure of all government plans to stop border crossing, the incidence of illegal entry through the Mexican border has been steadily decreasing since 2007. The reasons for decline are somewhat mysterious, but there are still hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants crossing the border each year.

History of Immigration in the United States

Immigration is a time honored tradition in the United States. Without it virtually none of the Americans living today would exist, because most Americans are a mixture of several ethnic backgrounds and nationalities, which would have never met without American immigration. America has taken pride in welcoming the destitute, the persecuted, and the impoverished to our shores. What American does not feel a tingle of heartwarming joy when reading, the poem, “The New Colossus,” at the base of the Statue of Liberty?

Why Immigrants came to America

Immigration was never without good cause. It takes powerful motivation to inspire people to leave their native lands, and seek out new and unknown circumstances. There were many good reasons for immigration. Many Germans came to this country to escape religious persecution, while others came to avoid being drafted into the Prussian wars. The Irish had been conquered by Britain, and were being starved out in their homeland. The potato famine reduced them from wretched poverty to starvation. At some point most of Ireland’s population was forced by hunger to board coffin ships and come to the new world. The Italians departed a war torn Italy to find peace and safety.

Some immigrants even came against their will. Many of the English were forced to go, due to overcrowding and poverty in England. Their island would simply not support the population. Children were kidnapped from the street and shipped to America. Debtors, paupers, and criminals were emptied from prisons and poor houses and sent into indentured servitude in America. Africans also came against there will and were sold into slavery. Many Irish prisoners of war, who were captured by the English, were also sold into slavery as punishment for their endless revolt against England.

In more recent times the U.S. has offered political asylum to those who would be killed by their enemies otherwise. For example many of the Shaw of Iran’s army fled to the United States, knowing that if they stayed they would have been put to death by the new Islamic regime. We also routinely allowed Russians to defect from the Soviet Union.

War, poverty, famine, starvation, political oppression, being on the loosing side of a civil war, religious persecution, senseless violence, and overcrowding have all been cited as reasons for migration to other countries. In all our history we have taken in the refugees of the world, whether willingly or unwillingly. Wanted or not wanted they came, because of the promise our nation seems to offer.

Despite Protests and Regulations, Immigration has Continued  

For generations the United States has taken in vast influxes of immigrants, from Germany, Ireland, Italy, England, China, Japan, and at least a few thousand from virtually every other country in the world. Yet in each of these influxes there have been bitter complaints from some established citizens. The government has responded with regulations. Despite regulations though, immigration has continued. Also in our history of immigration there have been incidences of exploitations of cheap labor, and violent criminal injustices towards at least some of each nationality. It seems however that no matter how difficult the United States makes immigration, or how exploitative or punitive our system is to new immigrants, those immigrants keep coming.

Colonial Immigration Restrictions

In 1637 Massachusetts passed a law requiring governmental permission to host aliens. Then in 1656, Quakers were outlawed in all the colonies except Rhode Island. Thus Quakers became our nation’s first illegal aliens, and yet they continued to come to America. When they were discovered they were whipped, branded with irons, tortured, imprisoned and banished, yet to this day there are American Quakers whose ancestors braved the ill treatment without renouncing their religion.

In 1700 colonial immigration laws varied, but in nearly all of them Catholics, Jews and Quakers were not welcome. Despite the fact they were unwelcomed Catholics, Quakers and Jews immigrated to America. Massachusetts prohibited lame and otherwise infirm persons unless they paid a generous donation to the community to insure they would not become a “public charge.” By 1722 a law was in place in Massachusetts stating that each ship’s master must submit a list of passengers to the town selectmen, for approval. Similarly in 1727 and 1729 new laws were passed in Pennsylvania in attempt to restrict immigration from Germany. They charged a 40 shilling tax per person on all immigrants, and insisted on health inspections before immigrants could leave the ship. However these laws were largely ignored by shipmasters, leading to illegal immigration.

The British also became involved in regulating immigration to America. In 1740 British Parliament passed the Plantation Act, which allowed for foreigners to become British Citizens much more easily than they could have in England. Then suddenly in 1773 Britain forbade all foreign immigration to the colonies. Violators were heavily fined but the rules continued to be broken.

United States Immigration

In 1790, the Alien Naturalization Act was passed by our new government created the first model by which foreign born people could become citizens of the United States. Requirements were residence for two years in country, and one year in the current state of residence, and to be of “good moral character.” The applicant was then required to take an oath of allegiance to the Constitution. The Alien Naturalization Act excluded non-whites and women. Women, blacks and Native Americans were not considered citizens in the sense they had no right to vote, and women did not have the right to own property. A woman’s citizenship was only in the sense that her husband was a citizen, and they shared everything in common.

Alien and Sedition Acts

In 1798 President John Adams passed, “The Alien and Sedition Acts.” These laws not only lengthened the residency requirement for American citizenship to fourteen years, but also authorized the president of the United States to imprison, or deport aliens as he saw fit. This law was repealed in 1800, after extreme protests against it. It is likely that this more than any other reason kept President Adams from being re-elected. One of the most interesting features of the whole story is that while the Alien and Sedition Acts were aimed at French immigrants, the Irish were the ones who protested the law so adamantly. 

The Nativist and Know-Nothings Anti- Irish Movement

It seems that Irish protests were prophetic because in 1834 following a massive influx of Irish immigrants, a group called the Nativists began to denounce the Irish and their religion. They also insulted Irish public behavior, and complained that the Irish were having a negative effect on the economy. They burned several Irish Catholic church buildings, and started a lot of anti Irish propaganda. They plotted to raise the residency requirement for citizenship to 21 years. In 1849 a secretive group called the Know-Nothings, became politically active against the Irish and the German immigrants. In 1856 in the wake of massive Irish immigration, they demanded that paupers and criminals not be allowed to immigrate to America. They vowed that only American born, citizens should be allowed to hold public office. They also repeated the desire of the Nativists, for residency requirements of 21 years. No action was taken on their demands, even though they did gain some political power and a few public offices.

Anti Chinese Riots in California

During the 1880s there was a massive economic depression with high unemployment on the West Coast, which was blamed on a huge influx of Chinese immigrants who were doing most of the hard manual labor. It was in these circumstances that the anti-Chinese riots began. In response the U.S. Government Passed the Chinese Exclusion Act on May 6, 1882, which forbade further Chinese Immigration.

Ellis Island and Modern Immigration

In 1886 The Statue of Liberty was placed in NY Harbor, with the dedication poem, which is so dear to all Americans, and in 1891 the first government agency was assigned to regulate immigration. Thus Ellis Island was born in 1892. Between 1892 and1954 the Statue of Liberty welcomed 12 million immigrants to the USA.  

Efforts to regulate Immigration continued, targeting various countries, religions and attitudes, but still immigrants kept arriving. In 1921 a quota system was devised, which limited the number of immigrants from each country. The numbers were stacked against the Catholic countries in favor of protestant countries.

The Need for Manual Labor at a Low Wage Drives Immigration

Before the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese has been the workhorses of the south west. They had done most of the labor of building the railroad, and had also served as farm labor. After the exclusion act, many farmers and ranchers looked to Mexico, where they found plentiful labor. In 1900 there were only 100,000 Mexicans in the USA, but by 1927, there were over one million. To curb this influx of Mexicans the border patrol was established on May 28th 1924.

During WWII tens of thousands of Japanese German and Italian Americans were arrested, questioned and many thousand were imprisoned in camps until after the war. Conditions were awful, but the US Government felt that these people were a risk to national security.

Throughout history there is a pattern of immigration, resistance to immigration, legislation, and then immigration anyway. There is also a pattern of demand for immigrants to do hard manual labor for substandard pay. Immigrants meet that demand at first, but eventually they or their descendants are competing with other Americans for better jobs, and that they are blamed for recessions, and unemployment. Meanwhile there is still a demand for menial laborers who will work for practically nothing.

People often refer to this sort of work as unskilled, however, this may not be a fair assessment. The ability and willingness to do hard manual labor for long hours, and survive on very low pay, could be considered a unique type of skill, especially in the modern era. At any rate this ‘skill’ seemed to be both necessary, and hard to find among the existing population, at many times during history.   

  • Chinese Immigration: A well written article about Chinese immigration to the U.S.
  • A history of immigration from China to the US.: A timeline of Chinese immigration, and part of a site promoting a documentary about the U.S. immigration crisis this article speaks about the history of Chinese immigration. Navigate the entire site with the menu on the left.
  • Chinese Immigration to the United States: A short article on Chinese immigration during the gold rush, with links to articles and commentaries from that time period. Find out what Mark Twain and President Grant had to say about immigration. 
  • Immigration - Japanese: This story of Japanese immigration to the U.S. is a well written and concise account. 
  • The Border 1942 Mexican Immigrant Labor History: Our historic need for Mexican workers, and the long standing use of migrant labor. Crossing the border hasn’t always been illegal. Use the link at the bottom of the page to return to PBS Border History page.

Illegal Immigration in the United States

There is no way to know for certain how many illegal immigrants are in the United States at any given moment. Government agency estimates vary from 10 million to 13 million. Other groups say the number could be as high as 23 million. They say their numbers include women, children, unemployed people and the elderly, which the government fails to count. The government estimates that approximately 60 percent of the 10-13 million are from Mexico, and about 25% are from South America. The other 15% are from other parts of the world. Since most of the illegal immigrants are from Mexico and South America, most of the concern about illegal immigration is directed at the Mexican border.

Dangers at the Mexican Border

At the Mexican border and on both sides of it are many dangerous obstacles for illegal crossers. The drug war, the border guards, the American vigilantes, the river, and the harsh desert are all obstacles, which take the lives of thousands of border crossers, each year.

The Drug War

In the border towns on the Mexican side the Mexican drug war rages. Far from the metaphorical “U.S. war on drugs,” in Mexico the “war on drugs” has led to a full scale war, between Mexican Government forces which have been forced to militarize, and the so called Drug Lords. The situation has resulted in a sort of police state atmosphere in northern Mexico, with violence erupting frequently.

The stakes are high for the Mexican drug cartels who literally risk life and limb to meet the annual American demand for 200 metric tons of cocaine, 1,500 metric tons of marijuana, 15 metric tons of heroin, and 20 metric tons of methamphetamines. Americans are willing to pay any price for these contraband items and this more than anything has led to the proliferation of organized crime in an impoverished nation. While the desire of millions of American citizens for their drug of choice motivates the drug cartels, the Mexican Government has direct motivation from the U.S. Government who pushes them to militarize to fight drug smugglers.

In the past, drugs passed through the Mexican border, Jamaican docks and airports around the world. Today Homeland Security, the DEA and other American agencies have successfully blocked the transport of these drugs through other channels and directed it all to the border of Mexico. Their efforts at the border, block approximately 30% of all traffic, and make it very difficult for the other 70% to get through. While at first glance this makes sense, as a way to stop the drug trade, the main thing it has done is drive out the small time dealers, and makes way for more organized crime.

Mexican drug cartels must deal with Middle Eastern drug lords from places like Afghanistan in order to obtain the 15 metric tons of heroin which Americans crave so powerfully. Therefore the Mexican border now has involvement of terrorist factions, and much more advanced organized crime than Mexico would have developed on their own. 

Caught in the Drug War

While the Mexican Drug war serves as an obstacle to illegal immigration by families it also encourages flight by those same families who fear for their lives because they live in Northern Mexico. It also creates a steady stream of mules, carrying drugs across the border. Some will be caught, but enough will get through to supply the drug users.

People who would not normally be involved with this sort of crime are threatened and bribed into trafficking drugs across the border. If caught they are in a tight spot, and on fear of their lives cannot tell where they got the drugs, so they are at the mercy of the Mexican or American legal and penal systems.

More Danger

Upon passing the dangerous war torn border towns, with their police state atmosphere on one side, and their ruthless drug cartels on the other, Mexican immigrants make their way to the border. There is a harsh desert landscape patrolled by American border guards. In the past guards were allowed to simply turn those immigrants around and send them away, but new laws force guards to detain and prosecute those who attempt to cross the border illegally.

On the other side of the border there have been complaints of American vigilantes who shoot at immigrants indiscriminately. This is yet another danger to border crossing. Once passed all that immigrants must discretely travel to some other city in America, usually the homes of friends or family where they will be protected. Still the risk of discovery and detainment are great, and they fear detainment or deportation by the ICE.

Why do Illegal Immigrants Come to America at such Risk?

Why would anyone take these kinds of risks, especially with their families? Yet by far families with small children are the most common illegal immigrants. What are the factors that drive Mexican families across this dangerous border? Most of them are well aware of the risk they are taking. Is the risk on the other side greater if they stay? Is the promise of reward on the American side of the border somehow worth it?

Many site economics as the reason for coming to America, and some go so far as to say the Mexican people have had an unrealistic view of America, based on wealthy tourists. It is also true that while Mexican workers complain that they cannot support their families on their wages in Mexico, so do American workers find it increasingly impossible to support their own families on minimum wage. The opportunity for more income is a factor, but other factors must be involved as well.

While Americans often complain about their financial circumstances, almost no Americans live without electricity or running water. The sad part about Mexico is the unequal distribution of resources and wealth. Many of the people who live nearest the electric power stations do not have any electricity in their homes. Those who work to make and package food do not have enough to eat at home. Many Mexican women still cook with firewood, and draw water. Not everyone in Mexico suffers from poverty, but a large segment of them do. Further, rising from these circumstances seems hopeless to most of them.

The lack of medical care in Mexico is also a factor. Many border crossers not only bring their children, they bring their sick children who desperately need care for deadly but treatable diseases. Many of those children do not survive the trip.

 The dangers of the drug war have impacted many citizens of Mexico, and the government has become increasingly oppressive in the midst of the drug war, as well. Many fear the violence by drug lords, and dread local law enforcement as well.

A Decline in Illegal Immigration

Some sources say that fewer families are crossing the border since 2007, largely due to our recession. As long as they received word that their relatives crossed safely and were gainfully employed, they came, but when reports of American poverty, lack of jobs, and stepped up efforts of the U.S. government to deport immigrants reached them, some families decided not to try crossing the border illegally. It is possible that a more realistic view of America by those who did make it has deterred immigration somewhat. Still hundreds of thousands of Mexicans cross the border each year.

What Economic Problems does Immigration Cause?

Many problems have been attributed to illegal immigration. All of them are problems that we face already, apart from the illegal immigration issue. Most of the problems associated with immigration are related to an equation that could be called population in relation to resources available to the average person, and to the government. The main problem is that even in America there is not enough to go around. There are not enough good jobs, and even minimum wage jobs are hard to find now.

Medical costs are completely unaffordable for most families and for many so is medical insurance. Economic distribution has created a great gulf between rich and poor in America as well as Mexico. Much of the middle class and almost all of the working class have been disenfranchised by the recession. While immigration has not caused the recession it is probable that the increase in population has worsened the situation.

Medical costs are already too high, and many Americans cannot afford insurance, and yet do not qualify or will not apply for Medicaid. This puts the burden on hospitals to defray the cost by charging even more. This has been the case for at least half a century, but now there are even more people who need medical care and cannot pay.

States already cannot afford to pay for schools. State and Local revenue is simply not enough to support the School system, due to the fact there aren’t enough people working and earning enough income. Illegal Immigrants send their children to public schools, which causes even more expense, by sheer numbers, and by specialized problems, like the need for bilingual teachers.

Crime, Traffic Accidents, and Drugs

Many people site the connection between illegal immigration and crime. While it is true that some immigrants are involved in crime, and the drug cartels which do business with American Drug dealers are definitely involved in crime, we have a lot of crime which is in no way related to immigrants. The worsening economy is directly related to increases in the crime rate which involves people of all races in America.

Many illegal immigrants leave the scene of accidents because they fear being reported to the INS. This is a serious problem, but many Americans leave the scene of accidents because they are afraid of being caught under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Others are just fearful of law enforcement officers, and they also leave the scene of an accident. The situation is quite similar, and leads to a lot of hit and run by both Americans and Hispanics. It is tragic that people are so fearful of law enforcement that they will not stay and help their fellow human beings in the event of an accident, but does this really say anything about the character of illegal immigrants, compared to Americans? The fact is that individuals will frequently avoid law enforcement when they are breaking the law, and illegal immigrants are breaking the law simply by being here. This creates a sort of outlaw by default situation.

Possible Solutions

There have been many tough on immigrant solutions suggested. One idea is to become completely draconian, accelerate and win the drug war, crack down on illegal aliens and deport every single one, and clamp down on the border with an iron fist. Many wish to create a situation where people can be stopped on the street and forced to show their papers. At the same time racial profiling is illegal, so this means anyone and everyone could be stopped and forced to show their birth certificate, driver’s license and other papers. If people could not produce these papers they’d be arrested. 

There have been other solutions which are less invasive, including simply stopping the war on drugs, pulling out of the Mexican drug war and simply accepting that drugs exist and some people use them so they have to be distributed. There are also ideas designed to improve living conditions, and income in Mexico which would cause more Mexicans to stay in Mexico. There have been plans to stop immigration, and legalize all illegal aliens who are already here.

Another idea is to stop painting the USA as some sort of utopia, or heaven on earth to foreigners. Creating a more realistic view of life in America has decreased immigration from Mexico due to our sagging economy, but how far do we really want to go with that?

Many of these solutions are not possible due to expense, and others may not be desirable even if they could be accomplished. So far we have not come up with a viable plan but a few ideas may have promise once the American economy improves.

A Historical View

What we do know is that this situation is not unparalleled in history. It is highly similar to the Irish immigration which gave us over 5 million Irish immigrants in the 1800’s. Like the Mexican Immigrants they were poverty stricken, and actually had even less than most Mexican Immigrants. Their presence drove down the price of labor, but due to the industrial revolution there were plenty of jobs. Still the protests of the “Know Nothing” group who protested Irish immigrants are certainly echoed in the solutions proposed by some on this issue.  

It also parallels the influx of Chinese immigrants of the 1800’s and the anti-Chinese riots in California. Like now there was a recession and job shortage in the 1880’s which perhaps stirred the Western United States to scapegoat the Chinese. Today most people realize that recessions are caused by far greater players, in far more complex circumstances than individual workers of any race. 

In the case of the Irish, eventually they stopped coming after most of the Irish either perished in the famine, or successfully immigrated to the United States. The increased population was easily absorbed eventually into the great melting pot. In the case of the Chinese, legislation was passed to prevent the immigration of more Chinese. This is when the Mexicans began to immigrate heavily to the United States to do the work the Chinese had been doing.

So we’ve come full circle, and it becomes apparent that American economy requires and thrives on a steady diet of immigrants to do menial labor, which the citizens of America will not do for such low pay, but where will we put them? How can we pay their medical bills considering that so many Americans are doing without health care? How can we pay for their education, considering that in many states the government is cutting down school spending to the bare bones?

The illegal immigration problem is not a new one, nor is it easily solved. The good news is that America has survived and thrived through circumstances just like this one. We can only hope that eventually Mexico and the USA will become better places to live and work, and that medical care and education will become more affordable for all of us.

The Facts

While there are many questions involved in the immigration problem and few viable solutions, we do know a few things which help us at least understand the problem better.

  1. There are between 10 million and 23 million illegal aliens in America.
  2. They all came to America at Great risk, and thousands died along the way.
  3. The demand for drugs in the United States and the tightening of security through other means, have led to the creation of massive drug cartels in Mexico.
  4. The drug cartels and the American war on drugs have resulted in a police state situation in the northern border towns of Mexico.
  5. Living conditions in Mexico are not of the same standard they are in the USA.
  6. Poverty is overwhelming in Mexico and has worsened in the USA.
  7. It is human nature to seek better circumstances for ourselves and our families.
  8. Medical care is unavailable to many people in Mexico, and comes at a very high price in America. A price which neither poor Americans, nor poor Mexicans can pay.
  9. Immigration has always been a factor in this country, including illegal immigration.
  10. It is much easier to guard our sea ports and air ports than it is to guard the entire Mexican border.