Skip to navigation

Skip to main content

Rural Migration News Blog

contact us

Legal and Unauthorized Migration

 Click here to download this blog post as a PDF file

July 29, 2022

The US has more immigrants than any other country, 47 million in 2022, making immigrants almost 15 percent of US residents. Unlike other countries with higher shares of immigrants such as Australia and Canada, almost a quarter of the immigrants in the US are unauthorized.

The UN defines an international migrant as a person who moves from one country to another for a year or more, for any reason and with any legal status, including unauthorized status. Some 280 million or 3.6 percent of the world’s 7.8 billion people are international migrants. The US has a sixth of the world’s migrants, followed by six percent in Germany and four percent each in Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Most Americans are dis-satisfied with US policies that permit large numbers of unauthorized foreigners to enter and remain the country. Almost half say that large-scale illegal immigration is a critical threat.

Half of Americans say that large-scale illegal immigration is a critical threat

Next, I am going to read you a list of possible threats to the vital interests of the United States in the next 10 years. For each one, please tell me if you see this as a critical threat, an important but not critical threat, or not an important threat at all. Large numbers of immigrants entering the United States illegally
  Critical
%
Important
%
Not important
%
No opinion
%
2022 Feb 1-17 48 30 22 *
2021 Feb 3-18 46 35 19 *
2019 Feb 1-10 47 30 22 2
Source: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1660/immigration.aspx

Americans are divided about the level of immigration. A third want to maintain current levels, a third want to increase immigration, and a third want to decrease immigration. During the mid-1990s, when unauthorized Mexico-US migration peaked, two thirds of Americans wanted to reduce immigration.

⅓ of Americans want to maintain, increase, and decrease immigration


Source: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1660/immigration.aspx

Immigration. Immigrants arrived in the US in four major waves that were influenced by events abroad and US policies. The first wave arrived before newcomers began to be recorded in 1820 and involved mostly migrants from Britain, giving the colonies and eventually the US English and common law. The second immigration wave was dominated by Irish and German Catholics in the 1840s and 1850s, and led to a Know Nothing restrictionist movement that may have led to policies to reduce Catholic immigration if the Civil War had not reduced immigration in the 1860s.

Immigrants arrived in 4 major waves; numbers and origins changed after 1965

The third immigration wave witnessed the arrival of large numbers of southern and eastern Europeans, many of whom passed through Ellis Island in New York harbor. WWI stopped the third wave, and legislation in the 1920s tried to preserve the composition of the US population before the third wave arrived by setting national origin quotas for each country based on pre-third-wave US residents, so that Western European countries had the largest quotas.

The 1950s economic miracles in postwar Europe reduced immigration from European nations, and national origins quotas made it hard for Asians and Latin Americans to immigrate. In 1965, the US shifted from national origin to family unification as the major priority for allocating visas, allowing settled immigrants and US citizens to sponsor their relatives. Predictions that immigration patterns would not change proved to be wrong, and immigrants from Asia and Latin America replaced European immigrants.

The 1965 family unification system increased Latin America and Asian immigration

Almost 80 million immigrants have been admitted since record-keeping began in 1820, including a quarter since 2000. Immigration averages 1.1 million a year, including half who are admitted because they are spouses, children and parents of US citizens, a quarter admitted because they are relatives of settled immigrants or US citizens, and a quarter admitted for employment and humanitarian reasons. Most immigrants are already in the US when they are admitted, meaning that they have a student or work visa or another status.

Legal immigration raises several questions, including how many, from where, and in what status newcomers arrive. The US responses have been an unlimited number of immigrant visas for immediate relatives of US citizens, to favor the immigration of foreigners with US relatives, and to allow foreigners already in the US to become immigrants. The result is that a foreigner who arrives as a student can become an immigrant by marrying a US citizen or being sponsored for an immigrant visa by a US employer. After becoming a naturalized US citizen, this student-immigrant-citizen can sponsor his or her relatives for immigrant visas. The US family unification system allows some migration to beget more migration, as settled immigrants become anchors for a chain of more family-unification immigrants.

Many economists urge the US follow Australia and Canada and use a point system to select those foreigners most likely to have high US incomes for immigrant visas. Prioritizing youth, education, and US job offers could help the US to select immigrants who would quickly find jobs and could spur economic growth. Some proponents of the current family unification system support a points-based selection system, but not if more employment-based visas means less family-based immigration.

Unauthorized. Illegal immigration became an issue in the 1970s, when the United Farm Workers union complained that unauthorized Mexicans entered the US and went to work on farms where the UFW was on strike, undercutting US farm workers who sought higher wages. The House approved legislation to sanction or fine employers who knowingly hired unauthorized workers, but southern Democrats who were protecting farm employers blocked action in the Senate.

The UFW tried to prevent unauthorized workers from breaking its strikes in the 1970s

A Select Commission outlined an immigration compromise in the early 1980s that offered legalization to unauthorized foreigners who had developed US roots and introduced sanctions on employers who hired unauthorized workers. This grand bargain was incorporated into the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which had two legalization programs, one based on being in the US since 1982 and another based on doing farm work for at least 90 days in 1985-86.

IRCA’s legalization programs allowed 2.7 million unauthorized foreigners, 85 percent Mexicans and 40 percent farm workers, to become immigrants and eventually US citizens. At least half of the 1.1 million foreigners legalized under the SAW agricultural program used fraudulent documents to get immigrant visas, and the fraudulent documents industry expanded to provide documents to newly arrived unauthorized foreigners. Legal and unauthorized Mexicans spread from farms in the southwest to all industries and states in the 1990s.

Legalization succeeded too well, while employer sanctions failed. Opposition to Big Brother meant that IRCA did not include a counterfeit-resistant Social Security card or work permit. Workers had to present work authorization documents when hired, but employers did not have to verify these worker-presented documents, so the unauthorized foreigners who arrived in the 1990s continued to be hired with the only risk to the employer of losing employees in the event of enforcement.

The number of foreigners arrested just inside the US rose to a record 1.6 million in FY00, which meant an average 4,500 arrests per day or almost 200 an hour. Apprehensions fell in the 21^(st) century, especially during and after the 2008-09 recession, and remained low during covid before rebounding to an all-time high of 1.7 million in FY21, when at least a quarter of the foreigners encountered had been caught at least once before. Since FY20, DHS combines expulsions and apprehensions in a measure called encounters.

Encounters just inside the US peaked at 1.7 million in FY21

Until 2010, most of the migrants apprehended or encountered just inside the Mexico-US border were Mexicans. However, the number of citizens of Northern Triangle countries, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, began to rise in 2014-15, and over 40 percent of encounters in FY21 involved Central Americans. There was also a jump in the number of Ecuadorans, Brazilians, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, and Haitians encountered in FY21.

In FY00, almost all apprehensions involved Mexicans; in FY21, 36% were Mexicans

Most border encounters involve solo adults, almost two-thirds in FY21, and most solo adults are returned immediately to Mexico. However, the US often admits families with children and solo children under 18 who arrive enter the US illegally, which encourages more family units and unaccompanied children to enter the US.

⅔ of the foreigners encountered just inside the US border are solo adults

The US border with Mexico is divided into nine sectors from the Rio Grande in the east to San Diego in the west. Most migrant encounters occur in Texas, led by over a third in the Rio Grande sector.

⅓ of foreigners encountered just inside the US were in the Rio Grande sector

Most foreigners rely on smugglers to migrate illegally to the US, with relatives already in the US often providing the funds to pay smugglers. Smuggling costs, as estimated by CBP and interviews with migrants, increased sharply since 2000, from less than $1,500 to over $5,000 per person.

Smuggling costs are over $5,000 per person


Source: https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/2022-06/2022_0427_plcy_border_security_metrics_report_FY2021_%282020_data%29.pdf

Some smugglers tell journalists that half of the cost sneaking migrants into the US are tolls paid to Mexican drug cartels. In order to maximize profits, smugglers may attempt to pack 100 or more migrants into tractor trailer trucks that are cloned to resemble Fed Ex, UPS, or similar trucks of well-known firms in order to avoid inspections at the CBP checkpoints that are an hour or more north of the border.

Over 50 of the 100+ migrants in a trailer whose AC unit died in June 2022 in San Antonio

Title 42 of the Public Health Act was invoked in March 2020 to allow DHS to expel foreigners to prevent the spread of disease. For most of 2020, over 90 percent of the foreigners encountered by border agents were expelled. The expulsion rate fell in 2021, when half of unauthorized foreigners were paroled into the US.

90% of foreigners encountered in 2020 were expelled; about half were expelled in 2021

Historically, border apprehensions peaked in March as Mexicans entered the US to find seasonal farm jobs. In recent years, the peak month for encounters has occurred later, reflecting the fact that most unauthorized foreigners are seeking nonfarm jobs in urban areas and plan to stay in the US. In FY21, the peak month for apprehensions was July.

The peak month for apprehensions is no longer March as fewer foreigners seek seasonal farm jobs


Source: Gramlich, John. 2021. What’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border in 7 charts. Pew.

Almost 80 million immigrants have been admitted since 1820

Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status: Fiscal Years 1820 to 2020
Year Number   Year Number   Year Number   Year Number
1820 8,385   1871 321,350   1922 309,556   1973 398,515
1821 9,127   1872 404,806   1923 522,919   1974 393,919
1822 6,911   1873 459,803   1924 706,896   1975 385,378
1823 6,354   1874 313,339   1925 294,314   1976 1 499,093
1824 7,912   1875 227,498   1926 304,488   1977 458,755
1825 10,199   1876 169,986   1927 335,175   1978 589,810
1826 10,837   1877 141,857   1928 307,255   1979 394,244
1827 18,875   1878 138,469   1929 279,678   1980 524,295
1828 27,382   1879 177,826   1930 241,700   1981 595,014
1829 22,520   1880 457,257   1931 97,139   1982 533,624
1830 23,322   1881 669,431   1932 35,576   1983 550,052
1831 22,633   1882 788,992   1933 23,068   1984 541,811
1832 60,482   1883 603,322   1934 29,470   1985 568,149
1833 58,640   1884 518,592   1935 34,956   1986 600,027
1834 65,365   1885 395,346   1936 36,329   1987 599,889
1835 45,374   1886 334,203   1937 50,244   1988 641,346
1836 76,242   1887 490,109   1938 67,895   1989 1,090,172
1837 79,340   1888 546,889   1939 82,998   1990 1,535,872
1838 38,914   1889 444,427   1940 70,756   1991 1,826,595
1839 68,069   1890 455,302   1941 51,776   1992 973,445
1840 84,066   1891 560,319   1942 28,781   1993 903,916
1841 80,289   1892 579,663   1943 23,725   1994 803,993
1842 104,565   1893 439,730   1944 28,551   1995 720,177
1843 52,496   1894 285,631   1945 38,119   1996 915,560
1844 78,615   1895 258,536   1946 108,721   1997 797,847
1845 114,371   1896 343,267   1947 147,292   1998 653,206
1846 154,416   1897 230,832   1948 170,570   1999 644,787
1847 234,968   1898 229,299   1949 188,317   2000 841,002
1848 226,527   1899 311,715   1950 249,187   2001 1,058,902
1849 297,024   1900 448,572   1951 205,717   2002 1,059,356
1850 369,980   1901 487,918   1952 265,520   2003 703,542
1851 379,466   1902 648,743   1953 170,434   2004 957,883
1852 371,603   1903 857,046   1954 208,177   2005 1,122,257
1853 368,645   1904 812,870   1955 237,790   2006 1,266,129
1854 427,833   1905 1,026,499   1956 321,625   2007 1,052,415
1855 200,877   1906 1,100,735   1957 326,867   2008 1,107,126
1856 200,436   1907 1,285,349   1958 253,265   2009 1,130,818
1857 251,306   1908 782,870   1959 260,686   2010 1,042,625
1858 123,126   1909 751,786   1960 265,398   2011 1,062,040
1859 121,282   1910 1,041,570   1961 271,344   2012 1,031,631
1860 153,640   1911 878,587   1962 283,763   2013 990,553
1861 91,918   1912 838,172   1963 306,260   2014 1,016,518
1862 91,985   1913 1,197,892   1964 292,248   2015 1,051,031
1863 176,282   1914 1,218,480   1965 296,697   2016 1,183,505
1864 193,418   1915 326,700   1966 323,040   2017 1,127,167
1865 248,120   1916 298,826   1967 361,972   2018 1,096,611
1866 318,568   1917 295,403   1968 454,448   2019 1,031,765
1867 315,722   1918 110,618   1969 358,579   2020 707,362
1868 138,840   1919 141,132   1970 373,326      
1869 352,768   1920 430,001   1971 370,478      
1870 387,203   1921 805,228   1972 384,685      
1 Includes the 15 months from July 1, 1975 to September 30, 1976 because the end date of fiscal years was changed from June 30 to September 30.

Subscribe via Email

Click here to subscribe to Rural Migration News via email.