Before facts there was…history

I’m writing this to comment on something I saw in the Economist today (in the app version). Please see the screenshots:

“America has dealt with spikes in illegal immigration before”. This sentence will make anyone see that there was a sudden influx of illegal immigration. Then next question would hopefully be, why? Was there a civil war? A series of natural disasters? What happened in Mexico and Central American in the 1960s, 70s and beyond that caused masses to flood into the US? Ok, we know of the wars in Central America; recall the humanitarian disasters and genocides that happened in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. But in that period, the immigrants to the US were not Central Americans. They were Mexicans. So what happened?

Now let’s get to the history. There never was a mas influx of immigration. What happened is that people crossing the US-Mexican border were all legal. They were farmworkers who had been given special visas during the war era, and their visas were renewed year after year. (They were also treated inhumanely which spurred on the movement for migrant workers rights.) This Mexican labor force would migrate back to their homes at the end of each season to be with their families. Then in 1965, there was a major policy change and an end to the program (Bracero Program) that permitted visas to be given to the many hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers.

In short, as a result of shifts in US immigration policy between the late
1950s and the late 1970s, Mexico went from annual access to around 450,000
guestworker visas and a theoretically unlimited number of resident visas in
the United States (in practice averaging around 50,000 per year) to a new
situation in which there were no guestworker visas and just 20,000 resident
visas annually (Massey & Pren, 2012).

So the “spike of illegal immigration” was not a spike at all. It was only a spike in apprehensions – the same people traveling to their old jobs who, with their newly acquired illegal status, became those numbers we see on the graph.

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