Congress has about another month before Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that protects young undocumented immigrants from deportation (and which President Trump terminated in September), officially comes to an end. It remains to be seen whether Congress will legalize these so-called Dreamers, and what concessions will be made in return. But this much is certain: Any deal will include appropriations for enhanced border enforcement.
We’ve been here before. The last major immigration reform bill, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which was signed by President Ronald Reagan, legalized nearly three million undocumented immigrants in exchange for increased enforcement along the United States-Mexico border. (It also legislated sanctions against employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers.) The law was more than just a compromise between pro-immigrant liberals and pro-enforcement conservatives. It embodied the idea that we could “wipe the slate clean” by legalizing the undocumented already here and preventing future unauthorized entries.
This idea, which continues to shape the national debate about immigration, is based on the false premise that the nation’s borders can be made impregnable. In truth, undocumented migration is not an aberration of “normal” immigration. It is the inevitable result of any general policy of immigration restriction. Restriction creates two streams of immigration, lawful and unlawful. It is a conceit of the sovereign power to think that it can have only legal immigration.
The history of immigration in the United States demonstrates this. The Chinese exclusion laws of the late 19th century led to unlawful entry by so-called paper sons (those born in China who claimed they were sons of United States citizens) and spawned an immigration bureaucracy based on extreme vetting, detention and deportations, all tactics that were largely unsuccessful.
The National Origins Act of 1924 reduced general immigration to 15 percent of pre-World War I levels, setting quotas that discriminated against Southern and Eastern Europeans. It also created the Border Patrol. The result was to make undocumented migration a mass phenomenon.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 kept a low ceiling on immigration but replaced the racist quotas with a system based on equal quotas for all countries and preferences for family members. That created long lines for visas for countries with large emigration demand (Mexico, India, China and the Philippines). As a result, there was a spike in unauthorized entries.
The 1986 law, with its provisions for legalization and increased border enforcement, aimed to correct the problem. Since then, the United States has spent $263 billion on immigration enforcement, much of it along the southern border. These efforts have slowed, but not eliminated, unauthorized entry. They also had the unintended consequence of encouraging undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States rather than risk the increased dangers that became attached to seasonal migration.
Migration is propelled by irrepressible human desires for family unification, economic improvement and physical safety. It is very difficult for national states to stop migration, short of taking draconian measures that democratic societies will not tolerate. More than 80 percent of Americans support legalization for the undocumented. Large majorities oppose mass deportations, because they are cruel, as well as President Trump’s proposed wall along the United States-Mexico border, because it will be ineffectual as well as expensive.
If we are to have restrictions on immigration, they ought to be reasonable, allow for family unification, operate in sync with the labor market and give refuge to those fleeing disaster and persecution. We can enact statutes of limitations on unauthorized presence (say five years, or even 10), which would recognize not just the inevitability of migrants’ entry but also their incorporation into society. The United States itself had such a policy once — before the National Origins Act of 1924.
But today, the mainstream of both political parties clings to the false logic of the 1980s, which yoked legalization to enforcement. This time around the Democrats are in an especially weak position, not least because extremists in both Congress and the White House are holding the Dreamers hostage to a radical nativist agenda.
On Thursday, White House officials issued a take-it-or-leave-it proposal, which would legalize Dreamers in exchange for funding the wall, accelerating deportations, eliminating some family preferences and scrapping the diversity-visa lottery. Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, has sponsored an even more restrictive bill that would reduce legal immigration by 43 percent by eliminating most family preferences. Mr. Cotton, Mr. Trump’s policy adviser Stephen Miller and other hard-liners envision a fortress America that welcomes only skilled people from predominantly white countries, people who in general show little interest in moving to America.
Whichever vision prevails, restrictions on legal immigration will lead to more undocumented immigration from the global south. Idealized immigrants from Europe aren’t going to pick lettuce or wash dishes, just as most native-born white Americans don’t. And the nativists will have nothing more helpful to propose than heartless policing and deportation to discipline an underclass of nonwhite people that their own policies created.
Mae Ngai is a professor of history at Columbia and the author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America.