Most Americans, from progressive immigrant-rights advocates to staunch supporters of the president’s border wall, agree that our immigration system is broken and that undocumented immigration has many costs for American society. In addition to the fact that the United States now has a population of approximately 10.7 million undocumented people who live in the shadows, Americans have also witnessed an ever-growing number of deaths along the border and the more recent spectacle of incarcerated migrant children.
Yet we are also clearly in denial about our role in this addiction. It’s tempting to believe the problem is not our fault: after all, the vast majority of us don’t own a golf club with undocumented housekeepers on our staff. Indeed, most Americans don’t employ any domestic labor at all. But we all participate in — and profit from — an economy that relies on undocumented labor. From the food we eat to the hotels we stay at to the built environment that surrounds us, almost no American goes a day without benefiting from the labor of undocumented immigrants.
The roots of our addiction can be traced to the early 1920s, when Americans began to rely on immigrants from Mexico to replace the European and Asian immigrants who had been barred from entry into the United States by new quota laws. During the Depression, however, the need for immigrant labor diminished, and Mexicans were rounded up and deported en masse during the repatriation drives of 1929-1936.
As the economy ramped up during World War II, demand for Mexican labor resurged. In 1942, Mexico and the U.S. cooperated to establish the Bracero Program, which brought legal Mexican guest workers in unprecedented numbers — up to a half million per year after 1955 — to work in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Nevertheless, the demand for labor was usually greater than the number of visas allocated to the program, so undocumented migration grew as well during this period.
Along with the growth in undocumented labor came political and social opposition to it. By 1954, this opposition grew significant enough that the federal government launched Operation Wetback, ultimately deporting around 300,000 Mexican immigrants. Yet this military-style roundup would in no way put an end to the problem of undocumented immigration, even after 1964, when the Bracero Program was phased out entirely.
That’s because, by the mid-1960s, the American appetite for the cheapest possible immigrant labor had become insatiable. At the same time, Mexico’s population was growing exponentially, with a labor market that failed to provide sufficient economic opportunities for working-age people. Despite this potential parity between supply and demand, Mexicans only rarely received the necessary visas for legal immigration to the United States, because despite its liberalism in other areas, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act placed an annual cap of 120,000 migrants from the entire Western hemisphere. Together, all these factors helped the number of undocumented immigrants from Mexico to skyrocket after 1970.
By the 1970s, the U.S. economy itself had begun to change significantly. The manufacturing industry was in decline. Native-born citizens were moving away from small family farms, while farmland was consolidated into larger operations that depended on immigrant labor. And the service sector — which includes restaurants, hotels, cleaning and maintenance, among other things — was also growing rapidly.
By the mid-1980s, the number of undocumented migrants in the U.S. had grown to approximately 5 million, with the vast majority coming from Mexico. Although Mexicans continued to make up around half of all undocumented immigrants, in subsequent decades, undocumented migrants also began arriving from Central America, Asia (primarily China) and Africa.
The periodic backlash against undocumented immigration has also continued, if anything growing more constant, as politicians and media have consistently cast undocumented immigration as a national security crisis that can only be solved by stopping illegal border crossings. Yet, the demand for undocumented immigrant labor — and consumers’ demand for the low prices that this labor makes possible — have continued apace. As a result, since the 1980s, various presidents and Congresses have enacted successive laws that empowered the Border Patrol and Immigration and Naturalization Services (now ICE) to round up, detain and deport undocumented immigrants, build fencing along the border and repeatedly increase military-style surveillance of the U.S.-Mexico frontier.
President Trump’s proposed wall, then, is only the latest in a long line of efforts to control undocumented immigrant labor solely at the border. Like previous border control initiatives, however, it would do little to address the fundamental cause of undocumented migration: our economy’s addiction to that labor flow. (Furthermore, since about half of all undocumented immigrants are now visa overstayers, it actually wouldn’t even be enough to put an end to undocumented migration.)
Indeed, while we in the U.S. might claim that we want to kick the habit of undocumented immigration, American consumer spending habits say otherwise. We like to drink cheap milk, which would probably double in price without undocumented immigrant labor. We want to eat fresh strawberries, cherries, tomatoes and lettuce, much of which is picked by undocumented workers. We want our meat to be affordable both at home and at restaurants. When we do go out to eat, we don’t want to shell out the extra money it would take to replace the undocumented dishwashers, cooks and busboys who work there. And we certainly don’t want to pay more to stay at hotels, build new buildings, maintain outdoor spaces or even go to the carwash.
Is it possible, then, to overcome our national addiction to undocumented labor? As with any addiction, putting an end to it would be painful. First, we would have to force employers to stop hiring undocumented workers. A program exists to help do this — E-Verify — but it is only required in one-third of U.S. states, and the agricultural lobby in particular has resisted its implementation.
Second, consumers would have to be willing to pay higher prices for food, construction, hotel stays and many other goods and services. American consumers, however, are highly price-driven, and have generally been unwilling to absorb the higher labor costs that would result from the lack of undocumented workers.
If we were to take these steps, however, then it follows that far fewer undocumented workers would come to the United States, since the overwhelming majority come here to work: some 7.8 million are currently employed. (This would not, of course, stop the influx of political refugees, who in 2017 made up only about 5 percent of all immigrants admitted legally.) But to end the flow of undocumented immigration, we must be willing to admit that we’re caught up in a cycle of addiction to low-wage labor and low prices that are a result of undocumented immigration.
If we let our addiction go unaddressed, as we have for six decades and counting, then the cycle will only continue.