Column: Why Did Illegal Immigration Skyrocket? (2 of 5)

  • Ana Ramos Martinez— Earl Dotter photograph

For the Valley News
Published: 1/16/2017 9:00:20 PM

When Ana Ramos Martinez ended her shift in Whole Foods’ regional bakery in Everett, Mass., one day in January 2016, she sat down to tell me how she twice entered the country as an illegal immigrant. She left her financially distressed family in a coffee- and corn-growing farm community in El Salvador to jump the border in 1988.

After trimming clothes in Los Angeles for eight years, she returned to El Salvador to bring back the two young girls she had left behind. It was 1994. It took her seven years to pay off the fee of the “coyote” who led her and her girls through the desert back into the United States. She became an American citizen in 2014. She owns a house near Boston and one in El Salvador. Her two grown girls work, one at Whole Foods.

Her story showed me the human stories of many of the estimated 11 million unauthorized persons in the United States. That number is, in proportion to the general population, many times larger than that for almost every other advanced country. The great majority of unauthorized persons come from Latin America.

The Pew Research Center estimated Vermont’s unauthorized population in 2012 at fewer than 5,000. They keep Vermont’s dairy farms alive. A fatal accident involving an unauthorized Mexican, Jose Obeth Santiz Cruz, on a farm near the Canadian border in 2009, counted as big news in the state.

I find conservative friends to be extremely upset about unauthorized immigration; liberals, often blase. A consensus strategy is lacking to, say, reduce the population to 3 million, or 1 percent of the population, believed by some to be the situation in Canada, and keep it there. If we can get from today’s 3.4 percent to 1 percent, consider that a victory.

After passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, the U.S. Border Patrol expanded in budget by eight times. Arrests at the border soared above 1 million a year. Yet the illegal flow grew.    

Details are found in notes from 160,000 interviews by Princeton’s Douglas Massey and colleagues with Mexicans, on both sides of the border, conducted as part of an ongoing study launched in 1982. Interviewers uncovered a pattern of cross-border migration from the 1960s until the 1986 act that was stable, circular, predictable, liked by employers and workers, politically tolerated and almost entirely illegal.

The act and later legislation in the 1990s blew apart this deal. Once across the border, people did not want to circulate back lest they be caught while coming back north. The act also gave permanent resident status — “amnesty,” in today’s argot — to 2.3 million persons, many of whom would likely have been grateful for a temporary visa. More women began to jump the border to join legalized spouses. Births to illegal parents rose from 50,000 in 1986 to over 300,000 a year by the mid 1990s, according to the Pew Research Center.

The unauthorized workforce in America tripled, accounting for a fifth of the growth in employment during the Clinton years. Employers, searching for low-cost workers to fill meat-processing and textile plant jobs, beckoned this workforce into nontraditional migrant states such as North Carolina and Iowa. These workers peaked at over 8 million, and have slightly declined since.

I found that Alexis deToqueville explains why illegal immigration has been so large. He wrote 180 years ago that central government in America has little control over the agents entrusted to execute laws.

Consider the role of the employer. Half of unauthorized workers are paid through regular payrolls. They and their employers contributed in one year alone (2010) an estimated $13 billion in Social Security payments.

The 1986 act made it illegal to knowingly employ unauthorized immigrants. On the other side, employers and civil libertarians worked to remove language to create a national ID card.

Employers can use the official employee verification system, called E-Verify, but is it optional. In 30 years, the methods of checking by employers have not changed much. They consist of comparing several forms of personal identification with Social Security records. People in France sans papiers have a far more difficult time than their peers in America in getting a job or finding housing.

But schisms within law enforcement may be the core reason illegal immigration has persisted. State and local legislatures across the country, from New Jersey to Arizona, have passed 1,000-odd laws to drive away unauthorized persons. Most of them likely made, at most, a small short-term impact. What really counts is when local police and corrections agencies help to identify persons without legal status as part of their routine operations and hand them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

The 1986 act expanded the role for joint law enforcement agreements. Under evolving program names, Homeland Security asks state and local prisons and jails to check for legal status. They are not obligated to comply. Not complying with immigration enforcement programs is not a violation of federal law.

At the core of the sanctuary city idea is the refusal by local law enforcement agencies to cooperate. Police chiefs have a hard time squaring the rounding up of unauthorized persons with their goals of nurturing trust between police and residents. Homeland Security complains that “a significant factor impacting removal operations has been the number of state and local law enforcement jurisdictions limiting or declining cooperation with ICE.” Vermont’s Legislature has tightly constrained state and local police on immigration-related tasks. 

I will not miss Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who lost re-election in November. His attention-grabbing antics and harsh talk on illegal immigration obscured the fact that Arizona exceeded all other states in being a “force multiplier” for federal pursuit of persons to deport. Arizona also requires employers to use E-Verify. Researchers differ, but it appears that Arizona’s measures led to a major decline in the number of unauthorized persons.

The federal government has taken action. In its eight years, the Obama administration will likely have deported 3.2 million persons. Most of those deported have a court record of crimes committed here, such as felonies and multiple misdemeanors. President-elect Trump pledges to deport 2 or 3 million illegal criminals. A Washington think tank estimates that 820,000 illegal residents and another million of legal non-citizen residents are vulnerable to deportation for criminal convictions. The numbers are high because a large group of unauthorized persons (male, young and poor) are more demographically associated with crime.   

More federal-local police coordination in some states, tougher employment checks, and perhaps a plan with Mexico for farm and other temporary workers, could be features in an immigration reform bill. Also, young people who slipped through when they were minors (DREAM Act kids), and parents of birthright kids, might be protected. Courts, including a federal court in Texas that decided in favor of a suit brought by 25 states, have stalled Obama’s executive orders protecting these two groups.

These plans look like amnesty, because they are. Some observers hope that with partial solutions like these in place, the unauthorized population would decline over time.

In any event, do not count on a “beautiful” wall on the Mexican border, which some in the Trump camp say will in fact be built, but others say was just colorful talk. 

Peter Rousmaniere is a writer in Woodstock. His email address is He blogs about immigration issues at

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