How the ‘Millennium Migration’ from Latin America Shaped the U.S. for the Better

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The U.S.-Mexico border fence extends into the sea outside Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo: Peter Costantini)

A century ago, Italian immigrants told a joke: “Before I came to America, I thought the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I learned three things: one, the streets were not paved with gold; two, the streets were not paved at all; and three, they expected me to pave them.”

Over the past half-century, Mexicans and Central Americans immigrants haven’t found as many streets to pave. But they’ve been drawn northward by the same voracious demand for their labor in fields like agriculture, residential construction, food services, and lodging. They too have taken hard, low-paying jobs, and stimulated the economy as workers, consumers, and entrepreneurs.

The newcomers have been criminalized, unjustly imprisoned, and deported. Nevertheless, many have put down deep roots where they’ve settled. In many dimensions, they’ve enriched the “gorgeous mosaic” that we’re still struggling to become.

In the end, the benefits of this mass migration have far outweighed the costs. But you’d never know it from a debate distorted by decades of anti-immigrant demagoguery. To understand this disjunction, we need to take a hard look back at what actually happened.

You say Rio Grande, and I say río Bravo

From the last part of the past century through the beginning of the Great Recession, an epochal exodus of Mesoamericans poured across the border into el Norte. The tide rose gradually in the 1970s, accelerated in the 1990s, and crested around 2000. It subsided through the following years, and ended with the bursting of the housing bubble around 2008. Let’s call it the Millennium Migration.

The migrants were driven by powerful push-pull effects: a debilitating depression with 20 percent unemployment following the mid-1990s peso crisis in Mexico, next door to a boom in the United States that raised even low wages and offered plentiful jobs. Meanwhile, the U.S. workforce was shrinking due to low birth rates. The North American Free Trade Agreement and the Mexican government’s elimination of protections for small farmers drove a couple million of them off their land. Many went north.

The Millennium Migration built on what had been going on for over a century: circular migration back and forth across the border to the rhythms of the U.S. and Mexican economies. Some 60 percent of the voyagers did not have papers. Many were driven by what might be called the Mexican Dream — sending home remittances to support their family and returning after a few years to build a house or open a small business. But this time the demand for their labor pulled them into new fields beyond agriculture, like residential construction and food service. And changing enforcement patterns pushed some towards new areas of the Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast.

This migratory surge was probably the largest in United States history in absolute numbers, although proportionately to population it was not as high as the peaks of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It left Latinos the largest minority group in the United States, with 16.3 percent of the population, and shifted demographic and political balances in much of the West and Southwest.

The Millennium influx slowed gradually after the dot-com crash and ended with the Great Recession. The bursting of the housing bubble deflated residential construction, along with other sectors where many immigrants worked. From 2008 on, slightly more undocumented people went back to Mexico than entered the U.S., and the population of undocumented Mexicans plummeted by 18.8 percent from 2007 to 2014. The total Mexican-born and total undocumented population from everywhere both declined, but less steeply. In other words, unauthorized immigration ultimately proved to be self-regulating in response to the economy.

Today, another mass migration from the south is increasingly unlikely. Some of the factors pressuring migrants to leave Mexico receded: Birth and population growth rates shrank, along with numbers of prime-age job seekers, while life expectancy and the economy grew. Now Central Americans and others have surpassed Mexicans entering at the southern border, although in much smaller numbers than before. Overall, immigrants from China and India now both outnumber Mexicans.

The end of the Millennium Migration, however, has left a diaspora of some 11 million undocumented immigrants, more than half Mexican, stranded here at the mercy of a cruel and unusual immigration system. Their average residency is 13.6 years, and two-thirds have been here more than 10 years. Of these long-term settlers, nearly half own their own home. More than four-fifths of their children are U.S.-born citizens, and many of the rest are Dreamers. Many are in mixed families also including citizens and authorized immigrants. They have sunk deep roots into their communities and economies.

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We need to look beyond all the current proposals in Washington and dig deeper into the structural problems with our outdated, isolationist, and fundamentally inhumane policy regime around immigrants and immigration. (Photo: SEIU International / Flickr)

The taco-truck multiplier

With nearly a decade of hindsight, it is clear that on balance there never was an immigration crisis in an economic sense. The Millennium Migration produced modest but tangible benefits for the great majority of native consumers and workers.

The preponderance of research shows that native-born workers experienced net gains in incomes and employment from immigration. There was no correlation between the proportion of undocumented immigrants in an area and lower wages or employment. Benefits were stronger for middle and higher-wage workers. But even the 6 percent of the workforce with less than a high-school diploma experienced few to no negative effects on the average. Rather, their falling incomes and rising insecurity were overwhelmingly caused by automation, outsourcing, stagnant minimum wages, and declining unionization. And their wages dropped much further in areas with few immigrants than in areas with many.

Mexican immigrants brought with them a hundred-year tradition of navigating the immense northerly economy. Some returned to places where local farms and businesses had welcomed them back year after year. Grapevines cultivated over decades of annual migrations following the harvests helped them find work and avoid conflicts. New immigrants needed a paycheck right away to eat and send remittances home, so they tended to stay away from areas with higher unemployment, and gravitated to places with plentiful low-wage jobs. If they didn’t find work or encountered competition in one place, they were much more likely than natives to move on and look for work elsewhere.

Labor markets for undocumented workers and for natives were often segmented, complementing rather than competing with each other. Close to half of the undocumented hadn’t finished high school, and many lacked experience transferrable to North American workplaces. Most did not speak much English. Few could compete with, much less “steal jobs” from, native workers. Instead, newcomers often “bumped up” natives into jobs requiring better communications skills in English. The resulting specialization of labor increased efficiency and productivity. The group that experienced the most competition was previous immigrants.

The expanded workforce lowered prices for products such as produce and houses. Many immigrants were necessarily entrepreneurial, and started small businesses more often than natives. All immigrants brought their purchasing power to their new communities, increasing demand for goods and services and helping their economies grow.

Undocumented immigrants are also much less likely to commit crimes or be imprisoned than comparable U.S. natives. All pay local taxes and many pay national ones, but they use very few public services and collect virtually no public benefits.

Most labor unions and low-income community organizations have recognized immigrants as allies, not enemies. The infrequent cases of friction between immigrant and native workers have nearly always been fomented by employers trying to divide and conquer by pitting groups against each other. The best way to prevent abuse of immigrants, most organizers agree, is to join forces to protect everyone’s human and labor rights.

Can the arc of the moral universe cross borders?

The rights of immigrants are nearly the same as those of natives. When people cross a border into another country, they bring their basic rights with them regardless of immigration status. International law and human rights treaties guarantee most human, civil, and economic rights to all, not just citizens.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants strongly criticized the United States in 2007 for failing to comply with international law protecting immigrants against abuse and discrimination. And the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States has delivered two judgements against the U.S. for discriminating against Mexican workers based on their immigration status.

The U.S. Constitution and labor laws also guarantee most rights to all people living and working in the country, not just citizens. Morally, as well, entering the country without permission is clearly not a crime comparable to any of the felonies we often associate with the term. Rather, it’s an administrative infraction not too different from parking overtime, or trespassing for a benign purpose.

Yet despite the widespread benefits brought by the Millennium influx, nativists and restrictionists have long deployed legislative and public relations machinery that manufactures “illegals” out of undocumented human beings.

A 50-year series of law and policy changes have reduced immigration quotas for Mexicans and Central Americans to levels so low that, practically, there is no line they could wait on to migrate legally. They have also criminalized immigration by turning simply re-entering the country, along with other civil infractions and minor misdemeanors, into phony “aggravated felonies.” Enforcement growth on steroids has swept greatly increased numbers into a judicial assembly line which railroads prisoners through in large groups, making a travesty of due process. Excessive prison sentences and deportations mete out disproportionate punishments for non-criminal actions, tearing apart families and communities.

To kids who are afraid to go to school because their mom and dad might be gone when they get home, this must feel a lot like a police state.

Legislation guaranteeing yearly minimums of prisoners has funneled a generous revenue stream into private prison corporations. Their owners have in turn filled the coffers of their legislative enablers.

To overworked parents imprisoned for minor immigration infractions, the detention centers must look a lot like a gulag.

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(Photo: Bread for the World / Flickr)

Juan Crow

The whole juggernaut of ICE raids, kangaroo courts, and privatized detention has been dubbed “Juan Crow” by immigrant advocates. In an echo of the Jim Crow system that institutionalized segregation and repression of African Americans, Juan Crow has alloyed racist and xenophobic scapegoating of immigrants with authoritarian repression.

However, in defying unjust laws and enforcement, the immigrant rights movement is following a deep moral tradition of our country, walking in the footsteps of movements for civil, labor, and women’s rights, of abolitionists and the original American revolutionaries. Previous mass migrations, from the Irish and Chinese of the 19th century to the southern and eastern Europeans of the early 20th century, also faced demonization by sociopathic movements, from the Know-Nothings to the Klan, with family resemblances to today’s nativists.

The gratuitous cruelty of Juan Crow has been complemented by decades of futile but pricey efforts to militarize the border. Through most of the Millennium Migration, the border-enforcement budget multiplied eight times, but efforts to keep out immigrants grew less effective. A billion dollars was lavished on Boeing for its failed Secure Borders Initiative, a high-tech “virtual fence” that never worked. Further public funds have been squandered calling out the National Guard to the border. Since the end of the migration nearly a decade ago, they keep slathering more gold plating onto the iron fist. But the U.S.-Mexico border has continued to resist efforts to hermetically seal it.

Instead, extreme border hardening has had major unintended consequences. While it may have slightly slowed in-migration, which had already declined sharply, it also discouraged most return crossings to the south. Many undocumented immigrants who would have continued moving back and forth across the border opted to avoid the increased costs and dangers, and stayed put in the States. In many cases, they brought their families over.

As enforcement was broadened, pushing crossers out into the Sonoran Desert, the costs and dangers rose sharply. In effect, border militarization backstopped and subsidized Mexican organized crime. Recognizing a growing profit center, the cartels who control the Mexican side of the borderlands increased their taxation of coyotes and, in some areas, took over their operations. Some narcos may now earn more from trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion than from drug smuggling. The worst have committed mass murders of Central American migrants.

In the face of worsening odds, travelers began to rely more on two methods that made an end run around the border buildup. In recent years, an estimated one-half to two-thirds of migrants have been entering the U.S. by either overstaying a visa, or by crossing at a legal port of entry concealed or with false papers.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”

Despite the millions of deportations carried out by the Obama administration, during his second term President Obama introduced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which offered renewable relief to undocumented people brought to the U.S. as small children — also known as the Dreamers — and another effort to give similar temporary protections to their parents, the latter of which was ultimately defeated in court. With the advent of President Donald Trump, though, Juan Crow has strutted back to the front of the parade.

The border wall is above all a big beautiful decoy, a middle-finger salute to Latin America, immigrants, and refugees, and an embodiment of the mass psychosis of Trump’s followers. It would have little value for border enforcement. (Now that more Chinese immigrants are entering than Mexicans, though, maybe Trump can demonstrate his deal-making artistry by convincing Xi Jinping to pay for a wall across our border with China.)

The real action is in terrorizing, jailing, and expelling immigrants and breaking up their families. As attorney general Jeff Sessions, Kansas secretary of state and Trump adviser Kris Kobach, and Trump protégé Steve Miller oil their repressive machinery, you can catch a sulfurous whiff of Neo-Fascism Lite. It’s redolent in Trump’s pardon of ex-sheriff and convicted racial profiler Joe Arpaio, and in his holding Dreamers hostage to more punitive measures against their communities. Trump has turned the West Wing into a bouncy house for bigots, and they are lighting the torches of the Neo-Nazis and the Klan. Meanwhile, away from the hurly-burly, the congressional right is doggedly pursuing their shared legislative agenda not just on immigration, but also on voting rights, “law and order,” and labor issues.

One sad irony of these circuses without bread is that many displaced manufacturing workers and coal miners share a parallel fate with immigrants: All are cast adrift on neoliberal riptides, the economic flotsam and jetsam of corporate-led globalization. Dollars and pesos flash across the border in fiber-optic cables, goods pour across on trains and trucks, but some of the human “factors of production” have to crawl across through sewers — or watch their jobs being shipped offshore or to “right-to-work” states.

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Paths out of the desert

At this point, the old grand-bargain approach to immigration reform has failed twice in Congress. All it achieved was to fortify the immigration police state and gulag. Perhaps, though, its demise will give us a clearer view of more promising paths out of the desert. The policies that can implement real changes will be challenging to craft, but the goals are already clear.

The most urgent priority should be to grant safe status and clear roads to citizenships to the millions of humans without papers who have settled into lives, jobs, and communities here. We will need to develop sensible ways to facilitate the reunification of current immigrants with their mixed-status and transnational families. By running the gauntlet for all these years to become productive and valued community members, they have already demonstrated their commitment to their new home.

To give them security, we will have to thoroughly dismantle Juan Crow’s police state and for-profit gulag, decriminalizing and demilitarizing immigration.

Another mass immigration from the south on the scale of the Millennium Migration is very unlikely to recur. Yet we will need to continue to find ways to responsibly welcome new immigrants from all over, guaranteeing their rights and respecting their economic needs in tandem with those of workers already here. This will involve allowing migrants to move easily back and forth across the border in response to exigencies on both sides. In the long term, a human-centered economy will also require providing much stronger safety nets for all, and resources for resuscitating deindustrialized and depressed communities.

With legal and economic systems in place that correspond to realities on the ground, immigration enforcement should be de-prioritized in favor of immigrant integration. This should enable the country to sharply reduce border and internal enforcement budgets and personnel. These should be refocused away from persecuting ordinary immigrants and refugees, and onto protecting border areas from genuine threats such as organized crime. Beyond the border, we should support immigrants’ “right to stay home” through cooperation with efforts to raise standards of living and protect human rights in immigrant-sending countries.

Today, the streets are still not paved with gold. We expected the Millennium migrants to pick our crops, build our houses, and clean our hotel rooms. The newcomers did all of that and much more. Now many millions of them are raising their families here, and have sunk tenacious roots. They’ve paid their passage in sweat, tears, and sometimes blood. Their elbow grease has helped build their communities and the country as a whole. They’ve earned a freeway to citizenship for themselves and their families.

As to Trump’s wall, Mexican-American comedian George Lopez said that when people ask him how he feels about it, he tells them, “You know what? We’ll get over it.”

At a recent gathering of immigrants, a mother was crying: “I have two daughters who are Dreamers. What’s going to happen to them?” A friend was consoling: “You’re not alone. We’re all in this together.” Then a man in a cowboy hat and a Pancho Villa moustache stood up and chanted: Aquí estamos y no nos vamos, y si nos sacan, nos regresamos.

“Here we are, and we’re not leaving, and if they kick us out, we’ll come right back.”

Peter Costantini is an analyst and writer based in Seattle. For the past three decades, he has written about migration, labor, Latin America, and international economics. He is currently embedded as a volunteer with immigrant rights groups.

The longer paper on which this commentary is based, with extensive footnotes and references, is available as a download from The Huffington Post.