Whatever the President says tonight and however the Congress responds, human migration — legal and illegal — will persist. Following is some of the context any effective policy or strategy will need to reflect.
The Global Context
Rapid population growth, rising economic expectations, and improved transportation networks have spurred unprecedented numbers of humans to move from places of economic disadvantage, social turmoil, and political oppression to places of greater wealth, security, and freedom.
Statistical sources are not always counting the same things in the same way. Many of the sources are estimates. And I am new enough at this topic I do not have confidence in my ability to rationalize the different approaches. Accordingly the following numbers should be seen as suggesting scope and scale, not as a precise accounting.
The United Nations International Migration Report (2013) indicates that there are over 232 million international migrants. These are citizens of one nation currently residing in another country regardless of status.
Approximately 41 million residents of the United States are foreign-born (13 percent of total population). Of this total the DHS Office of Immigration Statistics estimates that somewhat more than 11 million are not legally authorized (3.5 percent of total population) to be in the United States.
In 2013 roughly 1 million migrants entered the United States with some sort of authorized status. The United States is the single largest destination nation for migration, but there are other significant destinations.
The map immediately below reflects comparative migration in-flows. The second map shows comparative Gross Domestic Product.
Net inflows of migrants (Worldmapper)
Gross Domestic Product (Worldmapper)
While the poorest of the poor are not the most typical migrants, perceived vulnerability and/or persistent lack of economic mobility is clearly a major motivation. In an origin-analysis for unaccompanied minors presenting at the Southern border in the first half of this year, DHS/CBP found a pattern that coincides with poverty and, especially, violence (see map below).
In 1875 when construction began on the Statue of Liberty there was no federal legislation restricting immigration. In 1883 Emma Lazarus wrote these words,
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Even by then it was a bit more accurate to write, “Let me choose among your tired…” The Page Act of 1875 was aimed mostly at curtailing Asian migration to the United States. This was followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Immigration Acts of 1903 and 1907 excluded several classes of potential immigrants such as anarchists, lepers, epileptics, and those with a variety of psychological disorders. The Immigration Act of 1924 established quotas for some nations of origin. Mexican immigration was restricted for the first time in 1965.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 emerged from a set of political, economic, and ethical issues rather similar to the situation today.
Regular readers may be annoyed — but you are not surprised — that I perceive a classical analogy.
Fundamental to Roman imperial policy was assimilation of “barbarians” (either conquered or immigrants). This was especially true in the Fourth Century as several Germanic tribes pressed hard by Hunnish invasions and migration piled up against and over Roman borderlands. Gibbon seems to argue the Goths were too different and too numerous to assimilate. So there is a traditional narrative that Rome fell to especially aggressive “immigrants.” Some contemporary scholars disagree. Alessandro Barbero and others point to the decision of the Emperor Valens in 378 to fight rather than make common cause with the Goths as a fundamental error. The Battle of Adrianople reversed several centuries of a culturally inclusive strategy and committed the Empire to an unsustainable effort to exclude. The city of Rome was sacked in 410.
Historians can argue what really happened then. We are making similar choices now. As with Valens and the Goths, it is sufficiently complicated that even historians may be unable to agree on the implications of what we do or fail to do.