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Unauthorized immigration to the United States
by Thomas J. Espenshade





Illegal immigration to the United States is in the public eye once again. Televised accounts of the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, the Zoe Baird hearings, and the grounding of the Golden Venture ship carrying large numbers of undocumented Chinese immigrants have made the problem difficult to ignore. In addition, such individual states as California, Florida, and Arizona, concerned about the number of unauthorized migrants within their jurisdictions, are seeking reimbursement from the federal government for an array of education, health, and other social services they are required by federal law to provide to these individuals. For numerous reasons, illegal immigration is a difficult issue to study. Not the least of the obstacles is the fact that the number of unauthorized immigrants entering the United States is unobserved and therefore not precisely known. In addition, no census or other federally sponsored survey asks respondents about their legal status, so the impact of undocumented immigration is often inferred from other indicators. The public's impression about unauthorized migration is frequently formed from scenes of Cubans and Haitians intercepted on the high seas or from pictures of clandestine migrants crossing the Mexico-United States border. As a consequence, the public perception about the nature and consequences of illegal immigration may differ substantially from what the research literature suggests.


This review surveys the field of undocumented immigration to the United States, partly to identify areas of research controversy and partly to establish a factual base. The former objective may help to guide future research, while the latter can serve as the basis for policy formulation and outreach efforts to provide better information to the public. The paper is divided into six parts. First, we consider the demographic dimensions of the issue, focusing on the extent of unauthorized immigration to the United States. Second, we review US public opinion toward immigration in general and illegal immigration in particular. Here a historical perspective is used to show how attitudes have changed through time. Third, we explore the causes of undocumented US immigration with attention to economic and social factors that push or pull migrants. Fourth, the social and economic implications of illegal immigration are addressed, with special emphasis on labor market and fiscal impacts. Fifth, policies to affect the stocks and flows of illegal migrants are reviewed. Although we approach this topic historically, most of our attention is focused on the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). We conclude with a brief discussion of prospects for the future.




Because the volume of illegal US immigration is not directly observed, studies of the gross flow of undocumented migration across the Mexico-United States border have typically invoked Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) data on the number of border apprehensions of unauthorized aliens as a proxy for the size of the illegal migrant flow. Such statistics are generated whenever the US Border Patrol apprehends (or arrests) someone who is in the country illegally (White et al 1990). Most unauthorized migrants are captured either as they cross the border or shortly thereafter (Espenshade 1990). In addition, attempted border crossings have been densely concentrated along a few short stretches of border (Singer et al 1994). As an extreme example, the Chula Vista station in the San Diego sector covers just a single mile of border, yet it records more apprehensions than any other station (Federation for American Immigration Reform 1989). Five out of six apprehensions are adult male Mexican nationals. When Mexican women and their children are included, the total Mexican proportion of all apprehensions rises to nearly 98%. In general, the typical undocumented migrant is a young adult Mexican male who comes across the southern border near a major US city and who, unless he manages to avoid detection altogether, is in the United States for a few hours or days at most before being apprehended by the US Border Patrol (Espenshade et al 1991).


Trends in the annual number of apprehensions are graphed in Figure 1. The number of apprehensions before 1950 was relatively small, especially prior to 1940 - just 128,000 in the decade of the 1920s, 147,000 in the 1930s, rising to nearly 1.4 million during the 1940s (US Immigration and Naturalization Service 1993). This increase continued into the early 1950s. In the three years from 1951 to 1953 there were nearly two million alien apprehensions in the United States - far more than the recorded number in all prior years combined. By 1954 the illegal alien problem was perceived as so serious that the US Border Patrol launched "Operation Wetback" during which more than one million undocumented Mexican migrants, together with some persons who were US citizens, were rounded up and deported back to Mexico. Within five years the number of illegal alien apprehensions dropped by 95% to fewer than 50,000 in 1959 (US Immigration and Naturalization Service 1993).


The increase accelerated again after 1964 when Congress terminated the bracero program in the face of public opposition to conditions under which migrant workers lived, the influence of the US Civil Rights movement, and the effective lobbying of labor, church, and ethnic groups (Bean et al 1989). The Bracero guestworker program had begun in 1942 to relieve wartime labor shortages and to legalize and control the flow of Mexican agricultural workers to pick crops in western US states. When the program ended, job-seeking Mexicans who had grown accustomed to working in the United States and who found they no longer had any legal means of entry continued to come illegally (Bouvier & Gardner 1986). In this sense, agricultural workers that came from Mexico following World War II, some legally as Braceros and others illegally, were "the historical predecessors of today's undocumented aliens" (Vialet 1989: 414). The number of apprehensions rose more or less steadily after the late 1960s to a peak of 1.8 million in 1986. The numbers declined in the next few years, gratifying the proponents of IRCA who interpreted the decline as a sign that the new law designed to slow the flow of illegal immigrants into the country was working. But the decline proved to be short-lived and reversed again starting in 1990.


Despite their widespread use as a proxy for unauthorized migrant flows, apprehensions data are a conceptually inappropriate indicator because they measure undocumented aliens who have failed in their attempt to enter the United States, whereas the issue of general policy and research interest pertains to the number who succeeded (Briggs 1984). More specifically, not all aliens who enter the United States clandestinely are captured by the Border Patrol. Some migrants are apprehended several times in the same reporting period, with the consequence that INS arrest figures literally refer to counts of the number of apprehensions and not to the number of persons apprehended. Finally, the level of apprehensions is sensitive to changes in Border Patrol effectiveness in locating and apprehending illegal aliens. Despite these limitations, Espenshade (1995) suggests that the number of apprehensions and the estimated level of the underlying undocumented flow are correlated at 0.90. One may conclude that changes in the number of apprehensions track changes in the volume of illegal immigration reasonably well. On the other hand, the same evaluation shows that the estimated size of the illegal migrant flow is roughly 2.2 times the number of Border Patrol arrests.


Estimates of the monthly gross volume of unauthorized Mexico-US migration for the period 1977-1988 are pictured in Figure 2. These estimates are derived from INS data on total and repeat apprehensions and are based on Espenshade's (1990) repeated trials model. There is a strong seasonal pattern to illegal migration. With few exceptions, the illegal flow is smallest in November and December when undocumented migrants return home for Christmas and the fiestas (Cornelius 1989), and it resumes again in the spring and summer months. There seems to be a slight downward trend until 1982 when the collapse in world oil prices created disruptions in Mexico's economy, followed by a rise through the end of 1986 when the passage of IRCA altered the usual seasonal pattern. Across the 12-year period, the estimated undocumented flow has an average monthly value of about 175,000, with a minimum of 63,000 and a maximum of 338,000. The repeated trials model makes the simplifying assumption that all migrants face the same probability of apprehension within a given month, regardless of their community of origin, number of trips to the United States, or the number of prior attempts made that month to cross the border. This assumption is unavoidable when using aggregate INS data, but with micro data one could test for heterogeneity in apprehension risks among undocumented migrant cohorts and could examine the possibility of learning by doing, which could lower apprehension risks on subsequent trips or subsequent attempts on the same trip.


The gross flow of unauthorized aliens is not the same as the net flow, because many illegal aliens depart the United States each year. Researchers at the US Bureau of the Census estimate that the size of the US undocumented alien population grew by an average annual amount somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 during the period from 1980 to 1983 (Passel 1986). Based on estimates of the number of undocumented aliens counted in the June 1986 and June 1988 Current Population Surveys (CPS), Woodrow & Passel (1990) estimated that the annual net flow of undocumented migrants to the United States between 1986 and 1988 was 246,000. An alternative estimate by the same authors suggests that 70,000 net undocumented immigrants entered the country in the 18-month period follow January 1987. The US Bureau of the Census is now using 200,000 as the net annual increase in the undocumented US population (Fernandez & Robinson 1994), claiming that this estimate is supported by comparisons of estimates from the November 1989 CPS with those from previous years (Woodrow 1991). But the net additions assumed by the Census Bureau may actually be too conservative. Warren (1994) puts the average annual change in the stock of undocumented persons in a range between 200,000 and 300,000 and calls an annual net addition of more than 250,000 during the early 1990s the "best guess." Warren's figures have greater credibility because they are based on persons who overstay their visas as well as those who enter the United States without inspection (Fix & Passel 1994).


Great controversy has in the past characterized estimates of the total number of undocumented migrants resident in the United States, with some estimates exceeding 10 million (Keely 1982, Bos 1984). Recent research has refined these estimates, and today there is greater agreement about possible error ranges (Bean et al 1990). Research by Warren & Passel (1987) indicates that the number of undocumented settlers and long-term sojourners who were counted in the 1980 US decennial census was about 2.1 million. More than half of these (1.1 million) were from Mexico. Informal estimates suggested that between one half and two thirds of the stock of illegal aliens in the United States were included in the 1980 census, which implies that the total number of undocumented persons resident in the country in 1980 was in the range from 2.5 to 3.5 million (Fix & Passel 1994).


By 1986 between 3 million and 5 million unauthorized aliens were estimated to be living in the United States. The numbers dropped dramatically, however, following IRCA's legalization program which granted amnesty to roughly 2.8 million formerly illegal residents. Estimates for 1989 suggest that the number of undocumented persons had declined to somewhere within a range of 1.8 million to 3 million (Fix & Passel 1994). But the amnesty program was a one-time opportunity, and the number of illegals has once again started to increase. The best estimates for the early 1990s have been assembled by Warren (1994). He puts the total size of the undocumented population in October 1992 at 3.4 million. Individuals who came to the United States on a legal temporary visa and then later became unauthorized aliens because they overstayed their visa constitute roughly half of the undocumented population, whereas the other half came initially without proper documents and most likely crossed over US land borders between official ports of entry. As might be expected, Mexico is the leading source country and accounts for 1.3 million or about 40% of the total. In addition, California is the leading state of residence of the illegally resident population with a total of 1.4 million people. California and six other states - New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, and Arizona - account for 86% of the total illegal population. Finally, figures assembled by Fernandez & Robinson (1994) for April 1994 suggest that the total undocumented population now falls into a range between 3.5 and 4.0 million.


To put these numbers into perspective, Fix & Passel (1994) have estimated that the total foreign-born population in the United States is growing by about 700,000 each year, after the combined effects of legal and illegal entry, emigration, and death are included. The estimates we have reviewed suggest that unauthorized migration accounts for at least one third of all population growth due to immigration. In addition, total immigration accounts for about one third of US net annual population growth (Fix & Passel 1994).




Americans have long held conflicting attitudes toward immigrants and immigration. We pride ourselves in being a "nation of immigrants," and yet many tend to view recent waves of immigrants with skepticism if not outright hostility. Drawing on more than a century of print media coverage of US immigration, Simon & Alexander (1993) show that little has changed in how immigrants are perceived. At least since the 1880s, immigrants have been assumed to take jobs away from and to lower wages of native workers, to add to the poverty population, and to compete for education, health and other social services. Negative feelings toward immigrants were reinvigorated as successive new waves arrived - first the Irish, then the Italians, then Mexicans, and now Asians. All that seems to have changed are the origins of migrants and the terms used to describe them. Seldom are new immigrants today referred to as they were in 1920 as the melting pot's "unsightly indigestible lumps" (quoted in Simon & Alexander 1993: 71).


Restrictionist immigration rules were first introduced in the United States after 1875, a period during which beliefs about the negative impacts of immigrants gained prominence (Simon 1985). The American public adopted a more liberal attitude toward foreign immigration following World War II, as evidenced by smaller proportions of respondents in opinion surveys who felt that immigration levels should be zero or at least reduced from current levels (Morris 1985). This more tolerant attitude lasted throughout much of the 1950s and 1960s but was replaced in the late 1970s and 1980s by a new wave of "neo-restrictionist" sentiment (Harwood 1986). More than three fourths of the general public surveyed in a 1990 Roper poll believed that US immigration levels should not increase, and nearly one half felt that the level should be lowered. Nearly two thirds of respondents to a 1993 New York Times/CBS News poll agreed that immigration levels should be reduced, and only 6% thought they should be increased (Espenshade & Hempstead 1994).


Several reasons have been advanced for the rise in neo-restrictionism, including fears associated with economic insecurity (Moehring 1988) and concerns over immigrants' undesirable cultural traits (Day 1990). But another unmistakable part of the explanation is the concern over unauthorized immigration. Commenting on the early 1980s situation, Passel (1986: 181) noted, "One important characteristic that distinguishes contemporary immigration from previous waves of immigration is the presence of significant numbers of undocumented, or illegal, immigrants." Espenshade & Hempstead (1994) found that respondents to a 1993 survey who thought that most recent US immigrants were illegal had a significantly higher tendency to regard current immigration levels as too high.


Only one study has analyzed public opinion toward undocumented immigration. Using data from a June 1983 survey of public attitudes toward undocumented immigration in southern California, Espenshade & Calhoun (1993) tested five hypotheses:


1. A labor market competition hypothesis suggests that persons having the lowest levels of socioeconomic status attainment are likely to have the most concern over job competition with new immigrants, and that they therefore will exhibit the most negative attitudes toward illegal migration and undocumented migrants.


2. A cultural affinity hypothesis predicts that individuals whose own cultural attributes are most like those of undocumented migrants will possess the strongest pro-immigrant attitudes.


3. An education hypothesis predicts that educational attainment and pro-immigrant attitudes will be positively correlated.


4. A utilitarian calculus hypothesis emphasizes perceived costs and benefits of migration and predicts that negative attitudes toward undocumented migration are associated with anxieties over one's material well-being.


5. A symbolic politics hypothesis that suggests that challenges to important symbols of American nationality may evoke anti-immigrant attitudes.


Espenshade & Calhoun (1993) find only weak support for the labor market competition hypothesis. There is firmer evidence for hypotheses relating to cultural affinity between respondents and undocumented migrants and to the role of education. Respondents' evaluations of tangible costs and benefits to themselves also influence their assessments of illegal immigration. Finally, the results provide additional support for a symbolic politics model of opinion formation when the model is extended to the issue of undocumented migration to the United States. More generally, the results support the notion that survey respondents' characteristics and their perceptions of migrants' behavior affect the way residents in southern California view both undocumented migrants and the overall impact of illegal immigration. Older survey participants are more likely to see illegal immigration in negative terms, whereas having more education and being Hispanic are each associated with greater optimism about undocumented migrants and illegal migration. At the same time, respondents who cast immigrants as poor and welfare dependent or as making little effort to learn English have some of the most unfavorable rankings of undocumented immigration and its impacts. Beliefs that immigrants are more likely to be on welfare, to commit crime, or to impose a fiscal burden on other taxpayers by receiving social services whose value exceeds the taxes migrants pay are consistently associated with more negative general attitudes about undocumented immigration. So, too, are views that the number of people with little or no English-speaking ability is likely to increase and that this growth will have a bad effect on ethnic relations.




Several theories have been advanced to explain the causes of unauthorized immigration to the United States. Massey et al (1993) have divided these explanations into those that account for the initiation of international movements and those that sustain and expand these movements once they have begun. In the first category Massey et al (1993) include economic approaches to international migration, including neoclassical economics and the "new economics of migration" along with dual labor market theory and world systems theory. In the latter category belong hypotheses originating from network theory, institutional theory, and a variety of factors promoting the cumulative causation of migration.


Neoclassical approaches portray potential migrants as (expected) income maximizers who will move to a new destination whenever the anticipated gains are sufficiently high. According to neoclassical macro theory, international migration is driven by regional imbalances in the supply and demand for labor. These imbalances promote low wages in countries where labor is plentiful relative to the amount of capital, and higher wages where labor is the scarcer factor of production. Migrants have an incentive to move from low-wage to high-wage countries until changing labor supplies bring international wage levels closer to parity. Because of rapid population growth in developing countries, this theory predicts that most international migration will be from poorer nations to more advanced industrialized ones. The micro counterpart to this macro theory views individuals as the relevant decisionmakers who weigh the present value of expected future income streams at a variety of potential destinations against the income expected at the origin. Expected income at alternative destinations will depend on average wage levels and the anticipated probability of securing employment as well as, in the case of unauthorized immigrants, on the probability of avoiding detection and deportation by immigration authorities (Harris & Todaro 1970, Todaro & Maruszko 1987). According to this theory, rational actors go where expected income is the highest (Massey et al 1993).


Work on the new economics of migration has been pioneered by Stark & Levhari (1982), Taylor (1986), and Stark (1991). This perspective differs from neoclassical economic theory in several important ways. First, the relevant actors are not individuals but rather families and households whose survival strategies include but often supersede those of individual household members. Second, although households may at times attempt to maximize income, family behaviors are often better understood in terms of efforts to minimize risk. In developed countries, the existence of well-developed capital markets and other insurance schemes helps to protect families against excessive risk. But these mechanisms are either absent or not sufficiently reliable in poorer countries, so families need to self-insure against sudden declines in economic fortune (Massey 1990). One way that families do this is by sending earners to other countries; risks can be diversified provided labor market and other economic conditions in the destination country are uncorrelated (or preferably negatively correlated) with those in the origin country.


Dual labor market theory focuses less on the motivations of individual workers and more on the chronic demand by industrial capitalists for foreign workers (Piore 1979). Many employers face inherently unstable demand for their products or services. Because the cost of underutilizing capital equipment falls on businesses whereas the cost of laying off workers falls on workers themselves, owners of capital have a natural incentive to deploy capital to meet the most stable portions of demand and to use labor to satisfy the more unpredictable portions (Massey et al 1993). This results in a situation where many workers in the secondary sector face job insecurity, low wages, and little prospect of upward mobility. This theory argues that native workers will be motivated to seek jobs in the primary sector of the economy where higher skills are required and where pay is better. Consequently, employers will turn to foreign labor to meet the less stable portions of demand. World systems theory argues that owners of capital are constantly driven by the search for lower costs and higher profits, and they will expand beyond the boundaries of advanced industrial economies to penetrate smaller countries on the margins of the world economy (Wallerstein 1974). The dislocations to indigenous labor that these developments bring create incentives for workers to search for employment elsewhere, sometimes in urban areas of their own countries and sometimes in other countries (Massey 1988).


Once migration has begun, other factors help to sustain it. One is the set of previous migrants on whom current or prospective migrants can draw for financial help, information, housing, and jobs. These sources of support may be especially reliable if former migrants are also family members or close kin, because kinship forges bonds of expected reciprocity and mutual support (Massey 1990). The practical implication is that migrant networks help to lower the costs and risks of migration, thereby imparting an inner momentum to migration streams once they are under way (Massey et al 1993). Institutions that spring up to facilitate international movement also help to perpetuate international migrant flows. In the United States, these include the sanctuary movement supported by a variety of local churches, a black market in fraudulent documents, and a greater use of coyotes (hired smugglers) to help avoid arrest by US immigration authorities. By lowering the costs and risks associated with clandestine migration, migrant networks and institutions supporting undocumented migrants help pave the way for more unauthorized migrants to come in later waves, a process that Myrdal (1957) and Massey (1990) have referred to as the cumulative causation of migration.


Empirical research on the causes of undocumented Mexico-US migration has frequently relied on ethnographic survey data collected from one or more Mexican origin communities. This large body of research covering more than two decades of community studies has recently been summarized by Durand & Massey (1992) who find that four elements are crucial in understanding the patterns and processes of Mexican migration to the United States. First, the age of the migration stream refers to how long a community has been sending migrants to the United States. More established migrant flows are correlated with a larger fraction of migrants from the poorest segments of society, a larger share of women and children in the flow, and a smaller proportion of migrants without proper legal documents. Second, the occupational niche that migrants occupy when they first enter the United States also matters. Agricultural employment has traditionally been associated with greater participation by women and children, with larger numbers of legalized migrants, and with greater reliance on temporary migration strategies. Third, Mexican sending communities that have access to urban markets, a well developed infrastructure, and a more egalitarian distribution of productive resources are more likely to contain migrants who spend a large fraction of their migrant earnings on productive purposes. Finally, the distribution and quality of agricultural land is important in that communities where land is tightly controlled in the hands of a few individuals are more likely to send landless day laborers as migrants. The degree of inequality in landholding also affects the ability of return migrants to invest their savings in agriculture.


Additional empirical work has concentrated on modeling the determinants of the monthly flow of undocumented migrants shown earlier in Figure 2. Espenshade's (1990) results suggest that demographic, economic, and policy variables are important determinants of variations in unauthorized alien flows across the Mexico-US border. The flow is increased by Mexican population growth in the young-adult ages, by an improvement in economic conditions in the United States relative to Mexico (measured by relative wage and unemployment rates), and by the unfolding of the planting and harvesting season in agriculture in the spring and early summer months. These influences, together with a series of policy variables related to IRCA's implementation in 1986, account for nearly 90% of the variation in illegal alien flows between 1977 and 1988. Once these factors are controlled, the perceived probability of being located and arrested at the Mexico-US border by immigration authorities has relatively little to do with variations in unauthorized migrant flows (Espenshade 1994).


Household data collected from Mexican sending communities also sheds light on the determinants of illegal alien flows. On the basis of approximately 1350 households from seven communities sampled during the winter months of 1987-1988 through 1989-1990, Donato et al (1992) estimate an age-period model of the probability that males would make an undocumented trip to the United States and conclude that probabilities are highest for men between the ages of 15 and 29, are lowest prior to 1940, rise until the 1960s when they settle back, and then rise again, showing no tendency to be reduced by IRCA's passage. Migrants from rural areas also display sharply higher probabilities of migrating illegally than do urban residents.




As previously noted, illegal immigration may add as many as 300,000 new US residents each year. In addition, fluctuations in the level of undocumented migrant flows are inversely associated with the probability of being apprehended at the Mexico-US border on any given attempt to enter the United States clandestinely (Espenshade & Acevedo 1995). Nevertheless, the consequences of illegal immigration that are generally of greatest concern are not demographic but those having to do with labor market and fiscal impacts.


Labor Market Implications


One important set of issues concerns migrants' own wages. Do they earn less than legal immigrants or native workers? Do undocumented workers experience upward wage mobility with greater experience in US labor markets? In addition, does the presence of undocumented workers in US labor markets have an adverse impact on the earnings and employment of native workers?


Most research has concluded that undocumented migrants are paid less than other workers (Cobb-Clark et al 1994). This effect is generally explained in terms of reduced labor market experience, lower job-related skills, or just outright employer discrimination. North & Houston (1976) examined hourly wage rates among a group of 793 apprehended illegal aliens who were interviewed in metropolitan areas across the United States in May and June 1975. Mexican nationals earned significantly less than undocumented workers from other countries. In addition, unauthorized workers in construction, manufacturing, and other industrial divisions earned substantially less per hour than did all US production and nonsupervisory workers ($2.66 versus $4.47), and these unauthorized laborers worked nearly 9 hours more per week. More than a fifth of the illegal sample was paid less than the minimum wage on their most recent job.


Chiswick (1991) attributes these differentials to the lower skill levels of illegals. Illegal aliens do not receive wages that are lower than those of other workers with comparable levels of skill. Massey's (1987) explanation centers on work experience and attachment to particular employers. Illegals are paid lower wages than legal migrant workers, not because of their undocumented status per se but because of shorter labor market experience and less employer-specific capital. Massey concludes that undocumented migrants do not experience wage discrimination in US labor markets. Borjas & Tienda (1993) base their analysis on the employment and earnings of newly legalized immigrants compared with the experiences of all foreign-born persons in the United States. They find that illegal immigrants have high rates of labor force participation but typically earn about 30% less than their legal counterparts from the same region of the world. They also conclude that national origin accounts for about half the wage gap, suggesting that human capital differentials reflected in education and job skills are important determinants of lower wages for undocumented migrants. After controlling for age, English-language ability, schooling, and length of stay in the United States, Heer (1990) finds that legal immigrant males and females still earned significantly more than their undocumented counterparts. Employer discrimination could be part of the explanation, but the gap could also be due to unmeasured components.


Most undocumented migrants initially experience downward economic mobility when they enter the United States, but with added US labor market experience this trend later reverses. North & Houston (1976) found that the net effect of the US labor market on the occupational status of their respondents was negative, even though almost half of the sample that had been farmworkers in their home countries had moved into nonagricultural work in the United States. Similar patterns have been noted by Kossoudji & Cobb-Clark (1993) among a sample of undocumented Latinos who applied for amnesty under IRCA. Nearly two thirds of the sample experienced downward occupational mobility immediately after migrating to the United States, but half then moved up the occupational ladder in the period leading to their legalization application. Upward mobility was positively correlated with prior downward mobility, with improved English skills, and with experience in US labor markets. Despite these trends, undocumented Latino men remained clustered in traditional migrant occupations, a phenomenon that appears to extend to undocumented Latina women as well (Cobb-Clark & Kossoudji 1994). Other research by Chiswick (1984, 1986, 1991) suggests that upward economic mobility is widespread among undocumented workers and is related to schooling, prior work experience (especially in US labor markets), and experience with their current employer.


One of the alleged adverse labor market consequences of illegal immigration is that undocumented workers take jobs away from US citizens or otherwise lower the wages and working conditions of native workers. There is only slight statistical evidence for this view, and most of it is derived from case studies of a single labor market or specialized occupations or industries. When the broader US economy is examined, it is difficult to find strong evidence of negative effects on native workers. A study by Huddle et al (1985) based on field studies in the Houston-Galveston metropolitan area claimed that for every 100 working undocumented aliens 65 jobs are removed from legal residents. Martin (1986) finds evidence of job displacement by unauthorized workers in agriculture, food processing, services, and construction, and argues that processes of network recruitment and subcontracting lead to the exclusion of American citizens and legal residents from many workplaces. Cobb-Clark & Kossoudji (1994) also speculate that undocumented Latina women may provide long-term labor market competition for US workers employed in specific labor market niches.


But the balance of the empirical evidence suggests an alternative interpretation. After reviewing this evidence, Bean et al (1987: 685) conclude that "studies of labor market impact have found that the effects of immigrants (both legal and undocumented) on the wages and earnings of other labor force groups are either nonexistent or small (and sometimes positive)." In a study of the Los Angeles labor market, an area with a large proportion of undocumented workers, Muller & Espenshade (1985) find no evidence that undocumented migrants are taking jobs away from native-born blacks, a group with whom aliens are likely to be competing. Similar conclusions are reached by McCarthy & Valdez (1986). Based on an examination of metropolitan area labor markets in the US southwest, Bean & Lowell (1985) conclude that undocumented Mexican immigrants are labor market substitutes for other legal Mexican immigrants and labor market complements with native-born Mexican Americans. No consistent or statistically significant patterns exist between undocumented migrants and the majority white population.


In additional analyses of 1980 census data, Bean et al (1988) discovered that undocumented migrants have little effect on the earnings of individuals in five other labor force categories. A greater concentration of undocumented Mexican workers in southwestern metropolitan labor markets increases native female earnings by a small amount (a 10% increase in the supply of Mexican illegals raises female earnings by about 0.5%) but has no measurable effect on the wages of blacks, native-born Mexican Americans, or on native white workers. Bean et al (1987) argue that the overall empirical findings are more consistent with the position that undocumented workers hold jobs that other groups find unattractive than with the widely held public perception that illegals compete with natives and especially with native-born minority workers for jobs and wages.


Fiscal Impacts of Illegal Immigrants


Do undocumented residents of the United States receive more in publically provided education, health care, and other social services than they pay for in taxes (e.g. sales taxes)? In a recent review of the fiscal impacts of US immigrants, Rothman & Espenshade (1992) found that the fiscal costs of US immigrants fall most heavily on state and, especially, local governments. Only at the level of the United States as a whole is there almost no evidence to indicate that immigrants impose net burdens on other taxpayers. And when one considers that national estimates aggregate influences across federal, state, and local levels, these results suggest that at the federal level alone immigrants provide a fiscal surplus. Only a few studies prior to 1992 explicitly considered the fiscal impacts of undocumented migrants. North & Houston (1976) found no adverse net fiscal effects at the national level. Weintraub & Cardenas (1984) concluded that unauthorized migrants confer large fiscal benefits to the state of Texas owing to their low use of public services and high tax payments. Undocumented migrants were estimated to use more services than the amount of their taxes at the county level in southern California (Community Research Associates 1980, Los Angeles County 1991).


Research in the past several years has tended to support these broad generalizations. Huddle (1993) focused on all immigrants (legal and undocumented) who have come to the United States since 1970 and estimated that their net annual cost to other US taxpayers at all levels of government is about $43 billion. Passel (1994) has argued that Huddle grossly underestimated taxes that immigrants pay. When these and other adjustments are made to Huddle's calculations, Passel estimates that immigrants incur no overall fiscal deficit but instead produce a $25-30 billion annual budgetary surplus. Los Angeles County's Internal Services Department estimated in 1992 that the net county fiscal cost associated with undocumented individuals was roughly $440 per person (Moreno-Evans 1992). Estimates for San Diego include both county and state data and show that net fiscal costs in 1992 were approximately $730 per capita when education, public health, criminal justice, and social service delivery are included (Auditor General of California 1992). These costs rose to $1110 per capita in 1993 when additional expenses associated with transportation, employment training, developmental services, and police protection were figured in (Rea & Parker 1993). Finally, Clark et al (1994) estimate the revenues and expenditures associated with undocumented immigrants in the seven states with the largest numbers of such individuals. Estimates are made for the costs of incarceration and public education and for revenues received in the form of state, sales, and property taxes. Unfortunately, it is impossible to draw conclusions about the net fiscal impacts of undocumented migrants because not all revenue and expenditure items are included.


One should not necessarily conclude from these fiscal estimates that states and localities would be better off without undocumented immigrants. First, knowing how to attribute public revenues and expenditures to households is a difficult task (Arnold 1979). Second, households headed by native-born individuals are also typically a fiscal burden at the state and local level (Espenshade & King 1994). Third, immigrants' participation in the economy is often ignored in these calculations, yet immigrants increase corporate profits and help generate employment for others through their work and consumption activities (Espenshade & King 1994). Fourth, the aggregate fiscal profile exhibited by undocumented immigrants at one point in time is a composite reflecting, among other things, initial wages at the time of immigration, the rate of labor market incorporation with added US experience, and the composition of the population by recency of arrival. Estimates of the rate of wage assimilation among immigrants are large and suggest that ten years of US experience offset most of the earnings disadvantage of new immigrants (LaLonde & Topel 1991). These considerations suggest that negative fiscal impacts abate with increased duration of US residence.




Concerns with undocumented US migration were first reflected in bills passed in 1888 and 1891 that allowed workers and other aliens who had entered the country illegally to be deported. By 1904 it was apparent that the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, designed to prohibit the immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States, was failing its intended purpose, and the Commissioner-General of Immigration assigned a group of mounted inspectors to patrol the Mexico-US border to prevent the smuggling of Chinese laborers through Mexico (Federation for American Immigration Reform 1989). Quantitative restrictions on US immigration that were introduced in the 1920s only served to intensify illegal immigration. One response was the creation in 1924 of the US Border Patrol - the uniformed enforcement arm of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Simultaneously, the INS began keeping statistics on the number of apprehended aliens. The last major immigration action prior to World War II was the country's first legalization program, adopted in 1929 for the purpose of accommodating those long-term illegally resident aliens who were not otherwise eligible for lawful permanent residence (Levine et al 1985).


The bracero program introduced in the 1940s did little to stem the flow of illegal farmworkers. By the early 1950s mounting pressure to revisit immigration policy led to the passage of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Among other provisions, the INA imposed penalties including fines and possible imprisonment for persons found guilty of "harboring" illegal aliens. However, in a concession to Texas agricultural interests, employers of illegal aliens were exempted from these penalties. The 1965 amendments to the INA hardly touched the question of illegal immigration. Nevertheless, as shown earlier, throughout this and later periods the number of apprehensions of undocumented aliens rose rapidly and reached a total of 8.3 million for the decade of the 1970s.


Armed with the widespread belief that the United States had "lost control of its borders" and backed by apparent public support, the US Congress in 1986 passed and President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. IRCA's primary objectives are to curb, if not entirely eliminate, the flow of undocumented immigrants into the country, and to decrease the number of undocumented aliens residing within the United States. To accomplish these goals, IRCA included: 1. new employer sanctions to restrict the hiring of undocumented workers, 2. legalization programs to which upwards of 3 million undocumented immigrants applied, and 3. stepped-up enforcement at the southern US border against future illegal migration (Bean et al 1989). The data in Figures 1 and 2 suggest what subsequent research has confirmed - that IRCA had at best a temporary effect in reducing the flow of unauthorized Mexico-US migrants (Donato et al 1992). The effect was greatest in 1987 and had already begun to wane by 1988, possibly because many would-be undocumented migrants delayed their trips to El Notre until they could better assess how the new law would be enforced (Espenshade 1990, Bean et al 1990, White et al 1990). Even though IRCA succeeded in raising the probability of apprehension along the Mexico-US border by increasing the number of Border Patrol agents and augmenting expenditures for physical capital used in enforcement activities, apprehension probabilities are not a significant determinant of the size of illegal migrant flows (Espenshade 1994). Moreover, Kossoudji (1992) has shown that greater INS enforcement can be counterproductive by encouraging more undocumented trips albeit of shorter duration. The consensus is that any initial deterrent effects of IRCA have disappeared as lax enforcement coupled with an active market in fraudulent documents has removed whatever teeth IRCA may once have had (Fix 1991, Espenshade 1992).




US immigration policy can intervene in the process of unauthorized migration in at least three ways: (a) after undocumented migrants have relocated inside the United States, (b) while they are in transit across the Mexico-US border, and (c) when an unauthorized trip is being planned but before it has begun. After an illegal migrant has evaded the Border Patrol and taken up residence in the US interior, the annual probability of being apprehended is roughly 1-2% (Espenshade 1994). Nor is the threat of border apprehension likely to be a strong deterrent, because most undocumented migrants are simply returned to the other side of the Mexico-US border where they keep on trying to enter until they eventually succeed (Donato et al 1992). Finally, an analysis of the determinants of undocumented migrant flows that includes perceived apprehension probabilities shows no association between these probabilities and the flow of undocumented migration at its source, that is, in the communities of Mexico and other countries that send unauthorized migrants to the United States (Espenshade 1994). These developments suggest that undocumented US migration is propelled by forces stronger than American resolve to halt it.


Whether IRCA achieves its intended aims in the longer run will be influenced by several factors related to domestic labor market conditions: US employers' needs for low-skill, low-wage labor and their willingness to risk fines and jail sentences for hiring illegal workers; the shortfall among legal workers as members of the baby-bust generation begin entering the labor market; and the extent to which business perceives that INS is determined to enforce the new law. The experience of other countries and of some US states with employer sanctions yields a mixed outlook for the likely future effectiveness of recent US initiatives to control undocumented immigration (Espenshade et al 1990). In addition, the success of IRCA will depend upon such international factors as the strength of external demand for illegal entry to the United States, which is, in turn, a function of the available number of legal immigrant visas, the imbalance between labor supply and job opportunities in countries below the US southern border, and differential wage rates between the United States and the Caribbean Basin nations (Espenshade 1989). Finally, although many supporters of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico viewed NAFTA as a way of easing migration pressures from Mexico, research suggests that in the short-to-medium term NAFTA is likely to increase pressures for undocumented migration (Acevedo & Espenshade 1992). In the longer run, however, if free trade brings an improvement of the Mexican economy relative to the US economy, the incentives for unauthorized immigration are likely to weaken.


Whenever public policy attempts to control an undesirable activity - for example, crime, air pollution, or traffic congestion - there is a residual level of that activity that governments are willing to tolerate because the extra cost of eliminating it altogether greatly outweighs the extra benefit. Current INS enforcement practices do not stop all illegal immigration, although they probably do discourage some (especially on the part of non-Mexican nationals). Considering the substantially larger number of migrants who might enter under an open-border strategy, it could be argued that a net annual flow of 250,000300,000 undocumented US migrants is not far from the socially optimal level. Surely there are draconian measures one could imagine that would result in a significantly smaller illegal flow. But these measures would compromise other important principles. We may have to conclude that the current level of unauthorized immigration is a price that most Americans are willing to pay to maintain an open society.




I am grateful to numerous colleagues in the immigration research community and to Maryann Belanger at the Office of Population Research for assistance in locating materials for this review.


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