How Did We Get To 11 Million Unauthorized Immigrants? The story of how that population grew so large is a long one that's mostly about Mexico, and full of unintended consequences.
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How Did We Get To 11 Million Unauthorized Immigrants?

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How Did We Get To 11 Million Unauthorized Immigrants?

How Did We Get To 11 Million Unauthorized Immigrants?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A big policy question facing the country is what to do with the 11 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally - today the story of how that population grew so large. It's a long story. It's mostly about Mexico, and it's full of unintended consequences.


SIEGEL: From the 1940s until 1965, there was a program for Mexican agricultural guest workers. It was called the Bracero Program.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Braceros - in Spanish, this means a man who works with his arms and hands.

SIEGEL: Its advocates were growers who wanted a ready supply of farm labor - critics said at the expense of American farm workers. In 1959, the Council of California Growers had this short film produced to promote and defend the program. Here the narrator questions a man who recruited Mexican farm workers.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Would you mind answering a few questions for us, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes, I'd be glad to answer them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Do you get a great many requests for foreign farm workers, braceros?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'd have to say no to that question.

SIEGEL: In fact, that year, the program was near its peak, bringing in over 400,000 workers nationwide legally. But there were problems. For one, workers could only work for one employer. Here's former U.S. Immigration Commissioner Doris Meissner.

DORIS MEISSNER: That person had total control over your life, and that leads to a very unequal relationship. And it's a recipe for exploitation.

SIEGEL: Another criticism of the Bracero Program was that it was thought to depress the wages of American workers. That was the objection of America's next president.

MICHAEL CLEMENS: John F. Kennedy campaigns to kill the Bracero Program.

SIEGEL: That's economist Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development.

CLEMENS: The reason that he did that was to improve the wages and employment prospects for U.S. farm workers. Lyndon Johnson did it for that reason, got rid of the Bracero Program.

SIEGEL: And in its place...

MEISSNER: And in its place - nothing.

SIEGEL: Doris Meissner had been an immigration lawyer at the Department of Justice. She rose to lead the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Clinton. The end of the Bracero Program in 1965 did not end U.S. demand for low-skilled labor. What had been legal just became illegal.

MEISSNER: What came then was the market operating, which is people coming to the country anyway because the jobs were here. The relationships existed between Mexico and the United States, and there was limited enforcement across the southwest border.

SIEGEL: And here's a twist. While it was a crime to bring unauthorized migrants into the country or harbor them, it was not a crime to employ them. That was clearly stated in a federal law passed in 1952.

By 1980, the number of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico in the U.S. was an estimated 1 and a half million, and it was about to balloon. The '80s witnessed what economist Michael Clemens calls a demographic an economic perfect storm - a Mexican economic crisis with lots of young Mexicans looking for work and a booming U.S. economy with fewer young Americans entering the workforce.

CLEMENS: Both of those things generated an opportunity for mutually beneficial exchange between the countries - a lot more people than jobs in Mexico, a lot more jobs than people in the United States.

SIEGEL: More Mexicans headed north. Jorge Castaneda is a Mexican political scientist.

JORGE CASTANEDA: It makes an enormous amount of economic sense for any person in Mexico who has the drive and the money to go to the United States with or without papers to do so. That person can make seven, eight, perhaps even 10 times more than they make in Mexico.

SIEGEL: By 1986, an estimated 3 million immigrants were here illegally, and Washington acted. There was a bill that included the legalization of migrants who had been in the country for a few years, and President Ronald Reagan supported it.


RONALD REAGAN: I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though some time back there they may have entered illegally.

SIEGEL: It was known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act for its sponsors, Republican Senator Alan Simpson and Democratic Congressman Roman Mazzoli. It was intended to stop illegal border crossings for once and for all. Here's Doris Meissner.

MEISSNER: The bill called for what Senator Simpson liked to say always was the three-legged stool. The three-legged stool was increased border enforcement, accountability by employers. It was the first time anything in the law made it illegal for employers to employ people that didn't have legal status in the country - and then a legalization program.

SIEGEL: Three million people took advantage of the amnesty, but just four years later, the government estimated there were more undocumented immigrants in the country - 3 and a half million - than there had been before the law. What went wrong?

MEISSNER: Border enforcement never really kicked in in any significant way until about a decade later, the mid-90s. Then the real centerpiece of it, which was employer sanctions, was very weak. There was not really an effective way to enforce employer sanctions and lots of ways for both employers and workers to get around it.

SIEGEL: And the amnesty left out those who had been here less than five years.

MEISSNER: So those people who couldn't apply for the legalization program became the seed bed for today's 11 million.

SIEGEL: The 1990s brought a new economic relationship between the two countries.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: To sign the North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

SIEGEL: NAFTA was signed by President George H.W. Bush, and after it took effect, cheap U.S. corn drove many Mexican small farmers out of business. Some went north where jobs for unskilled workers in the U.S. were more plentiful than ever.

MEISSNER: We had the longest period of job creation in the 1990s that we've had since the second world war. A lot of that job creation continued to be in the services sector, in the lower-wage sectors.

SIEGEL: The Pew Research Center estimated that by 1995 there were 5.7 million unauthorized immigrants. That year, President Bill Clinton spoke of Americans being rightly disturbed by their numbers.


BILL CLINTON: That's why our administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as...

SIEGEL: More border security had one unintended consequence. Jorge Castaneda says migrants used to travel back and forth annually between their jobs in America and their homes in Mexico.

CASTANEDA: It became much more difficult and dangerous and expensive for people to go home for Christmas, so to speak, and go back to the U.S. in January. So they stayed.

SIEGEL: And by the year 2000, their numbers had grown to 8.6 million. The next year, President George W. Bush took office.


GEORGE W BUSH: We are welcoming a new day in the relationship between America and Mexico.

SIEGEL: Bush wanted a new immigration law, and so did Mexican President Vicente Fox. Jorge Castaneda was his foreign minister.

CASTANEDA: We had been, you know, the darling in Washington's eyes those first eight months of the Bush administration. President Bush made his first trip abroad to Mexico, and the first state visit that he held in Washington at the White House was by President Fox. These were both totally unprecedented events.

SIEGEL: A new deal for Mexican migration seemed likely, but on September 11 of 2001, immigration was relegated to the back burner. Border policy was subsumed by a new rubric in American discourse, homeland security. Pushes for a comprehensive immigration reform bill failed under both Presidents Bush and Obama. The undocumented population reached 12 million and dipped after the Great Recession to 11 million. That's almost 3 percent of the U.S. population.

The population of unauthorized immigrants is more urban than it used to be, less seasonal and less Mexican. Today about 52 percent are from Mexico. An estimated 40 percent of the 11 million did not sneak into the country. They entered legally and overstayed their visas.

The issue of low-skilled migrants entering the country has proved intractable for Washington. But Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development says one thing it isn't is new.

CLEMENS: Mexican immigration is something from our grandparents' era. It's been going on since the 1920s. The fraction of the labor force in Kansas that was Mexican in 1929 was higher than it was in 1990. The same is true of Arizona. The same is true of New Mexico.

SIEGEL: I asked Doris Meissner how she understands the rise of the unauthorized population to a colossal 11 million.

MEISSNER: Our laws have not been aligned with our economy for at least 25 years and possibly longer.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow we'll ask with that in mind, why can't the U.S. government pass a new immigration law?


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