EDINBURG, RGV – Debate about immigrants and immigration policy is one of the few constants in the United States.

While levels of immigration have ebbed and flowed over time, the issue of new immigrants has been one of those touchstone issues in U.S. politics.

In contemporary times, the focus has clearly been on immigration from Latin America and Asia. The predominance of immigrants from Mexico and Asian countries in the early 21st century starkly contrasts with the trend seen in 1960, when immigrants were more likely to be from European countries. Mexico is the source of the largest wave of immigration in history from a single country to the United States. Therefore has been a particular focus on the immigrant flow from Mexico to the U.S. over the last four decades.

A crucial part of contemporary debates about immigrants and immigration policy has been the issue of legal status. Much has been made about the fact that there are an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S. Understanding how immigrants’ legal status, rather than U.S. foreign policy in Latin American or our broken immigration system, has been used to frame considerations about immigration reform is essential to current reactions to the almost 60,000 undocumented, unaccompanied minors who have entered the U.S. from Central American over the last few months.

Professor Jessica L. Lavariega Monforti is pictured (left) with UT-Pan American students at the opening of the Center for Survey Research in February.
Professor Jessica L. Lavariega Monforti is pictured (left) with UT-Pan American students at the opening of the Center for Survey Research in February.

Myths about immigration

Since the 1990s, politicians and many in the media have been talking about an immigration crisis in the U.S., and immigration has been framed as a threat to U.S. economic, social, and political security. However, today’s volume of immigrants, in some ways, is a return to America’s past. The most recent estimates from the U.S. Census are that 13 percent of the total U.S. population is foreign born—over half from Latin America—whereas a century ago it was 14.9 percent. However, the origins of contemporary migrants and their legal status are different than previous waves of immigration. Today, thanks to a shift in immigration policy made in 1965, five times as many immigrants in the U.S. are from Mexico than China, the country with the second-highest number of immigrants (five percent of all immigrants in the U.S., or 2.2 million). In 1910 most immigrants were European. Extensive political science and sociology scholarship indicates that the shift from European to Asian and Latin American immigrants has shifted perceptions of the size of the immigrant population and their impact on the U.S.

The context of immigration has changed as well. The passage of over a dozen pieces of major legislation in this area since 1965 have created an immigration system that is slow, complicated, and understaffed. For those who understand the various steps to enter the country legally and have the necessary documents to apply for an entrance visa, there are often long wait times and expensive application fees.

Today we are witnessing a crisis unfold with the increase in unaccompanied Central American minors entering the United States. The flow of children stems from the combination of extremely dangerous situations in Central America and the signing in 2008 by then-President George W. Bush of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which guarantees these youth access to an immigration judge, rather than immediate deportation, and encourages their placement with families or friends while they await hearing.

Undocumented immigrants have been scapegoated for a whole host of historical and contemporary problems from increasing violent crime to endangering public health to abusing entitlement programs like welfare. None of these claims are factual, however.

Recent work I have done with Maria Chavez and Melissa Michelson in California, Oregon, Texas and Washington reveals that undocumented youth, DREAMers in particular, continue to study, work, and contribute to their communities while being keenly aware of the limitations they face as a result of their legal status. The young people we interviewed for our book Living the Dream: New Immigration Policies and the Lives of Undocumented Latino Youth, are not violent felons, they did not bring contagious disease with them into the country when they entered, and they do not qualify for welfare as a result of their legal status. Additional studies I have done demonstrate that immigrant children and the children of immigrants are fairly well assimilated – they speak English, volunteer for military service, and feel American.

Unaccompanied Minors

The current flow of unaccompanied children is due to massive increases in violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The research on immigrant youth suggests that these young people are not a threat to U.S. national security. While we are, indeed, witnessing a crisis unfold with the increase in unaccompanied minors entering the United States – the crisis is not that of the U.S. but of the children living in extremely dangerous situations, and trekking across three or four rather dangerous countries in search of safety and stability. Studies have shown that more people were killed per capita in El Salvador over the last few years than they were in Iraq during the conflict (between 2004-2009). According to the United Nations, Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate. What we are watching is an exodus, and according to the Pew Research Center children 12 and under are fastest growing group of unaccompanied minors at the U.S. border. Most Americans understand that these children are fleeing violence and thus deserve refuge: a poll released July 29 by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 69 percent of respondents said the children should be treated as refugees and should be allowed to stay “if authorities determine it is not safe for them to return to their home country.”

Our collective reaction to the arrival of young children crossing the border and immediately turning themselves in to authorities has been mixed. The President has fast-tracked deportations, Congress has failed to respond in any constructive way, and Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) has requested 1,000 National Guard troops to deploy to the border area despite the fact that they lack both training and federal oversight. We have seen multiple protests in areas where unaccompanied minors are being held and transported, some pro-immigration but most anti-immigration, at the same time that we are experiencing a buildup of armed militia groups along the border. Local communities have rushed to provide food and basic necessities through food banks, and religious and civic organizations. Many have donated and volunteered to provide support to those arriving across our border.

The upshot of all of this action is a literal un-securing of our borders, at least from the perspective of area residents. My recent work with Bill Donner on a project called Pulse of the Valley, a survey of 614 border residents in Hidalgo and Cameron counties in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas, shows that almost 60 percent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that the Valley is safer today than it was five years ago despite the fact that U.S.-Mexico border cities have some of the lowest crime rates in the country. The political rhetoric surrounding the issue, coupled with the military and militia build-up, have created a sense of crisis in the absence of threat.

In short, as politicians and candidates gear up for the 2014 midterm and 2016 presidential elections, their focus is on capturing national attention at the expense of both unaccompanied minors and border residents. However, their reaction to the current refugee crisis is colored by the racialized history of immigration since 1965, and to the decade-long stalemate in Congress over how to move forward on comprehensive reform legislation.

Jessica L. Lavariega Monforti assistant dean and associate professor of political science at the University of Texas-Pan American.