EL PASO, Texas – The Texas Border Coalition, which represents communities from El Paso to Brownsville, has published a white paper titled Texas Borders, History, Policy and Management.

TBC hopes the white paper “will spur a robust national debate that results in bipartisan, incremental reform of the U.S. immigration system during the lame duck session of Congress.”

A section in the white paper is titled Economic & Social Reality. This section is published below.

Texas Border Coalition White Paper – Economic & Social Reality

U.S. immigration law had a negligible impact on Texas for most of the first 30 years of statehood. U.S. law did not restrict immigration until the 1880’s, when a law was enacted to exclude Chinese migrants, eventually bringing immigration enforcement to the Texas border.

The law did not achieve its goal of excluding all Chinese immigration. It was perceived by many Chinese as lacking legitimacy because it ignored the American economy’s demand for their labor, their desire to provide that labor, the desire of many immigrants to reunite their families, not to mention the political turmoil in their home country. For all those reasons, Chinese migrants continued to come to the U.S. However, they mostly abandoned entry through California and began arriving through Mexico.

To stem the flow of Chinese migrants entering the U.S. through Mexico, the precursor to the Border Patrol was organized – originally known as the Mounted Guards – in El Paso in 1904. The Border Patrol was authorized in 1924, primarily to prevent alcohol smuggling during Prohibition and secondarily to curtail unlawful migration.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA) into law, dramatically changing how Mexican migration was managed by the U.S. government. Prior to the Act, about 450,000 guest worker visas were available to Mexican workers and an unlimited number of resident visas. After the 1965 law was enacted, guest worker visas were abolished, and resident visas were limited to 20,000 annually.

Overnight, thousands of formerly legal Mexican immigrant workers lost their protected status. However, social and economic reality was unchanged. The demand for immigrant workers, especially in the U.S. agriculture sector, remained as strong as it was before the law was enacted. The migrants’ desire for employment was not diminished. Instead of ending Mexican migration, the INA fostered the underground human smuggling industry that has since grown and been subsumed by huge multinational drug cartels.

Over 20 years later, President Ronald Reagan enacted the Immigration Reform and Control Act legalizing millions of unauthorized immigrants. The law also established sanctions on employers for hiring employees whose immigration status could not be confirmed. Laws passed in 1996, 2002 and 2006 emphasized border control, prioritized enforcement of employment laws and tightened standards for admission to the U.S. Each of the laws increased border security staffing and technology, including the 2006 Secure Fence Act authorization of hundreds of miles of border fencing and new border monitoring technology.

Like the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 19th century, subsequent 20th and 21st century immigration laws have aimed to reduce migration to the U.S. but have more often missed the target, for many of the same reasons: the laws often ignored the social and economic realities that lead migrants to leave their homes and seek a temporary or permanent relocation in the U.S. The investments in technology, however, have demonstrated recent payoffs.

In the years following the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the undocumented population of the U.S. nearly quadrupled from an estimated 3 million to 11.5 million persons while Border Patrol funding increased 37-fold, from $164 million in 1986 to $6.2 billion in 2022, while staffing increased from 3,638 to 21,460.

Clearly, the surge in border enforcement has had little effect in reducing unauthorized migration to the U.S., most likely because each new round of immigration policies failed to consider longstanding economic and social realities. These include the U.S. economy’s demand for immigrant labor and the worsening economic, social, and environmental conditions in Mexico and Central America. Immigration policy also did not reflect the increased economic integration of the Texas-Mexico states because of the 1993 ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which greatly reduced barriers to cross-border capital investments and commerce among the U.S., Mexico, and Canada.

Before NAFTA, Texas border communities were thriving local economies. Border trade and cross-border manufacturing grew even more rapidly following NAFTA. However, the increased integration of the American, Mexican, and Canadian economies was not complemented by an integration of workforces, in part because President Bill Clinton opposed recommendations for new guest worker programs that would allow Mexican workers to enter and leave the U.S. legally.

Integration of the North American workforce was further hampered following the 9/11 attacks as border enforcement efforts shifted from facilitating legitimate trade and travel to a focus on national security threats. While the scale of border enforcement measures expanded exponentially, efforts to update immigration policy failed in Congress.

For migrants, the pull of American jobs and social safety, coupled with the push of poverty and insecurity in Mexico and Central America, continued to increase the rate of northbound migration across the Texas-Mexico border. The migration north met a newly expanded U.S. enforcement effort, sweeping up hundreds of thousands of migrants with no criminal or terrorist history, leading many experts to report the U.S. immigration system had become seriously broken.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama sought immigration reform legislation from Congress that would have legalized some immigrants, placed new sanctions on employers, expanded employment-based visa programs, and enhanced immigration enforcement. Meanwhile, the U.S. stepped up enforcement on the southern border, including an expanded Border Patrol, hundreds of miles of border fencing and the deployment of new technology.

In some measure, these enforcement efforts prompted a reaction from the government of Mexico. In the 1980s, Mexico agreed to help stop Central Americans from traveling north across Mexico to the U.S. In return, the U.S. agreed not to fortify its southern border or prevent Mexican migration to the U.S. The ramping up of U.S. enforcement at its southern border led Mexico to become less reliable as a partner to stop Central American migrants crossing Mexico on their way to the U.S.

Although immigration reforms made legislative progress in 2006, 2007, and 2013, each proposal ultimately failed to pass both chambers of Congress, stalling efforts to update U.S. immigration policy to address a quickly changing security, economic and social landscape on the border.

The push-pull factors that were driving Mexican and Central American migrants north subsided temporarily during the height of the COVID pandemic but increased again as the pandemic eased, making U.S. policy reforms based on bipartisan compromise more needed than ever.

About the Texas Border Coalition

The Texas Border Coalition (TBC) is a collective voice of border mayors, county judges, economic development commissions focused on issues that affect nearly 2.8 million people along the Texas-Mexico border region and economically disadvantaged counties from El Paso to Brownsville. TBC is working closely with the state and federal government to educate, advocate, and secure funding for transportation, immigration and ports of entry, workforce and education and health care.

Editor’s Note: The above commentary is the second in a four-part series documenting a Texas Border Coalition white paper titled Texas Borders, History, Policy and Management. Part One focuses on the history of the Texas-Mexico border region. Click here to read it. Part Three, focusing on immigration legislation recommendations will be posted in our next edition. 

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