Over the past decade, the vast majority of Americans have
become aware that population growth is no longer a
blessing. In fact, most people seem to have accepted the
conclusion—reached by the U.S. Commission on
Population Growth and the American Future—that the
nation has nothing to gain from an increase in the number
of its inhabitants. One sign of the acceptance of this fact
can be seen in the dramatic change in this nation's
childbearing habits. Between 1960 and the early 1970's, completed family size
about three children per couple to approximately two
A great many citizens rightly view the modification of our
national reproductive habits as an investment in the
future, and see themselves as exchanging the pleasures of a
larger family for the knowledge that the few children they
do have will stand a better chance for a
high-quality life. If the typical family's size remains
close to what it is now, births and deaths will be balanced
by around 2020 and natural population increase will end.
Mexican Immigration: A New Threat?
But population growth can also be caused by migration.
Therefore, It's not surprising that—since the
mid-1970's—there has been an increase in public
concern about the pattern of immigration to the United
States, especially about the numbers of immigrants
coming into this country from Mexico. People have begun to
receive the impression (advanced by the media) that we're
about to be swamped by a brown-skinned horde from
south-of-the-border. And that these illegal immigrants are
taking jobs from Americans and worsening our employment
problem, draining our welfare system, filling up taxpayer-supported schools with their children, and sending
huge amounts of money back to their homeland, affecting
America's balance of payments.
All of these notions can be traced in large part to the
statements of General Leonard F. Chapman, Jr.—who
served as Commissioner of the Immigration and
Naturalization Service (INS) during the mid-70's—to
the effect that there were some eight million Illegal
immigrants already in the United States, and that thousands
more were entering every day. According to a 1975 INS press
release, "Studies done for the INS indicate illegal aliens
cost taxpayers $13 billion or more annually...."
Superficially—with over 800,000 illegals apprehended
in 1975 alone (the vast majority of them from
Mexico)—the concern seems justified, and people like
Professor Garrett Hardin of the University of California,
Santa Barbara—who realize that this country is
already over-populated—see in this illegal flow the
potential undoing of the good that's been accomplished by
the dramatic plunge in the American birthrate.
Since we, too, are concerned with the problem of
overpopulation, we began to study the migration from Mexico
about two years ago. Working with Professor Loy Bilderback
(of the Department of History, California State University
at Fresno), we interviewed illegal immigrants, members of
the Border Patrol, government officials, and academicians
in both the United States and Mexico. We dug through
official documents and looked at historical, cultural, and
economic factors—operating on both sides of the
border—that influence the flow of migrants. In
addition, we studied human migration in general, in both
its historic and its contemporary forms. As could probably
have been predicted, we found the problems associated with
illegal Mexican immigration to be astonishingly complex,
and the "facts" and impressions given in the popular media
to be seriously misleading.
The Facts Behind the Figures
For example, the press regularly quotes estimates of this
country's illegal alien population of between 8 and 12
million. It's further asserted by the United States
media that this figure is growing by at least 800,000
individuals per year, a statistic based on the official
number of illegal aliens apprehended by the Border Patrol
in each of the last few years. Also, the impression given
in the press is that these immigrants have come to stay and
that the "pool" is rapidly growing.
However, the information we were able to gather indicates
that, while a very large portion of the illegal immigrants
are indeed from Mexico, most of them are temporary
residents; the large number of people apprehended at
the border is not a reasonable measure of the increase in
the "stock" of illegal aliens in this country.
In fact, such figures can't be counted on to provide
any real reference to the scope of our illegal
immigration "problem" for several reasons.
First of all, at least 80% of our Border Patrol is
concentrated along the Mexican border. Therefore it's
hardly surprising that most of the illegal aliens
apprehended are Mexicans.
In addition, the INS runs what is essentially a "revolving
door" along the southern border. Illegals are quickly
expelled, and just as quickly return. It's quite possible
for the same person to be apprehended and expelled three or
four times in one week; one individual in Texas
reportedly was caught five times in one day! Thus, a figure
of 800,000 apprehensions in a year certainly can't be
assumed to represent the number of individuals involved.
Furthermore, the total number of apprehensions tells us
very little about the aliens who aren't caught. Some people
assume that, if 800,000 are being detected, an even larger
number must be getting through. Others argue
that—since so many aliens are being
apprehended—the Border Patrol must be stopping most
of those who try to enter the country.
Finally, of course, the number of apprehensions tells us
nothing about the reverse flow. After all, if
800,000 Mexicans were entering the country illegally each
year at the same time that 900,000 were returning home,
then the total number of non-citizens would be declining.
The most careful study—at least at this time—of
the number of illegal residents in the United States
compares various groups of government census and labor
statistics, some of which would be expected to include most
illegals and some to exclude them. The resulting estimate
is of an unregistered alien population of about four
million, which is one-half to one-third of the
numbers most frequently heard previously. At the
moment, this seems to be about the best available figure,
but it doesn't amount to much more than an informed guess.
Another factor that's not often considered is the
possibility that illegals are here only temporarily,
expecting to make some money and then return to their
homeland. Studies that have been done in
Mexico—and interviews with Mexicans who are in the
U.S. illegally—seem to confirm this possibility. They indicate that the vast majority will
return home after a period in the U.S., perhaps to cross
back again later when the accumulated money has been used
up. Furthermore, these studies and interviews generally
reveal that most Mexican illegals living here would
prefer to stay in Mexico if they could make
anything resembling a decent wage there.
Propaganda to the contrary, it's also apparent that the
Mexican illegals are an economic plus for the United
States. The schizophrenic claims of bigots (on one hand,
illegals are said to work so hard that they displace native
labor, and—on the other—are referred to as
welfare bums) are utterly unsupported. There are many
reasons to believe that very few American citizens are
unemployed because Mexican laborers have taken jobs that
otherwise would be open. It's also clear that illegals pay
(through taxes, social security deductions, and workman's
compensation payments) for a wide variety of services of
which they only rarely take advantage.
A substantial portion of the current concern over illegal
Mexican immigration seems to be just one more resurgence of
the Leyenda Negra, an ancient northern European
prejudice against Hispanics that can be traced back to
English horror stories about the conquistadores
and the Spanish Inquisition. Such prejudices have a rich
history in the U.S. too, rooted in a misunderstanding of
Mexican culture and in good old American xenophobia.
Few Americans seem to realize that much of the southwestern U.S. was taken from Mexico in a war of conquest, or
that the Hispanic community was already in place
when—in 1848—the U.S. annexed more than half of
Mexico's territory through the Treaty of Guadalupe
Hidalgo, which ended the U.S.-Mexican War. American
history courses rarely point out that the rights of the
Mexicans living in the newly annexed territory were
systematically denied them, even though those rights had
been guaranteed by the Treaty.
As one famous student of the subject put it, the Treaty of
Guadalupe Hidalgo "left the toilers on one side of the
border and the best land and the capital on the other."
Ever since modern agriculture and mining began to be
developed in the Southwest, our country has exploited these
"toilers" as a labor pool of last resort. They've been
welcomed when their help was needed and expelled as
shiftless "greasers" and welfare bums when they were no
It's obvious that anti-Hispanic prejudice is involved when
the Mexican immigration situation is contrasted with our
attitudes toward immigrants from Canada. Historically, the
influx of people from the north has placed a far greater
population pressure on the United States than has the
movement from Mexico but we don't hear about a "Canuck"
menace, and there's no call for fences along the Canadian
border or for a beefed-up northern Border Patrol. (After
all, less than a fifth of our border agents are stationed
In a future column we will attempt to evaluate the current
status and impact of Mexican illegals in the United
States, take a look in our cracked and clouded crystal
ball to see what the future may hold, and recommend some
steps that might be taken toward a humane and rational
solution to this "problem" as well as to a number of
related problems of international migration.
A detailed discussion of the movements of people
between nations—with special emphasis on
Mexican-American relations—can be found in The
Golden Door: International Migration, Mexico and the United
States, by Paul R. Ehrlich, Loy Bilderback, and Anne H.
Ehrlich (Ballantine, 1979. hard cover, $12.95).