Are Undocumented Immigrants Flooding our Southern Border?

Well, that depends on how you define “flooding.” If we’re looking at historical data, then the answer is absolutely no. There are two dynamics occurring right now (actually, there are several, but I’m only going to address two in this post).

1. Undocumented economic migrants (typically from Mexico, but also from Central America), and 2. Political asylum seekers (primarily from Central America). Most of the recent news about family separations centers on political asylum seekers from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. But this blog post is about undocumented economic migrants, and whether they are presenting a significant threat for our country, and if so, whether that justifies building a wall (and by the way, we all know drug smugglers and human traffickers use tunnels, right?). 

So here are some basic facts about undocumented economic migrants (meaning, immigrants who cross the border illegally to work)…

Are undocumented immigrants from Mexico flooding our southern border?
No. We do not have a flood of Mexicans coming across the border, in fact we’ve been experiencing a net loss of undocumented immigration since 2007. According to the Pew Research Center (2015): “Mexicans made up 52% of all unauthorized immigrants in 2014, [and] their numbers have been declining in recent years. There were 5.8 million Mexican unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. that year, down from 6.4 million in 2009, according to the latest Pew Research Center estimates. Meanwhile, the number of unauthorized immigrants from nations [Asia and sub-Saharan Africa]…grew by 325,000 since 2009, to an estimated 5.3 million in 2014.”  In other words, more undocumented immigrants are leaving than arriving.  That doesn’t mean that some border communities aren’t being impacted by undocumented immigration, but overall, the numbers are declining, which is why our agricultural sectors are struggling.
How long have undocumented Mexican immigrants lived in the US if they haven’t just arrived?

Most undocumented Mexican immigrants came to the United States about 15 to 20 years ago during what’s called the “Chicken Boom” – a time when people cut back on eating red meat and started eating more chicken. Meat processing plants could not keep up with demand, so started recruiting south of the border. In fact, close to 70% of undocumented Mexican immigrants have lived in the U.S. for over a decade (~13.6 years), while only 7% of undocumented Mexicans have been in the U.S. for less than five years. (see point 5).
Are undocumented immigrants stealing our jobs?
In a word, no, at least not the ones most Americans want. The majority of undocumented immigrants from south of the border (Mexico and Central America) are here because they were recruited by US companies in the agricultural, meatpacking/processing and construction sectors (Tyson Foods, IBP slaughterhouses, etc.) to do work that US Americans won’t do. They’re recruited by labor brokers through radio ads that play in many of Mexico’s poorest cities, as well as leaflets and billboards. They’re also recruited on the street corners of immigrant communities in the US, such as Chicago. These industries typically offer about $8 an hour to do grueling work, under very poor working conditions (long hours, very little safety precautions, etc.).

According to a 1998 report, IBP in particular admitted to its recruitment across the border with ICE’s (then INS) knowledge because “it is unable to keep its plants fully staffed with U.S.-based workers, who often can find more-appealing jobs elsewhere.” These undocumented workers are exploited, they’re threatened, and then they’re scapegoated when it’s politically convenient.
Remember beanie babies? The company Ty, Inc. was notorious for recruiting undocumented workers from both the streets of Chicago, and across the border, and then paying them extremely low wages. They also engaged in many other labor abuses. Some U.S. companies have even furnished undocumented immigrants with false papers, and the companies are rarely, if ever, held accountable; instead, when the political tides changed, the immigrants were charged with felonies because of their false documentation.

They are then detained because they are now “criminals” and sent back to Mexico, often without their U.S. born children. In other words, at some point it became convenient to scapegoat the immigrants and the unwritten rules were changed without their knowledge. Even the Pentagon has gotten into the act, recruiting about 1.2 million undocumented workers as translators and other positions.
Where else do undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrants work?
In the US agricultural industry. In fact, up to 70% of of the estimated 2.5 million farm workers in the US are estimated to be undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrants who were recruited by U.S. agricultural companies from across the border. In other words, they had jobs here before they left home. Did you know that per federal and state law, agricultural laborers are exempt from receiving overtime pay and they are exempt from child labor laws, which means that children as young as 12 can work in the fields?

Why do you think the federal government has allowed these exemptions in the agricultural industry? Because the federal government knows full-well that our entire agricultural industry is reliant on undocumented workers, and they’ve passed laws that  encourage this practice. Would they permit these exemptions if it were American children working in the fields? Of course not. When ICE began to crack down on companies hiring illegal workers, the companies just found more creative ways to recruit workers (including using temp agencies, and proxies, such as labor brokers), and our government has consistently looked the other way because these industries have powerful lobbies.
Why not just create a temporary visa program for foreign workers?
We have them. The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program is for farm workers, but the farming industry doesn’t like it and rarely uses it. Why? Because it requires that  employers provide housing and pay the higher of the applicable state or federal minimum wage, the prevailing wage in that region and occupation, as determined by the USDOL, or the regional average wage observed in NASS’s Farm Labor Survey. The latter is known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate. For Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, this wage rate ranges from $9.50 to $12.33 per hour, depending on the state. H-2A visa usage has accounted for less than 5 percent of the hired farm work force in recent years. There have been some recent movements toward improving the program, and usage has expanded (about 77,000 to 165,000 in 2016), but the majority of farm workers (and we’re talking millions here) are hired illegally.
Another temporary visa program is the H2B visa, which is for the construction industry. It’s also “significantly underutilized.” Again, these visa programs kind of defeat the economic purpose of hiring cheap and exploitable labor. Just think about it…industries that use these workers enjoy a reliable and stable force workforce—people who are afraid of being deported. Fear is a great motivator.

So what now? 

Well, if you’re unmoved by all of this, and you’re still convinced that undocumented immigrants are stealing your jobs, word on the street is that avocado farmers in Santa Barbara, California are hiring But according to the industry, despite paying decent wages, Americans are still saying “thanks but no thanks.”

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