President Obama’s recent request for billions of dollars to address the surge in unaccompanied children across the U.S.-Mexico border has ignited fierce criticism. Republicans such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas blame Obama’s supposedly lax enforcement policies. Democrats blame the surge on a humanitarian crisis in Central America.
While both narratives bear some truth, both miss how our immigration restrictions and border enforcement have created the current mess.
Migration from Central America and Mexico used to be circular. Migrants would come for a season or a few years to work, move back home, then return to the USA when there was more work. This reigned from the 1920s to 1986, when Congress passed the more restrictive Immigration Reform and Control Act. Before 1986, when circular migration was in effect, 60% of unauthorized immigrants on their first trip here would eventually settle back in their home countries rather than in the United States, and 80% of undocumented immigrants who came back on a second trip eventually returned home.
Since 1986, the rate of return for first-time border crossers has fallen to almost zero. The return rate of second-time crossers has fallen to a mere 30%. What happened? In the mid-1980s, the government began spending massive resources to stop unauthorized immigrants from coming in the first place. By trying to keep them out, increases in border security locked them in.
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