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The Mexican Border, Part II

A previous essay on the border (February 4) traced the early background of the region through the Eisenhower Administration (1953-61).

Thus, the current turmoil on the issue, plus the government shutdown, has a 400 year legacy and is more a continuity than unique. While the caravans now challenging border security are new, they also have a background.

A modern beginning to the present crisis logically starts with the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act. This law (Hart-Celler Act) marked a radical break from immigration policies of the past. Historic preferences for northern and western Europe (especially Ireland, Germany, and Italy) had by now become “discriminatory” under the Lyndon Johnson administration’s emphasis on civil rights. This eliminated national origin, race, and ancestry as criteria and gave priority to relatives of American citizens and legal residents as “special immigrants” not subject to numerical restrictions. Refugees were given a “category preference,” including those seeking asylum. This began an immigrant shift from Europe to Mexico and Central America.

The Hart-Celler bill was widely supported in Congress, with 74% of Democrats (minus the “solid south”) and 85% of Republicans voting in favor. President Johnson signed the bill at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Supporters promised that the bill would not upset the demographic composition of the country; Johnson himself declared that it was “…not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions.” Key supporter Senator Ted Kennedy stated that “our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually … the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset.”

Of course, exactly the opposite happened.

Although the Western Hemisphere was numerically restricted, the net effect of the 1965 law reversed the source of historic immigration to these shores. Nor were they any longer “shores” (Ellis Island was closed in 1954). In the 1950s, for example, approximately 68% of immigration came from Europe or Canada. By 1991, Latin America constituted almost half (48%) of the total, with 24% of these from Mexico alone. Absolute numbers were also greatly increased. In 1970, immigrants constituted 11% of the population; by 1990, they had grown to 39%.

Nor did the 1965 law end border problems — it only shifted them geopolitically. One, somewhat bizarre, example of this was President Nixon’s 1969 “Operation Intercept,” intended to eliminate drug traffic from Mexico. Surprising everyone, including Mexico’s president, Nixon imposed personal, three-minute, inspections of every vehicle and person crossing the border. After strong complaints from the Mexican government, these were reduced in ten days, abandoned in twenty. Few drugs were caught.    

At the same time, the strong demand for immigrant workers by U.S. employers led to a dramatic rise of illegal immigrants who could not meet requirements or who exceeded existing quotas. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (Reagan Amnesty Act), criminalized hiring of illegals but legalized certain workers who were employed in agriculture. The Act also granted amnesty to 2 million of the 4 million illegals then residing. In 1987, President Reagan gave an Executive Order to legalize minor children of parents with amnesty, thus giving a blanket deferral of deportation to about 100,000 families.

In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court forbade schools or hospitals to deny service to illegal immigrants. The country was slowly becoming accustomed to these newcomers who openly defied the law. Dozens of “sanctuary cities” provided physical protection despite federal law. Now, law-breaking became the norm on both sides, not just one.

For the first time since the mid-nineteenth century, with the “Know Nothing” nativists, the subject of immigration has become defined as an existential threat to American culture. The seemingly inevitable “white minority” threatens the fabric of society, leading now to racial accusations of “white privilege, white supremacy” as the definition of the American “way.” Immigration is now challenging the very sociological composition of any national consciousness. Divisions have led to “uncivil” behavior, seemingly everywhere.

As time and exposure went on, several acts and laws attempted to reduce or soften the growing cultural divide. In 2006, Bush II passed the Secure Fence Act, which constructed 654 miles of new fence along the Mexican border, at a cost of $2.3 billion. Yet in 2017, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) documented 2,287 “breaches” of the line, noting that it “could not identify the cost effectiveness of border fencing compared to other assets.”

At the time, however, President Bush said that “This bill will help protect the American people. This bill will make our borders more secure.” Again, the opposite happened.

The border has been the top U.S. security issue for several years, including the recent U.S. Government shutdown. Now we have “caravans,” which assumes the guise of organized armies. Security experts have identified a total of 43 such caravans recently, from a low of hundreds each to thousands.  

In conclusion, is the issue “existential,” especially in a globalization age? Recent Gallup Polls predict 42 million crossings within years, 5 million this year.

Consider a real possibility: half of the population can’t/won’t speak the language, they don’t know/care who Jefferson was, they vote only for one party, their first formal decision was illegal, gangs and drugs accompany the influx, and they are protected by “sanctuary cities.”

On a spectrum, what is the best response: alarm or acceptance? If it’s the first, Trump is right, if the second, Pelosi is. Either way, it has to be existential. The issue approaches 1860 levels, but where is Lincoln?