Statistical Analysis Shows that Violence, Not U.S. Immigration Policies, Is Behind the Surge of Unaccompanied Children Crossing the Border

Tom K. Wong is Assistant Professor of Political Science at UCSD, tomkwong@ucsd.edu, @twong002

Download a PDF version here.

An earlier version of this article appeared on July 8, 2014 via the Center for American Progress.

A humanitarian refugee situation at the U.S. southern border has been unfolding over the past few years and dramatically intensifying over the past several months, as tens of thousands of unaccompanied children are fleeing their homes in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. In search of a safe haven, these children embark on dangerous journeys, arriving in the United States and neighboring countries throughout Central America. Indeed, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, asylum applications from children are up by 712 percent in the neighboring countries of Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Belize. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has argued that “many of the children apprehended at the border are fleeing unspeakable violence in their home countries.”

Even as the Obama administration struggles to deal with the situation, including finding adequate shelter and protection for the kids, some in Congress have attempted to score political points by arguing that the increased numbers are the result of the administration’s own immigration enforcement policies, such as the creation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program in 2012, which grants eligible unauthorized youth a two-year reprieve from deportation and a work permit. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), for example, called on President Barack Obama to end the DACA program and begin deporting those with the status to send a message to prospective child refugees that they should not come to the United States. A recent Congressional hearing also placed the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) at the center of the current increase in unaccompanied minors. However, a close statistical evaluation of the available data suggests a very different dynamic that is leading children to leave their Central American homes. It is not U.S. policy but rather violence and the desire to find safety that is the impetus for these children’s journeys.

An analysis of the available data suggests that:

  • Violence is among of the main drivers causing the increase. Whereas Central American countries that are experiencing high levels of violence have seen thousands of children flee, others with lower levels of violence are not facing the same outflow. This trend holds even when accounting for poverty and distance to the United States.
  • By contrast, the evidence does not support the argument that DACA, the TVPRA, or lax border enforcement has caused the increase in children fleeing to the United States.

 

Violence is driving children to flee Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador

How can it be determined that violence is a primary factor causing children to flee? One way is to use the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, or UNODC, data on homicides and homicide rates by country. Coupling this data with that of the number of children arriving each year allows us to examine the relationship between violence and children arrivals.

Figure 1 shows how violence affects the flow of children. The relationship is positive, meaning that higher rates of homicide in countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are related to greater numbers of children fleeing to the United States.

1

Another way to examine the relationship between violence and unaccompanied children is to use the data on security levels in Latin America compiled by FTI Consulting, a global business advisory firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. The annual index ranges from 1 (safe) to 5 (very dangerous) for each country, and data are available from 2009 to 2014. Here again, the relationship is positive, meaning that more dangerous security conditions are related to greater numbers of unaccompanied children. Using the FTI Consulting index data provides an even more strongly statistically significant result, suggesting an even clearer link between violence and children fleeing.

Not only do countries with the highest rates of homicide have the largest numbers of unaccompanied children fleeing, but the data also make clear that countries in Latin America with lower rates of homicide are not sending large numbers of unaccompanied children.

In 2012, the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico accounted for 41,828 homicides, at a rate of 28 per 100,000 people. Exclude Mexico and the murder rate jumps to 54 per 100,000 people. The president of Honduras has gone as far as calling the children refugees from “war” in his country. By contrast, other countries in the region, such as Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama had a total of just 1,881 murders, at a rate of only 13 per 100,000. Nicaragua is particularly useful as an example: It is the second-poorest country in the region—behind only Haiti—and yet, with far lower rates of violence than the three main sending countries, it has not seen an uptick in unaccompanied children leaving.

These findings reinforce a report released by DHS that shows that many of the unaccompanied minors who have recently arrived come from some of the most dangerous cities in Central America.

I also note here that including all Latin American countries in the analysis adds leverage (increases the n) so that other factors can simultaneously be analyzed. The main finding about violence holds when also accounting for economic conditions and distance to the United States.

 

DACA, the TVPRA, or lax border enforcement is not to blame

DACA

In fiscal year 2009, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, encountered slightly fewer than 20,000 unaccompanied children from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. So far in FY 2014, more than 51,000 children have entered, with the increase almost entirely coming from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala (see Figure 2).

2

The sharp increase during FY 2012 has been used by senators such as Ted Cruz (R-TX) to argue that the creation of the DACA program in June 2012 is the reason “that we have seen the number of children taking the incredible risks entailed with coming across the border grow exponentially.”

There are two problems with this line of thinking. For one, the increase in unaccompanied children began well before 2012. CBP estimates that between FY 2008 and FY 2009, for example, there was a 145 percent spike in unaccompanied children arrivals, jumping from 8,041 to 19,668.

But even more importantly, the U.S. fiscal year starts on October 1 and ends on September 30 of the following year. This means that FY 2012 actually started in October 2011 and ended in September 2012. Considering that applications for deferred action could only be submitted starting on August 15, 2012, it is highly unlikely that DACA caused an increase in children. Data on monthly border apprehensions—which admittedly do not distinguish between unaccompanied children and all others caught at the border—show that the number of people caught at the border actually slowed in the months after DACA was announced.

It also stands to reason that if DACA is causally related to the increased flow of unaccompanied children, the national origins profile of these children should potentially be as diverse as the profile of DACA recipients themselves—in other words, the dramatic increase in unaccompanied minors would not, as the data currently show, be limited to only a few countries. This, in the language of causal inference, means the absence of unit homogeneity. In other words, if DACA were in fact incentivizing the flow of unaccompanied children, Nicaraguans and Panamanians would feel this just as Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans, which would mean dramatic upticks across the board. However, this is clearly not the case.

TVPRA

The TVPRA, which was signed into law by former President Bush at the end of 2008, includes core provisions that are germane to the current political debate over unaccompanied minors. To begin, the TVPRA makes a distinction between non-contiguous and contiguous countries to the U.S. For unaccompanied minors from non-contiguous countries, the TVPRA requires that they be given “safe and secure placement” under the supervision of the Department of Health and Human Services, or HSS, in order to protect them from “traffickers and other persons seeking to victimize or otherwise engage such children in criminal, harmful, or exploitative activity” (see Section 235(c)(1)), and that they have access to legal counsel “to the greatest extent practicable” (see Section 235(c)(5)). This by no means is a “free pass,” as these unaccompanied children are also placed in removal proceedings pending the hearing and adjudication of their cases. The TVPRA also allowed the U.S. to negotiate “child repatriation agreements” with contiguous countries (see Section 235(a)(2)). As a result, unaccompanied Mexican minors are to be treated in the manner described above unless they agree to “voluntarily return,” a process that can lead to their return to Mexico in as little as 48 hours. As the UNHCR notes, most Mexican unaccompanied minors are promptly returned to Mexico under the voluntary return procedure after no more than 1-2 days in U.S. custody. And while data are currently not publicly available on the percentage of children who are returned under this procedure, the fact that only 3% of all unaccompanied minors who were transferred to HSS custody during FY 2013 were from Mexico suggests that the vast majority of unaccompanied Mexican minors are in fact being promptly returned.

It is important to note that the general treatment of unaccompanied minors under the TVPRA is consistent with U.S. obligations under the United Nations Refugee Convention (as well as our own Refugee Act of 1980). However, some such as Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), argue that these provisions are contributing causal factors to the flow of unaccompanied minors.

If the TVPRA had a causal effect upon its enactment, one would expect the number of unaccompanied children coming to the U.S. from non-contiguous countries (i.e., Central American countries south of Mexico) to increase from 2008 to 2009. However, the data show that unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras decreased by 12%, 20%, and 39%, respectively, from FY 2008 to FY 2009. Moreover, as noted earlier, while CBP estimates an overall increase in unaccompanied children between FY 2008 and FY 2009, the data show that this increase is driven exclusively by unaccompanied minors from Mexico—to recall, the TVPRA allowed the U.S. to immediately deport unaccompanied Mexican minors under expedited return procedures. This suggests that the expedited return of unaccompanied Mexican minors has not deterred children from Mexico from attempting to enter the U.S. I note here that during this period, Mexico experienced one of its largest year-to-year increases in deaths as a result of its drug war, jumping 141% (an increase from 2,837 deaths to 6,844).

Of course, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are currently at the center of the political debate over unaccompanied minors. Does this mean that the TVPRA has a lagged causal effect? This does not seem to be the case. If the TVPRA is causally related to the recent increase in unaccompanied children, it also stands to reason—given the TVPRA distinguishes between contiguous and non-contiguous countries—that the national origins profile of unaccompanied minors would include fewer Mexican children (as a contiguous country whose children are subject to expedited return), and a broader range of Latin American countries (as non-contiguous countries whose children are provided basic protections under the legislation). This is not the case. Unaccompanied minors from Mexico have held largely steady over recent years. Moreover, and to reiterate, the recent increase in unaccompanied minors remains limited to only three countries. As with DACA, this again, in the language of causal inference, means the absence of unit homogeneity.

Border enforcement

Arguments such as those of Sen. Cruz connecting DACA to the increase in unaccompanied children also cite lax border security by the Obama administration as an additional contributing factor. But these arguments, such as those about DACA, are equally unsupported by the data. To give just a few examples:

  • Under the Obama administration, funding for the Border Patrol has reached record levels, increasing from $2.3 billion at the end of the Bush administration in 2008 to $3.5 billion in FY 2013—an increase of 52 percent.
  • The number of Border Patrol agents in general, and at the southwest border, now stand at record levels (see Figure 3).

3

If lax border security were contributing to the increase in children arriving, we would expect to see a negative relationship between border security metrics and the number of unaccompanied children entering the United States. To put it another way, we would expect more children to arrive as border security efforts decrease. Instead, the opposite has occurred: As the United States has ramped up its border enforcement, more children have come (see Figure 4).

To be clear, this should not be interpreted to mean that more border security means more unaccompanied children—again, we only have a handful of observations to analyze. Rather, the data suggest that the recent increase in unaccompanied children is not the result of lax border security, but is occurring despite record levels of border security spending and staffing.

And from recent press reports, it is clear that our border security policies are working exactly as intended: Numerous stories note that the Border Patrol is apprehending these kids upon entry, or soon after. Here too, the evidence is clear that border enforcement policies are not driving the surge in unaccompanied children.

4

 

Conclusion

Instead of attempting to repeal programs such as DACA or the TVPRA, the United States should—as Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) has suggested—ensure that these children are safe and secure, go after the smugglers and traffickers bringing them here in the first place, often luring them by spreading misinformation, and seek solutions that help quell the violence in these children’s home countries. The data show that this situation is a humanitarian and refugee issue, not an immigration issue, and all sides must not lose sight of the children themselves who are at the heart of the matter.

 

Notes

Notes to Figure 1. Violence and the annual percentage change in unaccompanied minors from 2009 to 2013. For example, Honduras’s homicide rate of 90.4 per 100,000 people in 2012 was associated with a 125% increase in unaccompanied minors from 2012 to 2013. The result is only weakly statistically significant (p = .094), which is expected given the fact that the data covers only a few years. UNODC data are only available through 2012; still, the data are helpful in explaining the relationship between violence and childhood arrivals. Violence is measured using UNODC data on homicide rates—lagged so that cause comes before effect—and unaccompanied children are measured using the annual percentage change in unaccompanied children. Source: Author’s calculation of UNODC and CBP data. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Global Study on Homicide, 2013” (2013), available at https://www.unodc.org/documents/gsh/pdfs/2014_GLOBAL_HOMICIDE_BOOK_web.pdf. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “Southwest Border Unaccompanied Alien Children,” n.d., available at http://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-border-unaccompanied-children (last accessed July 2014).

Notes to Figure 2. Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “Southwest Border Unaccompanied Alien Children,” n.d., available at http://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-border-unaccompanied-children (last accessed July 2014).

Notes to Figure 3. Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “United States Border Patrol: Border Patrol Agent Staffing by Fiscal Year,” n.d., available at http://www.cbp.gov/sites/default/files/documents/U.S.%20Border%20Patrol%20Fiscal%20Year%20Staffing%20Statistics%201992-2013.pdf (last accessed, July 2014).

Notes to Figure 4. Author’s calculations based on U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “Southwest Border Unaccompanied Alien Children,” n.d., available at http://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-border-unaccompanied-children and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “United States Border Patrol: Border Patrol Agent Staffing by Fiscal Year,” n.d., available at http://www.cbp.gov/sites/default/files/documents/U.S.%20Border%20Patrol%20Fiscal%20Year%20Staffing%20Statistics%201992-2013.pdf (last accessed July 2014).

The New York Times mentions “Culling the Masses”

Day 38: Hard Truths and Surprises

ABOUT THIS SERIES Join Damien Cave and Todd Heisler as they travel up Interstate 35, from Laredo, Tex., to Duluth, Minn., chronicling how the middle of America is being changed by immigration.

REPORTED FROM THE END OF INTERSTATE 35

From the hot sun of Laredo, Tex., and the first on ramp for Interstate 35 to the chilly fog here in Duluth, Minn., at the highway’s end; from a city that’s 96 percent Hispanic and struggling to integrate new immigrants, to one that is 90 percent white and longing for the energy young foreigners bring — The Way North has come a long way.

The project began with an ambitious goal: to chronicle immigration’s impacts in the middle of America, at the local level where immigrants and established residents collide. Far from the gridlock of Washington, in the schools, churches and neighborhoods of a half-dozen states, how have new neighbors been getting along?

The results, discovered through 4,072 miles traveled up and around I-35, along with hundreds of interviews, are hard to categorize. Definitive conclusions may not arrive for decades as illegal (and legal) immigration continue to stir up strong emotions, from rage to romanticism. But along I-35 — ground zero for what experts describe as a historic demographic shift, with immigrants settling in new locations — certain patterns, hard truths and surprises emerged.

THE SMALL STUFF MATTERS

Who knew that a bottle of Bud Light — or a lack thereof — could be so important? Not Nathan Hill. When he turned an old Mexican bar on Austin’s rapidly gentrifying east side into a hipster country music venue, he failed to serve the beer of choice for the bar’s former regulars, a sometimes surly but loyal band of immigrant laborers. He never intended to offend them, but his beer selection of local microbrews struck them as exclusionary; they saw it as a sign that they were no longer wanted, and as a result, they stopped showing up.

In many other cities and towns, small slights and misunderstandings have made the challenge of integration even harder; or they’ve exemplified the struggle.

In north Wichita, for example, Francene Sharp found herself bothered by what she considered a lack of neighborliness. A former physical education teacher, she lives in a home her father built in the 1940s, in a neighborhood that has become predominantly Mexican. And while she remains friendly to all, she said she was bothered by a group of Mexican men living next door several years ago because they sometimes urinated outside when they had been drinking.

“This is America, we have indoor bathrooms,” she told them.

She said she also wished that another family down the block would abide by local laws that limit yard sales to two a month. “They’re out there every weekend,” she said. “That really bothers me.”

And in many ways, Austin and Wichita reflected a pattern of conflicting expectations. Established residents sought ways to make immigrants abide by laws regarding quality of life while immigrants — especially legal immigrants often wrongly thought to be here illegally — sought respect and a clear welcome.

Especially farther north in the Midwest, in regions previously settled by German immigrants, the clash between immigrants and longtime residents often involved the rules and routines of daily life, like parking. Several communities tussled over a tendency among Mexican immigrants to park on the lawns of the homes they bought or rented. But more broadly, such local struggles seemed to reflect what Mark Krikorian, an advocate for reduced immigration, has described as the basic challenge of integrating large numbers of immigrants in new places.

“What we need to teach is this basic insight that you are now part of this club and not part of another club,” he said. “It’s the idea that we’re all in the same boat.”

BRIDGE BUILDING REQUIRED

Cities and towns that have managed to reconcile their differences with immigrants, along with individual immigrants who have rapidly assimilated into American life, can all point to one important factor: bridge figures. People, that is, who are comfortable in both the immigrant and American worlds, and who translate and explain the frustrations, values and misunderstandings of each.

In Austin, it was Eddie Costilla, the owner of La Perla, a bar near what Mr. Hill calls his “honky tonk,” the White Horse. With Mr. Hill and others, Mr. Costilla explained the underlying concerns of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans being pushed out of east Austin by rising rents and upscale night life. Now the White Horse serves Bud Light, and it has given over Sunday afternoons to a Mexican band, Conjunto Los Pinkys.

In Minneapolis, Mohamud Noor, a candidate for state representative, spends most of his days trying to help Somali immigrants coming into the Somali social services agency where he works as interim director. One recent afternoon, that involved assisting a family seeking hospice care for a dying relative. The next morning, he met with parents concerned that the charter school their children attend lacks teachers and officials who speak Somali.

“People think I can fix everything,” Mr. Noor said, laughing. “A lot of times people come in and they want to fight something. I tell them no, we want to build something instead. It’s not about talking negatively; it’s about finding a solution.”

Mr. Noor, like many other immigrants who have become unofficial ambassadors for their communities, also emphasized the need for role models — immigrants who exemplify what is possible in the United States, making it obvious that effort and education will be rewarded.

Miguel Castillo, the principal of Antonio M. Bruni Elementary in Laredo, said he often tells students that he grew up like them, poor, an immigrant born in Mexico, but that he achieved because a friend helped him figure out how to go to college. “I try to provide them with the same kind of guidance,” he said, adding that he constantly tells them: “I could be looking at the next president of the United States, or an astronaut who goes to Mars.”

He added: “It takes a lot to break the poverty cycle. Once you go to college and graduate, that sets an example for the rest.”

DEEPER RIFTS REMAIN

But not all issues are minor, or so easy to reconcile with conversation or the example of a single high-achiever. Many Americans, young and old, Democrats and Republicans, including legal immigrants, would like to see more effort from immigrants — to learn English, to understand and participate in American democracy, to stem crime or gang membership in their communities.

Immigrants, meanwhile, would like to be treated as less of a threat, and to be more appreciated for the hard work they put in, whether building businesses or revitalizing neighborhoods that might otherwise be sliding into disrepair. Even those who lack legal status, like Ignacio, a roofer in Tulsa, often feel that they are doing everything they can to contribute.

“People ask why we don’t take long breaks,” he said. “Our culture is work.”

The debate over legalization for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally remains a delicate topic for nearly everyone. Immigrants, here legally and not, tend to see the inaction in Washington as an effort to keep them in the shadows and vulnerable to criminals and family separation through deportation.

Nonimmigrants (and some legal immigrants) argue that legitimizing lawbreakers will only bring more, and they point to the thousands of mothers and children showing up at the border from Central America now as proof of what happens when enforcement weakens.

But at the core of this dispute lie deeper anxieties about economics, competition for work and culture. Immigration has a long history of stirring up angst and dread. In a new book called “Culling the Masses,” David Scott FitzGerald and David Cook-Martín show that even before there were nation-states, people erected fences, walls and boundaries to keep out the unwanted.

And though the United States proclaims itself a nation of immigrants, lawmakers have been excluding certain ethnic groups since 1790, when Congress started passing laws that prevented Africans and Asians from becoming citizens on the grounds that they were inherently incapable of self-government.

“It’s often about resources, and not just economic resources,” said Mr. Cook-Martín, a sociology professor at Grinnell College in Iowa. “It’s the resource of belonging. We want to be careful with that, and so we erect borders.”

For some, the economic slide of the past few years has intensified outrage as immigration has become woven into broader complaints about globalization and the way the economy works for the benefit of big businesses, at the expense of the middle and working class. Despite a wide range ofindependent studies showing that immigrants do not simply take American jobs — they also create jobs with their demand for goods and services — many people feel that immigrants are partly to blame for widening inequality and their own falling fortunes.

Shannon Woolard, 42, who sells T-shirts celebrating Irish and Czech heritage in Central Texas, for example, said her husband was now making about $35,000 as an oil and gas technician, a sharp decline from when he made around $100,000 as a construction worker before the housing bust. And while she acknowledged that the bad behavior of bankers contributed to his job loss, she said immigrants in the country illegally also made it harder for her husband to find work, by accepting lower wages and shipping off their earnings to relatives back home.

“On a I weekly basis I go into the convenience store and there are people sending money to Mexico,” she said. “The money is not staying here.”

Experts note that remittances sent to Mexico have been falling, with the economy still sputtering and as immigrants are becoming more settled here. And in many communities, a new attitude of accommodation has emerged with time, as people see immigrants raising families, and adding vibrancy with new businesses — in St. Paul, Minn., in Kansas City, Mo., and inDenison, Iowa, to name just a few.

The question now is whether people will look toward the positives that immigrants bring, or to the past and what they want to preserve. As William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, said, the question remains: “To what extent do people in these places realize that these people, these immigrants, are a big part of their growth for the future?”

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SSN Brief on Culling the Masses

HOW LEGACIES OF RACISM PERSIST IN U.S. IMMIGRATION POLICY

By David Scott FitzGerald, University of California, San Diego, and David Cook-Martín, Grinnell College

The United States has always been a nation of immigrants, but for most of its history U.S. law treated newcomers differently according to race.Between 1790 and 1952, legislators restricted naturalization– the process by which immigrants become citizens– to particular racial and ethnic groups, with a consistent preference for whites from northwestern Europe. Laws restricted black immigration beginning in 1803, and a series of subsequent measures banned most Asians and limited access by immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.The U.S. example proved contagious, as our research shows, because every country in the Western Hemisphere followed the U.S. practice of discriminating against certain immigrants by race and ethnicity.

By now, all countries in the New World have eliminated and repudiated legal provisions aimed against particular racial categories– but discrimination continues in more subtle forms. In the United States, reforms in 1965 ended the system of assigning different immigration quotas for each nationality in ways that favored northwestern Europeans. In addition, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in 2011 symbolically repudiating anti-Asian measures such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (which had been legally rescinded in 1943) as “incompatible with the basic founding principles recognized in the Declaration of Independence that all persons are created equal” and “incompatible with the spirit of the United States Constitution.” Formally, therefore, U.S. immigration law is no longer based on ethno-racial criteria and real changes in immigration practices have greatly diversified the racial and ethnic make-up of the United States over the past half century.

Yet current U.S. immigration law retains subtle provisions reprising earlier efforts to privilege certain kinds of new arrivals and block others. Our research pinpoints these persistent legacies of discrimination and shows how they work to favor traditionally advantaged groups.

The False Equality of Preference Visas

A third of new legal immigrants to the United States hold “preference visas” sponsored by employers and certain kinds of family members of current U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Preference visas are not equally available, however, because each
sending country’s nationals have the same annual cap regardless of that country’s population or the size of its migration stream to the United States. Big countries with extensive migration histories like the Philippines
and Mexico have the same cap–about 26,000 visas a year–as countries like Andora or Lesotho with small populations and little history of migration to the United States.

In practice, this system means that Filipinos and Mexicans typically wait in line outside the United States more than twice as long as people from other countries. Filipino siblings of adult U.S. citizens are currently waiting 24 years and Mexicans are waiting 16 years, compared to 12 years for nationals of other countries. Mexican married adult children of U.S. citizens are waiting 21 years and Filipinos are waiting 20 years, compared to 10 years for other nationals. The discrimination so evident here is deliberate. When Congress ended the national- origins quotas in the 1960s, lawmakers implemented a policy of seemingly “equal” country caps in order to limit legal immigration from Mexico and countries in Asia.

New Back Doors for Europeans

Some lawmakers and ethnic lobbies continue to search for ways to favor Europeans without saying so. The most successful strategy has been to craft subtle mechanisms that make it easier in practice for Europeans to enter the United States, inserting those mechanisms into major immigration reform bills where they are little noticed because debate is dominated by broader questions.

  • The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act is remembered mostly for ending longstanding national-origins quotas favoring northwest Europe. But, quietly, the 1986 law also included extra visas for nationals from 36 countries , mostly in Europe.
  • The Diversity Visa program launched by the 1990 immigration reform bill also had biases.
    Congressional debates and hearings show that the intention was to increase the numbers of Europe an immigrants without using discredited national-origins quotas. Some 50,000 Diversity Visas are distributed each year in a lottery for nationals of countries that are not otherwise major sources of immigration. Ineligible for these special visas are people from nineteen countries–all but three of them in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia.
  • In the latest effort to bring Europeans in through the back door, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York introduced a bill in 2011 that would provide 10,000 special annual visas for Irish citizens–not strictly immigrant visas but indefinitely renewable.

Ironically, intentions sometimes fail to pan out. For example, although the goal of the 1990 Diversity program was to boost the numbers of Europeans, in practice, the lottery has benefited nationals from African countries. The only European country of origin to crack the top ten has been the Ukraine, surely not the intended beneficiary for politicians catering to Irish-American and Italian-American voters. Despite such misfires, Congress has repeatedly tried to craft new preferences for traditionally favored groups in an era when explicit discrimination is illegitimate.

Will the Next Immigration Reform Institute True Equality?

The next round of U.S. immigration reforms could at last put all potential newcomers on the same footing. In June 2013, the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, which has the support of President Barack Obama but remains blocked in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Significantly, this legislation, or future legislation like it, would repeal the Diversity Visa program, eliminate country limits for employment-based visas, and increase country limits for new arrivals with ties to family members already in the United States. By admitting all new Americans not by country of birth but based on skills, occupations, and ties to relatives, such reforms would go a long ways toward making the United States, at last, truly an equal nation of immigrants.


Read more in David Scott FitzGerald and David Cook-Martin, Culling the Masses: The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas (Harvard University Press, 2014)

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