Illegal Immigration: Historical Trends & Perspectives

Illegal Immigration: Historical Trends & Perspectives


The origins of illegal immigration date to the late nineteenth century. In 1875, a federal law was passed which prohibited entry of convicts and prostitutes. In 1882 President Chester A. Arthur banned almost all Chinese immigration to the United States, and shortly thereafter barred paupers, criminals and the mentally ill from entering. Although this affected only a small percentage of immigrants, there were now distinctions between legal and illegal immigration. Before this, immigration was barely regulated.

Ellis Island, the New York portal for immigrants, opened in 1892 and became the nation’s premier federal immigration station. New arrivals were required to prove their identities, answer a series of questions, find a friend or relative who could vouch for them, and were scanned for physical ailments. When it ended operation in 1954, Ellis Island had processed over 12 million legal immigrants.

During the large wave of immigration from 1881 to 1920, nearly 23½ million immigrants poured into the United States from all over the world. In 1921, Congress passed a Quota Law that reduced immigration to 357,000 a year and limited the number of immigrants from any one country. In 1924 immigration was reduced further to 160,000 a year, and in 1929, immigration was cut to 157,000 and quotas were again reset based on national origins in the 1920 U.S. Census. The rationale was that these laws would ensure the existing ethnic composition of the country and help assimilate the 15 million southern and eastern Europeans who had entered the previous forty years.

However, the door was left open for Mexicans (who even then were desired by employers for their cheap labor) and northern Europeans. As history would show, this legal immigration led to illegal immigration and foreshadowed today’s debate on these topics. During the 1920s illegal immigration was the subject of heated Congressional debates. Edward H. Dowell, vice-president of the California Federation of Labor, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Immigration in February of 1928 about the burden of the unrestricted flow of Mexicans on the state’s taxpayers, prisons, hospitals and American workers’ wages. He estimated that while 67,000 Mexicans entered the U.S. legally the prior year, many times that number entered illegally. […]

Today’s high level of illegal immigration originated during the war years of the early 1940s. Labor shortages caused the federal government to set up a program to import Mexican laborers to work temporarily in agriculture, primary in the Southwest. This was called the Bracero Program. The goal was to import foreign workers (originally thought to number in the hundreds) during agricultural harvest and then encourage them to go home.

Over the next two decades about 4.8 million Mexican workers came into the country and provided cheap labor to many U.S. employers. Although braceros were supposed to be hired only if an adequate number of Americans could not be found, employers preferred the foreign workers who were willing to work for lesser wages. The program finally ended in 1964 due to complaints from unions and Mexican-Americans that these foreigners were taking jobs from them. Not surprisingly, many of the former braceros reentered and worked in the U.S. illegally — many for the same employers. Illegal immigration increased greatly during the years of the supposed “temporary work” Bracero Program. […]

During President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first term, it was estimated that illegal immigration statistics showed illegal Mexican border crossings had grown to about 1 million. Such a massive illegal workforce had a devastating impact on the wages of American workers. Eisenhower, concerned about corruption that resulted from the profits of illegal labor, took decisive action. In 1954 he appointed General Joseph Swing to head the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Shortly thereafter, “Operation Wetback” was launched. With only 1,075 Border Patrol agents, tens of thousands of illegal aliens were caught and sent back deep into Mexico. Hundreds of thousands more returned to their homeland voluntarily. Illegal immigration deportation proved to be affordable and humane and illegal immigration had dropped 95% by the end of the 1950s.

But it was not to last, as seen in prior decades, after the 1965 Immigration Act passed, while legal immigration increased sharply, illegal immigration rose right along with it. […]

Today, over 1 million immigrants enter our country legally per year, while the illegal alien population grows by about 500,000 per year. Most of those who violate our borders and enter illegally come from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Only about 6 percent of the illegals come from Canada and Europe. Close to half of all illegal immigrants now residing in the U.S. did not enter illegally but rather overstayed their visas. […] About 12-20 million illegal aliens currently reside in America according to several professional estimates of how many illegal immigrants are in the United States.

Excerpted from “A Brief History of Illegal Immigration in the United States” (by To read the full article, click here.

Additional Resources:

A Brief History of Illegal Immigration in the United States

The Open Borders Lobby and U.S. Security After 9/11
By William Hawkins and Erin Anderson
January 21, 2004

The Open-Borders Conspiracy
By Robert Locke
July 15, 2002

Two Sides of the Same Coin: The Connection Between Legal and Illegal Immigration
By James R. Edwards, Jr.
February 2006

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