There is a border emergency say the news headlines and the Republicans are demanding that the Biden administration do something about border security. The Biden administration, for its part has offered a substantial immigration package to Congress and made some minor changes to Trump’s draconian immigration policies while leaving the health emergency order (Title 42) prohibiting most immigrants from crossing the border.

Texas is now the focal point of the immigration debate with the Texas governor imploring other states to send help to “control the border” and Donald Trump and vice-president Kamala Harris visiting to argue immigration before the American people.

Lost in all the immigration debates is the simple fact that America needs immigrant labor to bolster the GDP while at the same time arguing that immigrants must follow the law, or that “now is not the time” to come to America.

The American immigration system did not begin to limit immigrants into the country until around the 1850’s. The first limits placed upon immigrants were intended to exclude immigrants deemed as “undesirable”. The 1875 Page Act deemed criminals and prostitutes as undesirable immigrants. People likely to become a public charge and “lunatics” were excluded by the Immigration Act of 1882. The 1903 Immigration Act added anarchists to the list of prostitutes and immigrants likely to become a burden to the taxpayers.

In 1885 and 1887, immigration law started to protect the American worker from competition from immigrants.

However, by the early 1900’s, America’s immigration law shifted towards keeping minorities out of the country, favoring, instead immigrants from Europe. The 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the 1924 Immigration Act applied “national origins quotas” to immigrants. The laws attempted to limit immigrants allowed into the country to 3% of America’s 1910 population. The national origins formulas limited immigrants from Asian countries. But the immigration legislation quotas exempted Canadians and Mexicans from the quota system. As European immigrant labor decreased, Mexican laborers took up the work.

The Bracero Program was created in 1942 to shore up America’s wartime work force as World War II created labor shortage. The Bracero Program was intended as a labor-only program and not as a means towards permanent residency in America. It ended in 1964.

In 1952, the McCarren-Walter Act ended Asian exclusions but kept the strict quota systems in place. It also divided the quotas into two, one for “highly skilled” immigrants whose skills were “urgently needed” by the country and the other half for family members of permanent residents, the so-called family reunification system.

In 1951, the United States and Mexican governments were negotiating an “orderly system” for Mexican workers to replace the Bracero Program that had been canceled in 1964. One of the major reasons a new Bracero Program was not enacted was because the Mexican government demanded that American businesses be punished for hiring undocumented workers. The American government refused.

It remains simpler to allow undocumented workers to work the jobs Americans can’t or unwilling to work because it keeps the immigrant workers at the mercy of their employers and of American politics.

The Texas Proviso

Excluded from the Bracero Program, Texas agribusinesses lobbied for the Texas Proviso to the 1952 immigration law to explicitly allow them to employ undocumented immigrants. The 1952 law made it a crime to contract undocumented workers.

The Texas Proviso protected American businesses from hiring undocumented immigrants pursuant to the 1952 law. It kept the undocumented workers at the mercy of their employers who could shed unneeded or troublesome employees by simply calling the Border Patrol to deport them.

The 1965 Hart-Cuellar Act placed limits on immigrants based on the hemisphere they came from. However, the Act fundamentally shifted immigration law towards the family reunification system. Under the strict immigration ceilings imposed by the law that limited the number of immigrants allowed into the country, the family reunification preference gave family members preferred treatment over the immigrants looking to work.

However, the country’s need for a foreign labor force continued to increase.

Anti-immigrants continue to argue that immigrants are welcome if they “do it legally”. Texas governor Greg Abbott asked for help from other states to help patrol the border. Several state governors have sent law enforcement to Texas.

Although the 1986 immigration law requires employers to verify the work status of anyone they hire, its use is largely unenforced and immigrant roundups continue to target the undocumented workers with few employers being sanctioned.

It is a system that continues to allow undocumented workers to bolster the American economy while keeping them at the mercy of politics.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...