Mexican Migration, Legalization, and Assimilation

By Daniel Griswold
October 5, 2005

Presented at the Civitas Forum on “Reconsidering Immigration and Citizenship in the 21st Century” at St. Vincent College, Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

Immigrants play an important part in the successful story of America’s free-enterprise economy and our dynamic culture. The general benefits of immigration, including immigration from Mexico, are as relevant today as they have been throughout American history. Current efforts to reform the U.S. immigration system should be based upon that fundamental fact.

Immigrants and the U.S. economy

For the U.S. economy, foreign-born workers provide needed flexibility, allowing the supply of workers to increase relatively quickly to meet rising demand. When demand falls, would-be immigrants can decide not to enter, and those already here can decide to return home. The result is a more efficient economy that can achieve a higher rate of sustainable growth without encountering bottlenecks or stoking inflation.

Immigration helps to maintain a steady, healthy growth rate in the U.S. labor force. Our labor force is actually growing more slowly in recent years than at anytime in the past half century,1 and without immigration would actually begin to contract within the next few decades. Because of immigration, the U.S. workforce and economy will continue to grow well into the 21st century, while Japan, Germany, and other advanced economies will be forced to adjust to an unprecedented decline in their workforces.2

Immigrant workers willingly fill important niches in the labor market. They gravitate to occupations where the supply of workers falls short of demand, typically among the higher-skilled and lower-skilled occupations.

That hourglass shape of the immigration labor pool complements the native-born workforce, where most workers fall in the middle range in terms of skills and education. As a result, immigrants do not compete directly with the vast majority of American workers.

America’s recent history confirms that American workers can find plentiful employment opportunities during times of robust immigration. During the long boom of the 1990s, and especially in the second half of the decade, the national unemployment rate fell below 4 percent and real wages rose up and down the income scale, during a time of high immigration levels. Today the U.S. unemployment rate has again fallen to levels consistent with full employment and without diminished levels of immigration. Immigrants and native-born Americans alike can all find work in a dynamic and flexible $11 trillion economy.

The impact of immigration on the small segment of the U.S. workforce that competes directly with immigrants is more than offset by the lower prices and wider range of goods and services that all workers enjoy because of immigration. Americans also benefit from higher returns on investment, and from the opportunities created for more skilled native-born workers in those industries that depend on immigrant workers to meet the needs of their customers.

The comprehensive study by National Research Council in 1997 concluded that immigration delivers a “significant positive gain” of $1 billion to $10 billion a year to native-born Americans.3 And those gains from immigration recur year after year.

Despite the widespread perception, America is not being flooded with immigrants. The number of foreign-born people who settle here each year, legally and illegally, is about 1 to 1.2 million. That is on the high end of historical experience in absolute numbers, but we should really think of immigration numbers in terms of a rate. We measure other demographic indicators in terms of a percentage of the population: the poverty rate, the unemployment rate, the birth rate. In the context of a U.S. population that has reached 292 million, the current immigration rate is about 4 immigrants per 1,000 U.S. residents per year. That is less than half of the peak annual immigration rate of more than 10 per 1,000 in the entire decade of 1901 to 1910, during what is known as the Great Migration. In fact, the immigration rate into the United States was higher than it is today continually for nearly a century, from 1840 to 1920. [See Figure 1.] Today, about 12 percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born. That is still below the peak of 1910, when 14.7 percent of people living in our country were foreign born.

American Immigration in Perspective, by Decade, 1820-2003

Other advanced countries, Switzerland, Canada, and Australia, have higher shares of foreign-born residents than we do. The relative size of America’s flow and stock of immigrants is well within the norms of other developed nations today and of our own historical experience.

Two Powerful Trends in America’s Workforce

One troubling aspect of American immigration today is the large share of it that is illegal. Today nearly one-third of foreign-born residents in the United States, an estimated 11 million, reside here without legal documents, and the number grows by an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 each year. The fundamental and inescapable reason for this phenomenon is that our immigration laws are colliding with two powerful economic and demographic realities, and as usual reality is winning.

Even as our economy becomes more technologically advanced, the demand for less-skilled labor has continued to grow. Large and important sectors of the U.S. economy—hotels and motels, restaurants, agriculture, construction, light manufacturing, health care, retailing, and other services—depend on low-skilled immigrant workers to remain competitive. That demand will likely continue into the foreseeable future. According to the Department of Labor, the largest growth in absolute numbers of jobs during the next decade will be in several categories that require only “short-term on-the-job training” of one month or less. Of the 20 job categories with the largest expected growth in employment between 2002 and 2012, 14 of them require only short-term training. [See Table 1.] We all know what those jobs are: retail sales, food preparation, landscaping and grounds keeping, janitors, cashiers, waiters and waitresses, teaching assistants, and home health aides. The net employment growth in those 14 categories alone in the next decade will total 4.9 million.4

Projected Change in Total Employment from 2002 to 2012

Meanwhile, the supply of American workers willing and happy to fill such jobs continues to shrink. We are getting older and better educated. Between 1982 and 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median age of workers in the U.S. labor force will increase from 34.6 years to 41.6 years, the highest level ever recorded in U.S. history. The share of young workers between 16 and 24 will drop by a third, from 22.3 percent to 15 percent.5 At the same time, workers in the U.S. labor force are more educated than ever.

In the past four decades, the share of adults 25 and older who have not completed high school has plunged from more than half in 1964 to less than 15 percent in 2004.6 [See Figure 2.] The share of native-born adult Americans without a high school degree has declined even further, to below 10 percent.7 Immigrants provide a ready and willing source of labor to fill that growing gap between demand and supply on the lower rungs of the labor ladder.

Educational Attainment of U.S. Adults (25 and older)

Yet our current immigration system offers no legal channel for peaceful, hardworking non-residents to enter the United States even temporarily to fill those jobs that an insufficient number of Americans want. The result is large-scale illegal immigration.

Failure of “Enforcement-only” Efforts

We’ve tried enforcing existing law and it’s failed. According to a study we published in June, by Princeton professor Douglas Massey, the U.S. government has increased spending on the Border Patrol by ten-fold since 1986. That has enabled an eight-fold increase in “line-watch hours,” the amount of time agents actually spend patrolling the border. The government has built three-tiered walls for miles out into the desert. For the first time in U.S. history, it has imposed fines on U.S. employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. We’ve busted janitors and raided chicken processing plants from coast to coast and in between.8 Yet the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States continues to grow.

Our aggressive enforcement has had perverse consequences, according to our study. Cracking down on the traditional urban entry points in the early 1990s didn’t stop illegal immigration. It only created a deadly diversion of the flow to more remote desert areas. As a result, immigrants entering the United States illegally across the U.S. Mexican border are more likely to enter without being caught, they are more likely to stay once they are here because of the expense and risk of crossing the border, and they are more likely to die—three times more likely than in the 1980s, in fact. The fiscal year that ended last week set a record for deaths along the border. According to the Border Patrol, more than 415 mostly men but also women and children have died horrible deaths from heat and dehydration since last October first. Morgues along the border are full of unclaimed bodies. More than 3,000 have died in the past decade. That is too high a price to pay for seeking a better job.

The Need for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

The lesson of the past two decades should be clear: Enforcement alone is doomed to fail. The only realistic answer is comprehensive immigration reform. We need to change a broken system so that it works in our national interest. Such reform should create a legal channel for workers from Mexico and other countries to enter the United States temporarily to fill those jobs vital to our economic strength as a nation. It should grant temporary but also renewable visas that would allow foreign-born workers to fill those jobs where their labor is most needed. Such visas should allow multiple re-entries for as long as the visa is valid, complete mobility between employers and sectors of the U.S. economy, and the full protection of U.S. law.

Comprehensive reform should also legalize the millions of workers currently in the United States without legal documentation. Many of these workers have lived and worked in the United States for several years. They have become valuable participants in their workplaces and their communities. They should be allowed and encouraged to come forward to be legalized and properly documented. Legalization does not mean amnesty. Newly legalized workers can be assessed a fine. They should be required to get in line with everybody else if they want to apply for permanent status. However we achieve legalization, it would be far preferable to the status quo of millions of people living in a legal and social twilight zone, outside the rule and protection of the law.

Undocumented workers who are currently employed and who pose no security threat should be allowed to stay in the country while they adjust their status. Forcing several million workers to leave their jobs and their communities for an indefinite period would serve no compelling national interest. It would, however, impose a substantial cost on U.S. companies and consumers in terms of disrupted production and even potential unemployment for native-born American workers in the affected industries. It would also impose an unnecessarily harsh cost on the affected immigrant workers and, in many cases, their U.S.-citizen family members. And it would reduce the incentive for compliance, leaving us stuck with the chronic problem of a large illegal population in our midst.

Reform is not about opening the door to millions of additional foreign workers. It’s about legalizing the millions already here and the hundreds of thousands who are coming in each year already. Legalization would raise their wages, benefits and working conditions by giving them more bargaining power in the marketplace. They could more easily change jobs to improve their pay and working conditions. They would be more likely to qualify for health insurance. They would be more likely to invest in their language and job skills. They could put their savings in the bank. Legalization would replace an underground flow and stock of illegal workers with a safe and orderly supply of legal workers—workers who would enjoy the full protection of the law and freedom of movement in the labor market.

Legalization and National Security

Legalizing and regularizing the movement of workers across the U.S.-Mexican border would also enhance our national security. It would bring much of the underground labor market into the open, encouraging newly documented workers to cooperate fully with law enforcement officials, and freeing resources for border security and the war on terrorism.

Real immigration reform would drain a large part of the underground swamp that facilitates illegal immigration. It would reduce the demand for fraudulent documents, which in turn would reduce the supply available for terrorists trying to operate surreptitiously inside the United States. It would eliminate most of the human smuggling operations overnight. The vast majority of Mexican workers who enter the United States have no criminal record or intentions. They would obviously prefer to enter the country in a safe, orderly, legal process through an official port of entry, rather than put their lives in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers. In the 1950s we dramatically increased the number of visas available to guest workers under the Bracerro program. The result was a sharp drop in the number of people trying to enter the country illegally.

Just as importantly, legalization would encourage millions of currently undocumented workers to make themselves known to authorities by registering with the government, reducing cover for terrorists who manage to enter the country and overstay their visas. Workers with legal documents would be more inclined to cooperate with law enforcement if they do not fear deportation.

Immigration reform would free up enforcement and border-control resources to focus on protecting the American homeland from terrorist attack.

Our Department of Homeland Security should concentrate its limited resources and personnel on tracking and hunting down terrorists instead of raiding chicken processing plants and busting janitors at discount stores.

Legalization, Assimilation, and Citizenship

Beyond the economic arguments, legalization and immigration have raised important issues of culture, national identity, and citizenship. Assimilation has been an important theme in America’s immigration history. Previous waves of immigrants and their children have been expected to support themselves in the economy, learn English, and become active participants in American society. As a rule, immigrants have done just that throughout our history—despite doubts by contemporary critics about each wave of “new” immigrants. A broader concern about immigration reform is that newly legalized Mexican immigrants and even their descendants will fail to assimilate into American society. Scholars such as Samuel Huntington and Victor Davis Hanson argue that Mexican migration today is unique in U.S. history in its size and social impact.

They and others contend that, unlike previous immigrant groups, Mexican migrants retain close ties to their nearby homeland, dominate other immigrant groups in sheer numbers, and concentrate geographically into insular, Spanish-speaking communities that slow their assimilation. On closer examination, none of those concerns are serious enough to warrant increased restrictions on migration from Mexico. While the number of immigrants from Mexico is high in absolute numbers, the rate of immigration from Mexico in recent years is still lower than what it was for specific ethnic groups in the past. In the 1990s, an estimated 4.2 million Mexicans immigrated to the United States, both legally and illegally.9 That represents 1.5 Mexican immigrants per year per 1,000 U.S. residents. In comparison, during the two decades from 1841 to 1860, America absorbed an average of 3.6 Irish immigrants per year per 1,000 U.S. residents—more than double the current rate of Mexican immigration. For half a century, from 1841 to 1890, the rate of German immigration was heavier in every decade than the current inflow of Mexicans.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Russian, Italian, and Austro-Hungarian immigration each separately surpassed the current rate of Mexican migration.10 (See Table 2.) Yet the United States managed to absorb each of these distinct cultural and linguistic cohorts into American society despite the apprehensions of their contemporaries.11

Like previous immigrant groups, Mexican immigrants are dispersing beyond the traditional gateway states of California, Texas, Florida, and Illinois. The number settling in such nontraditional destinations as the South, and suburban and rural areas throughout the country has been rising dramatically since 1980. Between 1990 and 2000, six of the top seven states with the fastest growing Hispanic populations were in the South—North Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Alabama. (Nevada was the lone non-southern state on the list.)12 Other studies have found that more than half of the nation’s Latino population now lives in suburbs and that Latinos are dispersing geographically at a rate faster than the great waves of European immigrants who moved from gateway cities to the rest of the country a century ago.13 The dispersion of Mexican immigrants beyond traditional receiving areas should reduce apprehensions about linguistic concentrations.

Indeed, the story on language should also calm fears about a lack of assimilation. While Spanish has grown dramatically as a second language in the United States, there is no evidence that Mexican immigrants and their families are failing to learn English. With English advancing as the global language of business, transportation, science, pop culture and cyberspace, much to the consternation of the French, I might add, it seems implausible that a subgroup within the United States could insulate itself for long from the language of the realm. In fact, America has historically been considered a “language graveyard” because of an almost irresistible incentive for immigrants, and especially their children, to learn English. Hispanic immigrants are no exception.

Recent studies confirm that the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants are learning English. Among children of Hispanic immigrants to the United States, one recent study found that 92 percent speak English well or very well, even though 85 percent speak at least some Spanish at home. Among third-generation Hispanic immigrants (and their descendants), the predominant pattern is “English-only,” with no Spanish spoken at home.14 And that trend has actually been accelerating. As the authors of a recent study concluded, “The very high immigration level of the 1990s does not appear to have weakened the forces of linguistic assimilation. Mexicans, by far the largest immigrants group, provide a compelling example. In 1990, 64 percent of third-generation Mexican-American children spoke only English at home; in 2000, the equivalent figure had risen to 71 percent.”15

If the English language is a traditional pillar of American culture, so too historically has been religion. If anything, immigrants from Mexico and the rest of Latin American are typically more likely to be religious, and in particular Christian, than native-born Americans. Hispanic immigration remains a major source of new members for the Catholic Church in the United States.

Hispanics now make up about 40 percent of the Catholic Church membership in the United States. The biggest Catholic diocese in the country today is Los Angeles, where two out of three Catholics are Hispanic. In total, 70 percent of Hispanics in the United States are Catholic, and another 23 percent are Protestant.16 Migration from Mexico and other Latin American countries is having a positive impact on both the domestic church and Hispanic-American culture. As Pope John Paul II noted in a 1999 statement, “[M]any people and families from Latin American countries who have moved to the northern parts of the continent - often bring with them a cultural and religious heritage which is rich in Christian elements.”17

Proficiency in English and respect for the norms of a free society are important attributes for citizens and permanent non-citizen residents alike. All newcomers to the United States should be encouraged to integrate into American civil society. Unfortunately, government programs such as bilingual education in public schools and an undue emphasis on “multiculturalism” can actually retard the process of integration, to the detriment of immigrants and society.

Once again, the right policy response is not to suppress the migration of an entire ethnic group but to remove any artificial impediments to America’s traditional process of absorbing immigrants into our nation’s civic life.

A legalization program as outlined in this paper would not result in significantly greater immigration from Mexico, nor would it encourage more permanent settlement in the United States rather than the temporary, non-immigrant migration that has been an important part of traditional Mexican migration to the United States. But even if permanent immigration from Mexico persisted or increased, the evidence from American history and from more recent immigration from Latin America suggests that we have no reason to fear the newest wave of immigrants.


Large-scale illegal immigration to the United States confronts the American public and policy makers in Washington with three basic options. We can muddle through with the status quo, leaving millions of currently illegal and mostly low-skilled immigrants in the legal shadows, unable to realize the full benefits of their labor in the marketplace.

We can redouble the failed policies of the past and crack down, once again, on illegal immigration, building more fences, assigning thousands more agents to patrol the border, and raiding more workplaces—with no real hope that merely redoubling our efforts will somehow succeed where past efforts have failed.

Or we can recognize reality, adopt comprehensive reform, and fix America’s flawed immigration system so that it conforms to the realities of a free society and a free and efficient economy. A legalized system of migration would, in one stroke, bring a huge underground market into the open. It would raise wages and working conditions for millions of low-skilled workers and spur investment in human capital. It would allow American producers in important sectors of our economy to hire the workers they need to grow. It would make us more secure by focusing our border-enforcement firepower on terrorists and other criminals. And it would be consistent with America’s long tradition of welcoming people who want to come here to work hard and build a better life.

1 U.S. Department of Labor.

2 Pete Engardio and Carol Matlack, “Global Aging,” BusinessWeek, January 31, 2005.

3 James P. Smith and Barry Edmonston, editors, The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration, National Research Council (Washington: National Academy Press, 1997), p. 6.

4 Daniel Hecker, “Occupation Employment Projections to 2012,” U.S. Department of Labor, Monthly Labor Review, February 2004, Table 4, p. 101.

5 Mitra Toossi, “Labor Force Projections to 2012: The Graying of the U.S. Workforce,” U.S. Department of Labor, Monthly Labor Review, February 2004, p. 56.

6 U.S. Bureau of the Census. http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/education/tabA-2.xls.

7 George Borjas, Heaven’s Door (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 21.

8 For an examination of the failure of U.S. border enforcement policies, see Daniel T. Griswold, “Willing Workers: Fixing the Problem of Illegal Mexican Migration to the United States,” Cato Trade Policy Analysis no. 19, October 15, 2002, especially pp. 4-5.

9 The estimate is based on 2,249,421 legal immigrants from Mexico during 1991-2000, Statistical Yearbook of the INS, 2000, Table 2; and an estimated 2 million illegal immigrants from Mexico, or 200,000 net per year, based on INS estimates.

10 Statistical Yearbook of the INS, 2000, Table 2; and 2001 Statistical Abstract of the United States, U.S. Census Bureau, p. 8.

11 For example, the U.S. Immigration Commission of 1907-11 concluded that “new” immigrants were inferior to the old, produced an oversupply of unskilled labor resulting in lower wages and a reduced American standard of living, displaced native workers from occupations that were formerly theirs, retarded unionization and introduction of machinery, and lived in unsanitary, sweatshop conditions (from Bernard, p. 56). In June 1913, Harvard economics professor William Ripley, in a full-page ad in the Sunday New York Times, called the Southern and Central European “races” inferior to Northern and Western Europeans, and warned that “the hordes of new immigrants” were “a menace to our Anglo Saxon civilization” (from the National Research Council, footnote 2, p. 364).It would be difficult to argue in hindsight that the professor’s anxiety was justified.

12 Robert Suro, et al, “The new Latino South: The context and Consequences of Rapid Population Growth,” Pew Hispanic Center Report, July 26, 2005, pp. ii-iii.

13 See Robert Suro and Audrey Singer, “Latino Growth in Metropolitan America: Changing Patterns, New Locations,” Pew Hispanic Center and Brookings Institution, July 2002; and D’Vera Cohn, “Latino Growth among Top in U.S.,” The Washington Post, July 31, 2002, p. B1.

14 Richard, Alba, “Language Assimilation Today: Bilingualism Persists More than in the Past, but English Still Dominates,” Lewis Mumford Center, University of Albany, New York, December 2004, available at http://mumford.albany.edu/children/researchbriefs.htm.

15 Ibid., p. 2.

16 http://www.facsnet.org/issues/faith/espinosa.php

17 Pope John Paul II, “Ecclesia in America,” Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Mexico City, Mexico, January 22, 1999, Chapter IV, Section 65.

Daniel Griswold is director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.