The last big immigration legalization plan, in 1986, took six years to get done.
The law, signed by President Ronald Reagan, had three main components: making it illegal to hire unauthorized workers, improving border enforcement and providing for the legalization of a big chunk of the estimated 3 million to 5 million immigrants then in the country illegally.
The results were disappointing on two central fronts: The hiring crackdown largely failed because there was no good way to verify eligibility to work, and it took a decade to improve border security. As a result, illegal immigration continued to grow, fueled by the strong U.S. economy.
What did work as intended: Close to 3 million immigrants living in the U.S. without permission received legal status. By 2009, about 40 percent of them had been naturalized, according to Homeland Security.
Census figures show that between 1960 and 2010, immigration from Europe declined while the numbers coming from Latin America and Asia took off. As the immigrants’ points of origin changed, so did their destinations. Concentrations shifted from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West.
A few Census Bureau snapshots:
—In 1960, there were fewer than 1 million people in the U.S. who were born in Latin America. By 2010, there were 21.2 million.
—In 1960, 75 percent of foreigners in the U.S. came from Europe. By 2010, 80 percent came from Latin America and Asia.
—In 1960: 47 percent of the foreign-born lived in the Northeast and 10 percent in the South. By 2010, 22 percent lived in the Northeast and 32 percent in the South.
The fence between the U.S. and Mexico runs off and on for 651 miles along the 1,954-mile border. Most of it has been built since 2005. At some points, it’s an 18-foot-high steel mesh structure topped with razor wire. At others, it’s a rusting, 8-foot-high thing, made of Army surplus landing mats from the Vietnam War.
The fencing is one of the more visible manifestations of a massive effort over the past two decades to improve border security. The results of that effort are dramatic. Those images of crowds of immigrants sprinting across the border illegally while agents scramble to nab a few are largely a thing of the past.
Two decades ago, fewer than 4,000 Border Patrol agents worked along the Southwest border. Today there are 18,500.
Plummeting apprehension statistics are one measure of change: 357,000 last year, compared with 1.6 million in 2000. The numbers are down in part because fewer are trying to make it across.
The border isn’t sealed but it is certainly more secure.
The Senate bill would require the government to have even tougher border security plans before those who are in the country illegally could become legal permanent residents.
WHO'S HANGING AROUND
With tighter border security and years of economic difficulty in the U.S., it turns out that most of the immigrants who are in the U.S. without permission have been there for a while. Just 14 percent have arrived since the start of 2005, according to Homeland Security estimates. In contrast, 29 percent came during the previous five years.
At the peak in 2000, about 770,000 immigrants arrived annually from Mexico, most of them entering the country illegally. By 2010, the pace had dropped to about 140,000, most of them arriving as legal immigrants, according to Pew.
Mexicans, mostly. Since 1986, more than 4 million noncitizens have been deported. Deportations have expanded in the Obama administration, reaching 410,000 in 2012 from 30,000 in 1990. Most of those deported — 75 percent — are sent back to Mexico. Nearly half of those removed had prior criminal convictions. So far, the Obama administration has deported more than 1.6 million people.
TO NATURALIZE OR NOT
Lots of U.S. immigrants who are eligible to become naturalized citizens don’t bother. As of 2010, about two-thirds of eligible immigrants had applied for citizenship, according to the Migration Policy Institute. That lags behind the rate in other English-speaking countries such as Australia and Canada, which do more to promote naturalization.
What’s so great about citizenship?
Naturalization offers all sorts of rights and benefits, including the right to vote and run for office. Naturalized citizens are protected from losing their residency rights and being deported if they get in legal trouble. They can bring family members into the U.S. more quickly.
Certain government jobs and licensed professions require citizenship. Citizenship also symbolizes full membership in U.S. society.Continued...