From time to time I come across articles talking about some crackdown or another on people in the USA who don't have permission to be in the country. These articles usually have a "how can you do that tone" and talk about some job "Americans won't do" e.g. in this article.

"There's no American — black, white, yellow, from any background … they may get out here and they may last an hour, they may last half a day. I've never seen any of them last more than a day," Mr Scott said.

Part of the reason this is unfamiliar to me where deportation of people who are not supposed to be in the country is the norm and rarely gets attention.

Things I am trying to understand:

  • What is the history that creates these controversies, is it a real reflection of opinion or just controversy?
  • What laws etc line up with this controversies, is it to do with lack of enforcement or complications in the laws?
  • The focus is on current times, e.g. the last 20 or 30 years anything earlier if it helps context


  • 2
    I've read your question a few times, and still don't understand exactly what you're asking, could you please clarify?
    – mrnovice
    May 1, 2017 at 21:47
  • I want to understand the thought process / history / politics etc amongst Americans that lead to these articles and sought of political opinion. Maybe it does not really happen at all I would want to know that at all so. I'm not trying to make a statement here it is a genuine question. Should I update the question? May 1, 2017 at 22:44
  • A reasonable portion of our history has been devoted to immigration politics, I expect there has been some thought too sometime. These are serious issues that seem to effect at least millions of people and billions of dollars. To make this an answerable question it needs a limited and clear scope.
    – user9389
    May 1, 2017 at 23:17
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    I'm also not entirely clear what you are asking. That said, nearly every political topic is controversial in the US. We love making politics controversial. We go out of our way to make things controversial.
    – user1530
    May 2, 2017 at 1:26
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    Immigration laws are like speed limits. They are routinely underenforced and many people do not believe that they are morally obligated to enforce them or even believe that they are morally obligated to ignore them. Lawyers are specifically prohibited from threatening to enforce immigration laws to gain advantage in a civil case in most U.S. states. As a result there are about 10 million undocumented aliens in the U.S. (about 3% of the U.S. population). The economy and society has come to rely on perpetual non-enforcement of these laws. Also many (called DREAMERS) are culturally Americans.
    – ohwilleke
    May 2, 2017 at 18:21

4 Answers 4


There's two issues that get conflated when discussing the issue

  1. Immigration in general
  2. Illegal immigration across the Mexico border

So #1 isn't terribly controversial. The US has always had some form of legal immigration throughout its history. The problem comes when we talk about the southern US border and the prolific illegal immigration across it.

It's true that Hispanic workers largely work in agriculture. It's even true that Americans don't like to do those jobs. But it's also true that most of those workers are paid wages far below the legal minimum wage. Indeed, it's a strange legal grey area where the argument against enforcement uses this situation as a selling point, despite the fact proponents tend to also advocate for higher minimum wages. Consider this from 1995

Meanwhile, the fastest-growing and most profitable segment of California's farm economy--the cultivation of high-value specialty crops--has also become the one most dependent on the availability of cheap labor. Nearly every fruit and vegetable found in the diets of health-conscious, often high-minded eaters is still picked by hand: every head of lettuce, every bunch of grapes, every avocado, peach, and plum. As the demand for these foods has risen, so has the number of workers necessary to harvest them. Of the migrants in California today, anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent, depending upon the crop, are illegal immigrants. Their willingness to work long hours for low wages has helped California to sustain its agricultural production--despite the loss since 1964 of more than seven million acres of farmland. Fruit and vegetable growers in the state now rely on a thriving black market in labor--and without it more farms would disappear. Illegal immigrants, widely reviled and depicted as welfare cheats, are in effect subsidizing the most important sector of the California economy.


Migrants are among the poorest workers in the United States. The average migrant worker is a twenty-eight-year-old male, born in Mexico, who earns about $5,000 a year for twenty-five weeks of farm work. His life expectancy is forty-nine years.

In other words, the US is in a look-the-other-way system whereby poor migrants are exploited for cheap labor that is illegally below what minimum wage laws permit. I once had an encounter with a Latino man in San Francisco and we talked about numerous subjects, but he held a strong belief that this system is wrong. He saw his fellow countrymen as being quietly exploited.

In 1986, Ronald Reagan signed what has become known as Amnesty: some illegal immigrants to the US were allowed to become US citizens in exchange for promises on increased border security.

The law granted amnesty to nearly 3 million illegal immigrants, yet was largely considered unsuccessful because the strict sanctions on employers were stripped out of the bill for passage.

That Amnesty is widely regarded as a failure by Republicans (so much so that the word Amnesty itself has become a politically toxic word). In fact, the IRCA(Amnesty) may have made things worse

Instead of stemming illegal immigration, IRCA has actually encouraged it. In response to growers’ fears that the new sanctions on employers would create a shortage of farm workers, Congress included in the bill a special amnesty for illegal immigrants who could prove that they had done farm work in the United States during the previous year. It did not demand much proof. [The program] was expected to grant legal status to 350,000 illegal immigrants. Instead more than 1.3 million illegal immigrants--a number roughly equivalent at the time to a sixth of the adult male population of rural Mexico--applied for this amnesty, most of them using phony documents in what has been called one of the greatest immigration frauds in American history.

It's important to understand that the President has all the legal authority to deport anyone in the country here illegally. At present, if he wanted to, President Trump could start a mass deportation right now (it's unclear what courts would do in response to the inevitable lawsuits). But such an action would be deeply unpopular as people would see their neighbors and cheap labor go out the door. Note that no President has ever taken such an action, from Reagan to Obama. It's this lack of enforcement that has helped fuel surges in illegal immigration, such as the surge in Central American child refugees

If you're looking for a TL;DR summary on the rest

  1. Democrats like Latino voters because they tend to vote for social programs that Democrats traditionally support, like Welfare, Medicaid, etc. They want another Reagan-style blanket Amnesty, despite the unpopularity of Amnesty.
  2. Republicans want tough laws and tough enforcement. They want labor enforcement (like E-Verify) to be mandatory. The wall, which tends to be popular with some of the base, is iffy on how effective it can be, but it's politically safer than ramping up deportations.
  3. Democrats, realizing that direct enforcement is unpopular, tend to water down the laws and often are lax on enforcement (see Sanctuary cities and Catch and Release enforcement). This, of course, infuriates Republicans, who are made less willing to compromise on an immigration bill because such cities and states might just ignore the enforcement parts of any laws they might pass.
  4. Nobody is willing to rock the boat on the farm industry (nor does there seem to be any strong enforcement mechanisms), meaning the farming labor black market will likely continue unabated for the foreseeable future.
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    In summary: The problem is both democrats and republicans love cheap tomatoes. Controversy helps distract everyone so that the price of tomatoes doesn't go up. :)
    – user1530
    May 2, 2017 at 5:42
  • "At present, if he wanted to, President Trump could start a mass deportation right now" Except that Congress hasn't appropriated remotely enough money to do a "mass deportation", and even if it were possible, most people would be entitled to deportation hearings, for which there is already a multi-year backlog which may stretch to decades if there is a huge influx of new cases.
    – user102008
    May 5, 2017 at 0:19
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    @user102008 I'm talking from a legal standpoint. There would be many, many, many logistical challenges, not to mention lawsuits
    – Machavity
    May 5, 2017 at 1:04

As I understand it, you are asking, "Why is immigration enforcement controversial in the United States?"

It may help to realize that most people in the United States are descended from people who immigrated in the last five hundred years. This gives a certain amount of pro-immigrant sentiment.

Historically, it has been relatively easy to cross the US/Mexico border. Some number of people came from Mexico and were living in the US with no intention of returning in 1986. President Ronald Reagan and Senator Ted Kennedy made a deal to address immigration. The basic characteristics of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 were an amnesty for those living in the US since 1982 and increased enforcement on employers.

Since that time, illegal/undocumented immigration has increased. Now, there are an estimated eleven million living in the United States, up from four million in 1986. Increased border enforcement has lead some seasonal farm workers to stay in the US year round.

Crop picking is an example of a job that very few US citizens do. For some crops, it can be automated. Most grains and staples like corn are picked by machines. But some crops need to be picked by hand, and there is a tradition of Mexican workers traveling north for the harvest. It's low paying and hard labor, not exactly the stuff of which dreams are made. It's also temporary work.

There are also some legal forms of immigration by people who are ethnically similar to people who cross the border with Mexico without legal sanction. In particular, Puerto Rico is not part of the US but does have a protected status. Also, Cuban refugees have a history of being admitted after crossing. Added to legal immigrants and those granted amnesty after 1986, this has created a sizable minority who may feel similar to those excluded by laws restricting immigration.

Another issue is that the US has what is called birthright citizenship. Anyone who is born in the US is a citizen regardless of the parents' citizenship status. So it is quite possible that a child (or children) may be citizens and the parents not.

Some crossed into the US as children but have grown up here with no connection to their home country. And they may have siblings who are citizens of the US and nowhere else.

Further complicating things, many of this group of immigrants are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans. There are exceptions. For example, Cubans are more Republican than not (e.g. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz). But in general, more Hispanic immigrants means more Democratic voters in the short term. So it has become a partisan issue.

Given the way that partisan politics works in the United States, once a party has a position, it has to promote it. So there are a large number of stories about how horrible immigration enforcement is. This is even more so since Donald Trump is known for his anti-immigration stances, and Democrats naturally want to discredit his work.

  • 3
    Your summary of Puerto Rico's status is not quite correct. Puerto Ricans are US citizens by birth, however according to one supreme court case, Puerto Rico is "foreign in a domestic sense." We still don't quite know what that means. May 2, 2017 at 2:08
  • "legal forms of immigration": this includes legal immigration by Mexicans and Central Americans. For example, nearly 90,000 immigrant visas were granted to Mexicans in 2016.
    – phoog
    May 2, 2017 at 5:26
  • @BobTheAverage It's important to note that Puerto Ricans are citizens by birth by virtue of a law of congress. They are not citizens by constitutional right, but by a revocable law. Similarly with Guam and other unincorporated territories; and states when added to the union have always had the law incorporating them explicitly include provisions making people already born in those areas citizens (constitutionally only people born in them after incorporation, or to parents already citizens for other reasons, would be citizens). Apr 26, 2018 at 4:29

This particular case mentioned in the Guardian article is controversial because it is about asylum seekers, not economical immigrants.

The United States have signed the 1967 protocol of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. That means the United States have pledged to provide asylum to anyone who has:

a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion

So anyone who comes to the United States and claims asylum has (in theory) the right to stay in the United States until it was checked if their claim that they are being persecuted has merit or not.

In the case of asylum seekers from Central-American countries, the claim is usually that they are drug war refugees. Fights between law enforcement and drug cartels in Mexico and Columbia can often regionally escalate into civil-war-like manners, where civilians can get between the fronts.

Now whether or not this is reason for asylum and if a specific asylum seeker is indeed endangered by these conflicts is a matter of individual judgment by an immigration judge.


Well, there are a few aspects to this that make it not such a straight-forward issue.

  1. US society benefits from the undocumented labor - Despite a lot of rhetoric about benefits being used, etc, the truth is that in order to access most government benefits, you need some sort of valid documentation, so the claims of undocumented immigrants robbing the national treasury blind are somewhat overblown. Add to that cheaper goods produced at sub-minimum or, at least, sub market wages, as well as products or services done by laborers that American workers won't do (at least, not at the rates companies are willing to pay), and you have huge amounts of food, produce and other manual labor-intensive products available to taxpaying citizens at cheaper cost. Also, many undocumented workers used falsified SS#s to work, so money paid into our Medicare and Social Security funds with very little of it ever paid back out. That's an estimated $12 billion per year that they are adding to our entitlement systems that they will never take out.

Unauthorized Immigrants Paid $100 Billion Into Social Security Over The Past Decade

  1. There is the matter of fairness. How were these workers able to get over here, and to obtain work if it's all illegal? To a certain degree there is implausible deniability. Employers had jobs where they hired undocumented, illegal workers. They either didn't care to scrutinize the validity of the workers, or intentionally hired them. People who are here illegally tend not to go to the authorities if they are abused, exploited or treated contrary to existing labor laws. They also tend not to rock the boat. GOP administrations, while whipping up white working class fervor against "illegal immigrants" were the ones who were especially lax about the issue. You have corporate cronies making bigger profits, you have the illegally cheap labor undermining organized labor, cutting both the wages unions could demand and overall union support, and you have a social issue to demagogue about. The wink-wink actual policies and the contrasting rhetoric have largely been a win-win for the GOP. So you have people knowingly enticed to come here with available jobs, who are used for cheap, exploitable labor, are blamed for societal ills, many of which are overblown, then are punished for it, mostly for political theater.

  2. There are issues of human decency. You have many of these undocumented workers who have worked here, contributed by labor and as parts of communities, have not committed violent offenses, and have children who are legal citizens, and now we're looking at breaking up these families. Who raises the children? Is it really the best option for society to treat all illegal immigrants with the same broad brush?

  3. It's about priorities - we have well over 10 million undocumented people in the US, by most estimates. It is, quite simply, logistically impossible and impractical to try and round them all up and ship them out. We don't have enough manpower, anywhere, to pull that off. So, if you can't round them all up and ship them all out, you must choose where to focus your efforts. Have violent crimes or non-violent crimes with victims been completely eradicated? No. Then, clearly, police have important work they need to focus their time and resources on. Is it more important to track down someone who is living and working here, illegally, than, say, a rapist or violent drug dealer? Diverting local law enforcement to round up and ship back a guy with a restaurant that has been contributing to their community for 20 years, for example, would be doing just that. Past administrations have put an emphasis on targeting felonious criminals for additional enforcement action. If someone's dealings with authorities showed an issue, they'd generally act, but if there was no violent offense, and nothing to trigger a specific search (traffic or parking ticket would not, for example) for immigration status, the federal government did not put that requirement or onus on local law enforcement. They felt that focusing on violent illegal immigrants, and then letting law enforcement deal with their other local criminal justice needs, first, was a proper setting of priorities.

Agree or not, those are some of the issues that weigh into arguments that it's not just a simple matter of the word "illegal."

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