Two Sides of the Same Coin

James R. Edwards, Jr., Center for Immigration Studies, February 2006

Are massive legal immigration and massive illegal immigration related? If so, how? Many in policy circles hold a view of “Legal immigration, good; illegal immigration, bad.”1 The logical extensions of such a simplistic perspective are to assume that the overall level of legal immigration does not matter and to underestimate any correlation to illegal immigration. But the facts show a distinct connection exists.

In brief, this report finds:

  • Legal and illegal immigration are inextricably related. As legal immigration levels have risen markedly since 1965, illegal immigration has increased with it.
  • The share of the foreign-born population who are illegal aliens has risen steadily. Illegal aliens made up 21 percent of the foreign-born in 1980, 25 percent in 2000, and 28 percent in 2005.
  • Mexico is the primary source country of both legal and illegal immigrants. Mexico accounted for about 30 percent of the foreign-born in 2000, and more than half of Mexicans residing in the United States in 2000 were illegal aliens.
  • The level of illegal immigration is severely masked by several amnesties that legalized millions of unlawfully resident aliens. The largest amnesty was the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which legalized 3 million aliens.
  • Amnestied aliens to date have been fully eligible to sponsor additional immigrants. This has contributed to the ranks of immigrants, both legal and illegal (and often both).
  • Many aliens who receive a permanent resident visa each year have spent years living in the United States illegally.
  • “Anchor babies” and “chain migration” provide opportunities for many aliens to plant roots in the United States. Those aliens might not otherwise have done so.
  • An overly generous legal immigration preference system, whose bias is toward relatives and against ability, sets unrealistic expectations. Many aliens who technically qualify to immigrate face the reality of backlogs and waiting lists.
  • Amnesties, technical qualification for a visa, chain migration, and vast opportunities to come to the United States (particularly via tourist visa, the most abused visa by eventual immigrants, according to the New Immigrant Survey) all foster an “entitlement mentality” among many foreigners.

This report examines the links between legal and illegal immigration. First, it sets the historical context of American immigration. It considers the data on legal immigration, illegal immigration, including countries of origin, and the ways present immigration policy and processes enable and encourage lawbreaking. Finally, policy recommendations are offered.

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