In 1970 the Latino population of the United States stood at around 9.6 million people. They comprised just 4.7% of the U.S. population and 71% were native born. In terms of national origins, 60% were Mexican, 15% were Puerto Rican, 7% were Cuban, and 6% were Central or South American, with 13% representing “other” origins. Over the next four decades, however, this small population was radically transformed by mass immigration to the point where in 2010 the number of Latinos stood at 50.5 million people, who constituted 16.3% of the U.S. population. Meanwhile, the share of native born Latinos had dropped to around 61% and the distribution of national origins had shifted, with Puerto Ricans and Cubans declining to just 9% and 3.5% of the total, respectively while Mexicans, Central Americans, and South Americans rose to comprise 63%, 7.9 and 5.5% of all Latinos.
At present, therefore, more than three quarters of all Latinos trace their origins to Mexico, Central America, or South America, compared with just 15.5% from the Caribbean. Moreover, whereas Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans are overwhelmingly legal residents or citizens of the United States the bulk of Mexicans, Central Americans, and South Americans are non-citizens and a substantial share lacks documents entirely. The percentage foreign born among Mexicans is 36%, compared with 63% among Salvadorans, 69% of Guatemalans and Hondurans and two-thirds of Nicaraguans and Colombians. According to the latest estimates from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 58% of Mexican immigrants are present illegally, compared with 57% of Salvadorans, 71% of Guatemalans, and 77% of Hondurans.
In other words undocumented migrants are no longer a small share of the Latino population. Among Mexican and Central Americans they constitute a majority of all those born abroad; and even when one considers national origins as a whole, the undocumented constitute 21% of all persons of Mexican origin, 38% of those of Salvadoran origin, 50% of those of Guatemalan origin, and 52% of those of Honduran origin. Never before have so many people been outside the law and never before have the undocumented been so concentrated in such a small number of national origins. As a result, working class Latinos are now the most vulnerable of all of America’s disadvantaged populations.
The rising tide of illegality within the Latino population is critical to understanding the nature of discrimination and exclusion in contemporary American society, for whereas Latinos may be a protected category U.S. under civil rights legislation, undocumented migrants are not. Indeed, U.S. immigration law encourages and often compels employers, landlords, and service providers to discriminate against the undocumented even as civil rights law requires them to remain neutral with respect to Hispanics. In recent years, the federal government has also stripped away legal protections from all non-citizens, not just the unauthorized but legal permanent residents as well. Legislation passed since 1996 has curtailed access to federally funded entitlements, stripped away rights to due process, and criminalized infractions that had formerly been civil violations, retroactively declared criminal convictions to constitute grounds from immediate deportation, and given the executive branch the right to declare anyone deportable on national security grounds without trial.
Meanwhile it has steadily expanded the immigrant enforcement apparatus not only at the border but internally. Since 1990 deportations from the United States have risen exponentially, rising from just 30,000 in that year to nearly 400,000 in 2010. Along the border, the number of Border Patrol Agents has risen from 3,700 to more than 20,000. The United States has built a massive bureaucracy to enact the 1930s deportation campaigns and the 1953 border militarization known as Operation Wetback on a permanent, ongoing basis.
Accompanying the rising share of undocumented migrants in the United States has been a sharp increase in the number of temporary legal workers admitted into the U.S. labor force. Entries to the United States by H-visa holders from Mexico alone rose from 17,000 in 1990 to 517,000 in 2010, a record number that exceeds the number of guest workers imported at the height of the Bracero Program in the late 1950s. Between the rising share of undocumented migrants and the increasing inflow of temporary workers, the number of people lacking labor rights in U.S. markets has increased dramatically, especially in new and old destination areas where Latin American immigrants have concentrated.
The rising share of exploitable workers lacking both civil liberties and economic rights, when combined with rising enforcement and steadily more onerous sanctions against undocumented workers, has caused a remarkable decline in the real value of the wages of Latino workers, especially among Mexicans. Accompanying the drop in wages has been a decline in incomes and a rise in poverty rates, to the point where Latinos have fallen from their historical position in the middle of the socioeconomic hierarchy between whites and blacks, to a new position at or below the position of African Americans. Accompanying this decline, other indicators of social well-being—notably health and education—have also fallen.
The remarkable rise in illegality among Latinos has implications that extend far beyond the undocumented themselves. In addition to the 1.5 million undocumented children living in families containing an unauthorized parent are four million U.S.-born citizen children, whose progress in society is held back by the very real fears and trepidations of their undocumented parents and siblings; and these numbers do not take into account the millions of other older children of undocumented migrants and more distant relatives. In 2008 the Pew Hispanic Center found that 72% of Latino immigrants said they worried about deportation some or a lot, as one might expect; but the figure was still quite high at 35% among native born Latinos, who were presumably not vulnerable to deportation themselves but worried about the deportation of friends or relatives. Indeed, 53% of native born Latinos said that the immigration debate had made life difficult for them.
Thus the illegality among Latinos that has been manufactured by U.S. policies over the past decades constitutes the single largest and most potent barrier to Hispanic socioeconomic mobility and integration in the United States. With huge fractions of Latinos lying outside the protections of the law and even larger shares related to people who lack legal protections, and with most rights stripped away from all non-citizen foreigners, the Hispanic population has never been more vulnerable and its position in America more precarious. Until the burden of illegality is lifted from the shoulders of Latinos in the United States, little other progress—economic, social, or political—will be possible.