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From deferred repatriations to border walls: different approaches to irregular migration in the US

What is the situation of migrant workers in US agriculture? Expert Philip Martin provides a historical overview.

At the end of his video interview, Philip Martin refers to the different positions of Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton regarding irregular migration during the 2016 presidential campaign. Policy approaches to managing irregular migration in the United States vary quite considerably and are often polarised politically, with the Republican Party customarily seen by public opinion to adopt a more hard-line, pro-border enforcement position, while Democrats are typically considered more open to forms of regularisation. It should be remembered, however, that the massive legalization programme of 1986, mentioned by Philip Martin, was approved by the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan, while across two terms President Obama oversaw the forcible removal of more than three million undocumented migrants, the largest figure for any president in US history.

Here we consider two recent approaches to addressing the estimated 11 million undocumented migrants who currently reside in the country and irregular migration across the US-Mexico border. First, we look at the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) created in 2012 by the Obama administration. Second, we consider President Donald Trump’s proposal to complete the border wall between the United States and Mexico.

DACA was a policy established by executive order of President Obama to overcome the impasse of the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) Act that had been held up in US Congress since first being introduced in 2001. The DREAM Act had proposed a process whereby individuals who had entered the United States irregularly as minors would be able to apply first for conditional and subsequently for permanent residency. DACA offered protection from deportation by granting two-year renewable work permits, but offered no pathway to citizenship. To be eligible for the programme, recipients had to have a clean criminal record, had to be younger than 16 when they first arrived in the US and must have lived in the country since 2007. By 2017, 800,000 ‘Dreamers’ had successfully enrolled on the programme, and over half resided in Texas and California.

Research has demonstrated that DACA has had a positive impact upon the wellbeing of applicants and their families, it has increased wages and workforce participation and overall has been beneficial to the US economy. Anti-immigration critics have argued that DACA is unconstitutional and that recipients are illegal and threaten US jobs.

DACA is aimed primarily at legalizing a young, educated and hardworking undocumented population. Although it offers a lifeline to a large group of people, it leaves out a large proportion of irregular migrants in the US, especially those who arrived as adults. Moreover it is premised on the logic of directing limited resources towards combatting illegal migration, including detention and deportation. Attempts to expand the DACA programme in 2014 to include parents of US citizens was blocked by the courts. In September 2017 DACA was ended by the Trump administration and the people currently enrolled in the programme will see their permits expire in March 2018, after which they will once again become eligible for deportation.

President Donald Trump’s proposal to complete the wall along the United States’ 3,145 kilometre southern frontier with Mexico, of which 1,000 kilometres already exists, represents a very different approach to irregular migration that centres entirely upon border enforcement. As a key pledge during Trump’s election campaign, the wall proved very popular with his electorate, while opponents considered it a political stunt that was practically, economically and morally unfeasible. Nevertheless, on his first day in office President Trump signed an executive order that formally launched the project. Although little progress has since been made and, with expected costs ranging up to $38 billion, the wall has yet to receive any funding, this project has very much framed debates about immigration during the Trump era. Hard-line supporters believe that it will greatly reduce irregular entry into the United States and act as a symbolic deterrent to would-be migrants. In contraposition, and over and above the various controversial aspects of the project, numerous experts have argued that erecting physical obstacles along borders does not stop irregular migration but simply pushes people to search for other, usually more dangerous routes.

In September 2017 it appeared that President Trump was willing to strike a deal with Democrats that would protect the people currently enrolled on DACA in return for Congressional support for tougher border enforcement. However, following a list of hard-line demands announced by the administration in October 2017, including support for funding the wall and the reduction of the family-based green card scheme, such a deal has appeared increasingly unlikely. Such political wrangling indicates how the topic of irregular migration in the United States is ideologically charged but, as an unavoidable aspect of contemporary American society, is also potentially the subject of political pragmatism and compromise.

© European University Institute
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