Aliens in Irregular Status in the United States: A Review of their Numbers, Characteristics, and Role in the U.S. Labor Market

Date01 July 1983
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2435.1983.tb00084.x
AuthorMARION F. HOUSTOUN
Published date01 July 1983
Aliens in Irregular Status
in the United States:
A
Review
of
their Numbers,
Characteristics, and Role in the
US.
Labor Market
BY
MARION
F.
HOUSTOUN*
INTRODUCTION
Given the strong emotion that international migration sometimes evokes in various parts
ofthe world today, it is useful to begin by noting that the world is by
no
means universally
on the move. Most of the world‘s 4.6 billion people never leave their place of birth (1). Far
fewer change their nation of residence
or
citizenship. The statistical infrequency of
migration is largely attributable to the fact that neither individuals nor nations are much
attracted to the considerable changes and discontinuities that all migration entails. Thus,
while migration
-
even in its broadest sense, as a geographical change of residence
-
occurs
on
a
much larger scale in today’s more populous and technologically advanced world than
it once did
(2).
it remains the statistical exception, not the rule.
The magnitude ofrecent international migration is only imprecisely known. In part, this
is because of imperfect and often incompatible record-keeping by nations of origin and
destination. People move not only from one country to another, but also from one migrant
category to another. These statistical difficulties are, however, themselves a function of a
more fundamental problem. International migration is at once something more and
something less than the simple physical movement
of
individuals across international
borders. Thus, it is resistant to neat operational definitions and typologies.
International migration is something more than international travel because it connotes
a change, not just of location, but also of residence
-
a
concept resonant with the ambi-
guous
issue of social
or
political affiliation (‘homeland‘), as well as the narrower, but still
ambiguous, question of residence over time (‘abode’). International migration
is
therefore
also something less than the sum of all movements of individuals across international
borders because national governments are interested only in those border-crossings that
have a socio-political dimension. That is, while the movements of all individuals across
international borders are of considerable interest, as such, to airlines and travel agents,
only those involving a change of abode
or
homeland are of interest to immigration
policymakers and scholars
(3).
*
The views expressed in this article are those of the author;they
do
not necessarily reflect those of
the
U.S.
Department of Labor. The author wishes to thank
Joan
Mackin
Barref
for her assistance in
undertaking the rcscarch for this paper.
372
International migration by definition involves at least one individual and two nation-
states. It occurs only when
an
individual moves
(or
is moved) from the jurisdiction ofone
(which, for simplicity’s sake, we will consider to
be
also his country of nationality) to
another. Since control over the entry of foreign nationals into
a
nation-state has long been
considered an integral aspect of national sovereignty, it is not surprising that international
migrants are typically defined today from the perspective of receiving nations. Interna-
tional migrants are generally classified into five major groups of foreign-national resi-
dents:
immigrants,
aliens admitted as permanent residents and potential citizens;
refu-
gees,
aliens admitted as involuntary expatriates;
migrant workers,
aliens admitted as
temporary resident workers;
international visitors,
aliens admitted for only a temporary
stay, e.g., tourists, businessmen, students, diplomats, etc., whose presence in the host
nation clearly does not constitute
a
change of abode
or
homeland; and ‘undocumented
aliens‘
or
aliens in an irregular status,
i.e., aliens whose presence,
or
kind of residence, in
the host nation is unsanctioned by that nation.
Those five types of international migrants are classified, to varying degrees, in terms ofthe
mutually exclusive concepts of nationahon-national, voluntaryhnvoluntary, tempora-
ry/permanent, economic/non-economic, and
sanctioned/unsanctioned.
But the classes
are by no means exhaustive and they are actually mutually exclusive only from the
perspective ofthe host nation at a particular point in time. As noted earlier, migrants may
change status; e.g., a refugee may become an immigrant; a visitor, an undocumented
worker. Further, migrants may ascribe a different migrant status to their residence outside
their homeland than that ascribed by their host nation. For example, although most aliens
in
irregular statussre economic migrants and hence are often referred
to
as
‘undocu-
mented workers‘, others have fled their homelands to escape civil strife
or
resulting
loss
of
employment opportunities. Thus, they may consider themselves refugees. A nation of
origin may also disagree with a host-nation’s definition of the migrant status of its
nationals; e.g., while the host-nation and the migrant may regard the migrant asa refugee,
the nation of origin may consider its national an economic migrant.
The current magnitude of these five kinds of international migrations are therefore
known only approximately. Not more than
1
million immigrants resettle each year (4).
The world’s refugee population, by definition subject to the vicissitudes of externalities,
fluctuated in the 1970s between
11
and
18
million
(5).
Perhaps some 20 to 30 million
additional persons work outside their homeland, roughly half as lawfully admitted
migrants workers and half without host-nation sanction
(6).
Since many nations do not
record the entry
or
exit of nationals from certain countries, the number ofborder crossings
by international visitors is known with even less precision, but it probably exceeds several
hundred million.
INTERNATIONAL MIGRANTS IN THE UNITED STATES
The United States is the destination of many of the world’s international migrants. In
particular, it
is
one of the few immigrant-receiving nations in the world today. Thus,
although the United States, like most nations in the world today, regulates the entry of
foreign nationals across its borders and places numerical as well
as
qualitative restrictions
on annual admissions of immigrants (excluding immediate relatives of
U.S.
citizens) and
refugees, it remains a ‘nation of immigrants‘.
Immigration to the United States steadily increased during the postwar period by an
average of some 100,000 each decade, from an annual average of 103,5 14 during the 1940s
to an average of 449,331 during the 1970s. During the 1970s, then, a total of almost
4.5
million foreign nationals
-
mostly relatives but also significant numbers
of
aliens initially
373
admitted as refugees (7) and a small number of immigrant workers
-
were admitted as
permanent residents and potential members of the body politic.
This increase in immigration was accompanied by
a
change in its composition (see
Figure
1
on page41
1).
Beginning in the early 196Os, what had once been an East/West flow
became a South/North stream, as economic development in the Third World began to
produce the same kind of global disparities that had once generated mass migrations from
developing nations in Europe to the Americas. Thus, as
Table
1
on page399 shows,
immigration to the United States after 1960 was dominated, for the first time,by Latin
America, with Mexico becoming, also for the first time, the largest single source coun-
try.
In addition to immigrants and refugees, the U.S. admits each year an unlimited number
of foreign nationals for temporary stay (‘nonimmigrants‘). The great bulk of the many
classes of nonimmigrants fall within the category of international visitor, e.g., most are
tourists, visitors for business,
or
students. As with immigrants, their numbers have been
steadily increasing
-
from a total of 4.4 million in 1970 to 9.3 million in 1978.
While many international visitors are admitted to engage in international commerce,
none, by definition
or
by U.S. immigration law, may be employed in the host-nation labor
market
(8).
Unlike many other nations, the United States has only rarely admitted foreign
nationals into its labor market without also granting them immigrant status. The excep-
tions were made in wartime and limited almost exclusively to employment in the farm
sector: the 1942-64
bracero
program, which admitted
a
total of roughly
5
million Mex-
icans into Southwest agriculture; its small-scale World War
I
predecessor;and a likewise
small World War
I1
British West Indian (BWI) program for East Coast agriculture.
While U.S. immigration law has provided for the admission of ‘migrant workers‘ since
1952, when the Immigration and Nationality Act created a nonimmigrant visa class for
aliens coming temporarily to the United States for employment purposes, such aliens are
limited to those of distinguished merit and ability (‘H-Is’)
or
those coming to perform
temporary services
or
labor (‘H-2s’). Fewer than
50,000
H-1 and H-2 workers were
annually admitted during the last decade. Roughly 2 out of every
5
of these nonimmi-
grants were admitted as H-1 professionals
or
workers with special skills (many are enter-
tainers). Those whose admission is sought by employers for low-skilled occupations are
admissible only in temporary
jobs,
e.g. seasonal farmwork, for which U.S. workers are not
available (9).
ALIENS IN IRREGULAR STATUS IN THE UNITED STATES
Historical and Geographical Sources
In recent years, the United States has also become known as the host nation of many ofthe
world‘s migrants in an irregular status. The magnitude of this unsanctioned flow owes
much, like all international movements today, to the postwar development and spread
of
technology and the resulting dramatic
-
but widly uneven
-
increase in prosperity and,
hence, population (10).
Nevertheless, large-scale unsanctioned migration to the United States is not unique to
the 1970s. That significant fraction of Mexican origin today has its roots deep in the late
nineteenth-century development of the Southwest economy, where U.S. regulation of its
1900-mile border with Mexico was nonexistent until the 192Os, and notoriously lax for
much of the time thereafter. The strong labor demands that began to develop in that
underpopulated region late in the nineteenth century and the stark socio-economic dif-
ferences between the two neighboring nations gave rise to a
sui generis
regional immi-
gration policy.
314

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