E.g., 06/26/2024
E.g., 06/26/2024
U.S. Immigration Policy and Mexican/Central American Migration Flows: Then and Now

Migration rates to the United States from Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have accelerated in the last four decades, from less than 1 million immigrants in the 1970s to 14 million today. This significant increase has been driven by economic opportunities and facilitated by social networks of friends and family already in the United States. While migration flows were historically dominated by migrants from central Mexico who performed agricultural jobs in the U.S. Southwest, during the last two decades, the regional migration system has diversified to encompass new communities of origin, new destinations throughout the United States, and a broader occupational profile. Despite these changes, immigrants from Mexico and Central America continue to have less education and lower incomes than U.S. natives and other immigrants, and most immigrants from the region are unauthorized.

These recent dynamics play a critical role in shaping the politics of immigration policy within the United States. Young, low-skilled immigrants perform essential work, but the rapid growth of low-wage, limited English proficient, unauthorized populations in states with limited migration experience has contributed to increased anti-immigrant sentiment.

This history defines and limits the policy alternatives available, and highlights the challenges of managing regional flows.

Table of Contents 

I. Introduction: Understanding International Migration Flows

II. History of Regional Migration Flows and U.S. Immigration Policy

A. Pre-World War II: Limited Migration and Early Migration Controls

B. The Bracero Program: Wartime and Post-War Migration

C. 1965-1986: The Construction of an Illegal Regime

III. U.S. Immigration Policy since 1986

A. Increased Admissions

B. Border Enforcement

C. Worksite Enforcement

D. Other Interior Enforcement

E. Analysis: The Limits of U.S. Immigration Policy

IV. A Portrait of Mexican and Central American Immigrants in the United States

A. Recent Immigration from Mexico and Central America

B. Geographic Distribution

C. Immigration Status

D. Demographic and Socioeconomic Characteristics

E. Employment and Income

V. Conclusions