Mexican workers always moved back and forth across the border until 1964

tags: immigration

​Heather Cox Richardson is professor of ​history at Boston College and co-​host of NPR's politics and history podcast Freak Out and Carry On.

Related Link Podcast on immigration with Heather Cox Richardson, Ron Suskind and Tom Gjelten

One of the fascinating things about the current debate is that the immigration "crisis" was manufactured largely by a couple of laws from the 1960s. That is, Mexicans-- the face of President Trump's rhetoric-- have always moved back and forth across the border... when the border wasn't moving back and forth across them, that is. But in 1964, Congress ended the seasonal worker program, and in 1965 changed the immigration system. The 1965 law did, in fact, change immigration, but the 1964 law did not change migrant labor patterns, either on the parts of workers or of employers. 

By the 1980s, the problem of undocumented workers was clear to everyone. There was a mismatch between the law and the reality that Americans needed migrant workers and migrant workers were going to continue to arrive. Now, though, they couldn't depart and legally come back in. So they stayed. 

Rather than being able to adjust the worker and immigration programs intelligently, the GOP got sucked into the racist rhetoric set up by Movement Conservative extremists, who used racist dog whistles to attack anyone in the GOP who tried to work toward solutions (see, for example, Reagan, Ronald, and Bush, George H.W.). So long as they could blame "The Other" for the growing problems of America's middle class, they could continue to dismantle the government and move wealth upward. It worked for a long time. 

Long enough to give Donald Trump the issue of "Mexican rapists" to launch a presidential campaign.

But this particular chicken has come home to roost. There is now a new generation of undocumented immigrants who got caught in this mismatch when their parents brought them here as children, and they have never known another home than this one. Ninety percent of Americans want them to become Americans. 

So President Trump and today's GOP somehow have either to bow to the vast majority and admit the Dreamers, as they are known, or play to their base and convince nine out of ten Americans that these people are criminals. This is why they have tried so hard to keep immigration bills from the floor of Congress (as Speaker of the House Ryan kept the very popular bi-partisan 2013 Senate bill from coming up). It's a square they cannot circle.

And you can see the scramble. The language out of Trump this weekend-- especially the video saying that all Democrats were "complicit" in any crimes committed by undocumented immigrants-- suggested to me he was going all-out on the criminal angle. But after the shutdown deal, McConnell stopped using that language and started saying "DACA." 

There are many issues in America that are intractable, but this is not actually one of them. Those for whom it is intractable are Trump and the GOP. Expect distraction from the president over the next three weeks, and mounting tension between him and Congress, because this cuts right to the heart of the extraordinary gap between Trump's base and the American people.

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