The Relationship of Legal to Illegal Immigration

By John H. Tanton, M.D.
Volume 30, Number 1 (Fall 2019)
Issue theme: "John Tanton: His Life and Legacy (1934-2019)"

In the early years of our work on the immigration question, we viewed legal and illegal immigration as fairly separate and distinct phenomena. They seemed to require different measures for their control.

Illegal immigration was, of course, illegal, and hence, easy to oppose. The measures needed for its containment included such things as more border patrol agents, better detection of illegals within the country, employer sanctions, more care at our embassies overseas when issuing visas, repatriation to their country of origin (or, in the case of Mexico, repatriating deep into Mexico, rather than just across the border), and so on.

Legal immigration, in contrast, seemed to require such things as family reunification, education policy for foreign students, economic effects, the brain drain, and the related questions of asylum and refugees. We did not see—or at least I didn’t—that legal immigration per se was one of the major causes of illegal immigration.

This realization came through after reading Dr. Philip Martin’s papers on immigration, in which he characterized the causative factors as demand-pull, supply-push, and “networks.” The “networks” are those informal channels of communication that transport cash, goods, and information from the United States to the country of origin. Since the direction of the flow is away from us, we tend not to see it. It is this counter flow that helps stimulate interest in (and facilitate) emigration.

In the U.S., we tend to look at immigration as either legal or illegal, as outlined above. I contend that in the country of origin, migration is looked at as either go or don’t go. Whether or not it is legal is, I believe, a minor point. If legal spots are available, fine. If not, there are plenty of rationalizations available to justify proceeding illegally: the need to feed family; the irredentist idea that the land was stolen from the migrants’ forefathers in the first place (an idea embraced by some Mexicans); the several amnesties we’ve given to illegal aliens indicating that we are not really serious about enforcing our laws and placing limits on the total number of people allowed to settle in our country; the welcoming reception by employers, welfare workers, immigration lawyers, certain political interests, and church groups; and the back-across-the-border-and-try-again charade forced on the border patrol. Legality in these cases is not a major consideration.

Put simply, high levels of migration, whether legal or illegal, beget high levels of migration, whether legal or illegal, because the network flows back to the country of origin and encourages others to try to emigrate.

Without reducing legal immigration, we are unlikely to succeed in reducing the illegal variety.

About the author

John Tanton, who passed away on July 16, 2019, was the founding editor and publisher of The Social Contract