More immigrants.

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Blame Boomers for Illegal Immigration

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Prior to the 1960s, the U.S. had not experienced the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. It also had experienced very little illegal immigration. Happenstance?  

Tracing our current troubles with illegal immigration  to the source takes us back to that iconic decade of the baby boomers -- the '60s. In 1964, when the Beatles made their American debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, the U.S. ended the Bracero program, which since World War II had enabled millions of Mexican laborers to work in federally-regulated temporary agriculture jobs.

The following year, 1965, produced a major overhaul of U.S. immigration law. Congress discontinued the quota system that had governed legal immigration for decades, and it liberalized restrictions that had kept non-European immigration low.

As immigration law was shifting, baby boomers -- roughly speaking, those born between 1946 and 1964 -- were overtaking American culture. They would soon seize the commanding heights of the economy as well (if not exactly in the way that some of the more radical among them had hoped).

Technology, U.S. global dominance and a population boom powered a dynamic economy and changing social mores. As Marc Rosenblum of the Migration Policy Institute testified to Congress last week, another development "which coincidentally also started in the 1960s, was a long and substantial increase in the drivers of low-skilled migration from Mexico and Central America."

The surge in college education (aided by increased women's enrollment) and the gradual shift from manufacturing to a service economy fostered a large American upper-middle class with unprecedented levels of disposable income. The large-scale movement of boomer women into the workforce generated not only millions of two-earner households, but also increased demand for inexpensive childcare and housework.

As boomers aged and became wealthier, they had a growing need for low-wage, low-skills labor to help around the house, with the kids, in the yard and in the fields, restaurants and low-wage factories.

Meanwhile, expectations of the good life incubated by a long postwar boom had raised the sights of even non-college-educated boomers, many of whom proved unwilling to accept the kind of low-skilled service work that increasingly became identified with immigrants.

"The convergence of strong economic, demographic and social drivers of migration along with a limited number of legal immigration channels immediately produced increasing unauthorized flows," Rosenblum testified.

At the end of the '60s, there were probably fewer than two million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Over the next four decades, that population grew six-fold to serve boomer professionals and business owners. In 1993, boomer President Bill Clinton's successive candidates for U.S. attorney general -- Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood -- each had to withdraw from consideration after disclosures that they had employed undocumented domestic workers.

As the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. grew, so did their integration into the economy. In California, more undocumented immigrants work today in manufacturing and in construction than in agriculture (even though almost a quarter million work in the state's agriculture sector). As any trip to an upscale urban playground confirms, the demand for cheap domestic workers did not fade as boomers became grandparents. It became a fixture of upper-middle-class culture.

Swerving Path to Citizenship

Boomers aren't entirely to blame, of course. Many forces contributed to a large undocumented immigrant population in the U.S., including the 1965 immigration law and subsequent reforms, extended family dynamics and heightened border security that has had the unintended consequence of trapping undocumented immigrants north of an increasingly fortified Rio Grande. But the changes that boomers introduced to the U.S. workforce and culture have earned them a share of the spotlight. They invariably seem to seize it anyway.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net