As Congress considers a sweeping overhaul of immigration, many lawmakers say they are deeply concerned that providing a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States would mean only more illegal immigration. They blame the amnesty that President Ronald Reagan approved in 1986 for the human wave that followed, and they fear a repeat if Congress rewards lawbreakers and creates an incentive for more immigrants to sneak across the border.
But past experience and current trends in both Mexico and the United States suggest that legalization would not lead to a sudden flood of illegal immigration on the scale of what occurred after 1986. Long-running surveys of migrants from Mexico found that work, not the potential to gain legal status, was the main cause of increased border crossings in the 1990s and 2000s. And as Mr. Saldivar points out, times have changed. The American economy is no longer flush with jobs. The border is more secure than ever. And in Mexico the birthrate has fallen precipitously, while the people who left years ago have already sent their immediate relatives across, or started American families of their own.