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The law that broke US immigration

Why there are so many undocumented immigrants in the US.

Immigration looked very different before 1996, when President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). The law was supposed to stop undocumented immigration by increasing enforcement and punishing people for being in the US undocumented. Instead, it did the opposite.

Before 1996, Mexican immigrants who came to the US unlawfully were about 50 percent likely to return to Mexico within a year. But in the years that followed, more people started staying in the US, according to data from the Mexican Migration Project. There were around 5 million undocumented immigrants living in the US before IIRIRA. Today, it’s at least double that.

Laws like IIRIRA shaped the way the US focuses on immigration enforcement as a deterrent. But really it proved that stronger enforcement doesn’t actually stop undocumented immigration.

Check out past Vox reporting by Dara Lind on the law and Nicole Narea’s story on the false promises of immigration enforcement.

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