History of Mexican Migration

The history of U.S. immigration law, as we lay out in our page, The History of U.S. Immgration Laws, is a history of racism. In addition to justifying the virtual extermination and exclusion of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans, after the Civil War, racism continued to be legally implemented not only through "Jim Crow " laws, but also through immigration legislation designed to exclude, first, Asians, and then non-WASP Europeans.

This legalized racism, of course, has also targeted Mexicans who have come to the United States. But as they did with the excluded Chinese, racist immigration laws came into conflict with the demands of U.S. businesses that sought cheap labor in a "free market." The result of this conflict between racism and market economics has been that Mexicans, and other Latin Americans, who have come to the U.S. - like all other immigrants - solely to seek work, have been turned into demonized, "illegal aliens" with no exit from their plight. 

From the annexation of Mexican territory in 1848 until the end of the nineteenth century, no functional border actually existed between the two countries, as there were no immigration laws to enforce and no border patrol was needed. It is estimated that up to 50,000 Mexicans came into the Southwest as agricultural, railroad and mine workers between 1850 and 1880. The tradition of migrant labor was established early on. During the same period, and into the 1920's, Mexicans were the second largest group of people lynched, after African-Americans. 

With the passage of the first, racist immigration laws in the 1880's and '90's, excluding Chinese laborers, the railroads and growers turned to Mexican laborers, creating the first Mexican contract labor system. The Immigration Act of 1917, designed to permanently exclude Asian immigrants, also excluded illiterates. However, with the approach of World War I, labor was in demand, so illiterate Mexican laborers were granted waivers by the Department of Labor, thus creating the first government sponsored bracero system, which lasted until 1921. 

The advent of alcohol Prohibition in 1920 and the passage of the racist Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924 precipitated the creation of the Border Patrol in 1924. Its mission was to keep out alcohol and "illegal aliens," that is, Chinese who were sneaking in via Canada and Mexico and any other "aliens" without the now-required immigration visa from a U.S. consular office in their home country. No quota was placed on Mexican immigrants, but they needed a visa to enter. Migrant workers, who had no interest in being "immigrants," were no longer granted waivers. Their need for work and the need of U.S. growers and other capitalists continued, so migrants now crossed the newly enforced border "illegally." 

With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, annimosity arose against these "illegal aliens" as well as against legal Mexican immigrants and Mexican-American U.S. citizens. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) launched the first governmental assault on Mexicans in the U.S. About one million Mexicans were "repatriated" to Mexico over a ten year period. More than half were U.S. citizens. 

World War II once again created a demand for labor. Agricultural labor was especially needed, as young U.S men went to war and those left at home went into factory work. The government therefore created the second bracero program. With continued post-war demand and then the Korean war, the program was continued until 1964, bringing over four million Mexican workers into the country on temporary work visas. However, this influx did not meet the need for agricultural workers, so many more came without these visas, "illegally." 

In reaction, anti-Mexican animosity rose, leading the INS to launch its second deportation assault, "Operation Wetback," in 1954. Over one million Mexicans were apprehended. Ironically, because of growers' demands for labor, many were delivered at the border, not to Mexican authorities, but to workers from the Department of Labor, who issued them bracero work visas so that they could return "legally" to their employers's fields. 

The bracero program was ended in 1964, in part due to exposure of the abuses of laborers by their employers. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 replaced it with the H-2 temporary work visas program. In the 1986 revision of immigration law, these visas were divided into agricultural (H-2A) and non-agricultural (H-2B) work visas. To access workers through the program, potential employers first had to certify to the Department of Labor that they could not find U.S. workers to fill the jobs. Once approved by the Labor Department, the employer then had to register with INS to process workers that he found to use the visas. Many employers did not choose to do this, but continued to use "illegal" migrants. 

The 1984 law granted amnesty and a path to legal status to those in the country without such status. But it also began the process of fortifying the border with more Border Patrol agents and surveillance equipment to try to prevent more illegal crossings. President Bill Clinton continued this in the 1990's, initiating the building of a border fence. This attempt to seal the border actually led to a major change in migration patterns. Before this, migrants had moved relatively easily back and forth with the seasonal work needs. With the crossings made more difficult, migrants stayed put in the U.S. and even brought their families over. As a result, the number of "illegal" migrants increased and they became, in effect, permanent immigrants. Their children, now born here, are U.S. citizens. 

The implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, while touted to reduce migration, actually increased it significantly. With the dropping of Mexican tariffs, U.S. government-subsidized corn flooded the Mexican market, such that Mexican small farmers could not compete and had to abandon farming. Many migrated to the U.S. in order to survive. 

The effort of President George W. Bush, in 2007, to get immigration reforms passed that would address the issue of "illegal immigrants" was stonewalled by right-wing forces that resorted to old racist fears of Mexican migrants. These same racist fears - and the political demagoguery that manipulates them - continue to demonize Mexicans and other Latin Americans as "illegal aliens," a status in fact created by racially motivated changes in U.S. law and that law's failures to address the demands and abuses of the U.S. labor market. Until these truths are recognized, Mexican and other Central American migrants will remain trapped outside the pale of legal acceptance.