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date: 21 April 2019

Mexican Immigration to the United States

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.

Mexican immigration to the United States is a topic of particular interest at this moment for a number of political reasons. First, and probably foremost, Mexicans are currently the single largest group of foreign-born residents in the country. In 2013, the United States counted 41.3 million individuals of foreign birth; 28 percent, or 11.6 million, were Mexican. If census data are aggregated more broadly, adding together the foreign-born and persons of Mexican ancestry who are citizens, the number totals 31.8 million in 2010, or roughly 10 percent of the country’s total population of 308.7 million. What has nativists and those eager to restrict immigration particularly concerned is that the Mexican origin population has been growing rapidly, by 54 percent between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, or from 11.2 million to 31.8 million persons. This pace of growth has slowed, but not enough to calm racial and xenophobic fears of the citizenry fearful of foreigners and terrorists.

Mexican immigration to the United States officially began in 1846 and has continued into the present without any significant period of interruption, also making it quite distinct. The immigration histories of national groups that originated in Asia, Africa, and Europe are much more varied in trajectory and timing. They usually began with massive movements, driven by famine, political strife or burgeoning economic opportunities in the United States, and then slowed, tapered off, or ended abruptly, as was the case with Chinese immigration from 1850 to 2015. This fact helps explain why Mexico has been the single largest source of immigrants in the United States for the longest period of time.

The geographic proximity between the two countries, compounded by profound economic disparities, has continuously attracted Mexican immigrants, facilitated by a border that is rather porous and that has been poorly patrolled for much of the 20th century. The United States and Mexico are divided by a border that begins at the Pacific Ocean, at the twin cities of San Diego, California and Tijuana, Baja California. The border moves eastward until it reaches the Rio Grande at El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Júarez, Chihuahua. From there the border follows the river’s flow in a southeastern direction, until its mouth empties into the Gulf of Mexico where Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Tamaulipas sit. This expanse of over 1,945 miles is poorly marked. In many places, only old concrete markers, sagging, dry-rotted fence posts with rusted barbed wire, and a river that has continually changed its course, mark the separation between these two sovereign national spaces.

Since 1924, when the U.S. Border Patrol was created mainly to prohibit the unauthorized entry of Chinese immigrants, not Mexicans, American attempts to effectively regulate entries and exits has been concentrated only along known, highly trafficked routes that lead north. The inability of the United States to patrol the entire length of its border with Mexico has meant that any Mexican eager to work or live in the United States has rarely found the border an insurmountable obstacle, and if they have encountered it temporarily so, they have simply hired expensive professional smugglers (known as coyotes) to maximize safe passage into the United States without border inspection or official authorization. In 2014, there were approximately 11.3 million such unauthorized immigrants in the United States; 49 percent, or 5.6 million of them were Mexican.

Over the long course of history Mexican immigration is best characterized as the movement of unskilled workers toiling in agriculture, railroad construction, and mineral extraction; for the last two decades, they have worked in construction and service industries as well. This labor migration has evolved through five distinct phases, each marked by its own logic, demands, and governance.