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date: 25 March 2023

Mexican Immigration to the United Statesfree

Mexican Immigration to the United Statesfree

  • Ramón A. GutiérrezRamón A. GutiérrezDepartment of History, University of Chicago


The history of Mexican immigration to the United States is best characterized as the movement of unskilled, manual laborers pushed northward mostly by poverty and unemployment and pulled into American labor markets with higher wages. Historically, most Mexicans have been economic immigrants seeking to improve their lives. In moments of civil strife, such as the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917) and the Cristero Revolt (1926–1929), many fled to the United States to escape religious and political persecution. Others, chafing under the weight of conservative, patriarchal, tradition-bound, rural agrarian societies, have migrated seeking modern values and greater personal liberties.

Since the last quarter of the 19th century, due to increasing numeric restrictions on the importation of immigrant workers from Europe, Asia, and Africa, American employers have turned to Mexico to recruit cheap, unskilled labor. Before 1942, Mexico minimally regulated emigration. While attentive to the safety and well-being of its émigrés, the Mexican government deemed out-migration a depletion of the country’s human capital. Monetary remittances helped compensate for this loss, contributing perhaps as much as 10 percent of the country’s yearly gross national product, vastly improving national life, particularly when emigrants returned with skills and consumer goods, seeking investment opportunities for their accumulated cash. Since the 1980s, single Mexican women have become a significant component of this migration, representing 40 percent of the total immigrant flow, employed mostly as service workers, domestics, and nannies, and less so in agricultural work. Mexicans also have gained authorized entry into the United States as highly skilled professionals, but their numbers remain relatively small in comparison to unskilled laborers. Beginning in 1942, and particularly in the 1990s, Mexican immigrants have been stigmatized as illegal aliens, subject to deportation as significant security threats to the nation; a rhetoric that intensified after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda.


  • Labor and Working Class History
  • Latino History

Mexican immigration to the United States is currently a topic of particularly intense debate for a number of economic and political reasons. Since the 1980s, white working- and middle-class Americans have seen their real wages steadily decline and manufacturing jobs disappear, as globalization has led to America’s increasing deindustrialization and the relocation of jobs to countries with cheaper wage structures. Seeking to understand their withering fortunes, their spiraling downward mobility, and their lack of opportunities, some Americans have blamed immigrants for their woes. Blaming racialized foreigners is an old, time-worn, scapegoating explanation that has been invoked repeatedly since the founding of the United States, particularly during economic downturns and moments of intense labor competition for poorly paid work.

Mexicans are currently the single largest group of foreign-born residents in the country, and, as such, have become the targets of hysterical anti-immigrant sentiments, articulated as racist fears about the ethnic transformation of America—its browning and mongrelization—which, since 2001, has been bundled with heightened security concerns about potential terrorist attacks. In 2016, the United States counted 43.7 million foreign-born immigrants, 26.5 percent, or 11.6 million, were Mexican. If Mexican immigrants, their American-born children, and Mexican American citizens are counted together, in 2010 they totaled 31.8 million, or roughly 10 percent of the country’s total population of 308.7 million. Nativists argue that Mexican immigrants take American jobs, breed crime, and are violent drug traffickers and gang members. They point to the fact that, between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, the number of ethnic Mexicans in the United States rose by 54 percent, from 11.2 million to 31.8 million. This growth rate subsequently slowed after the economic recession of 2008, but not enough to calm racial anxieties among a citizenry fearful of foreigners taking their jobs, committing horrendous crimes, and breeding terrorists ready to strike.1

Such concerns are not new to American immigration history. They were evident against blacks in the early Republic, in the 1900s when European Jewish immigrants were accused of being anarchists and socialists, and again in the 1950s when anti-Communist rhetoric and Cold War fears of subversion were deployed to prohibit immigrant entries from several countries and to quicken dubious deportations. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by the al-Qaeda network, a discourse termed securitization by scholars has emerged among politicians, the popular media, and the citizenry that depicts immigrants, particularly those from Mexico, as imminent security threats. Donald J. Trump invoked this language against Mexican immigrants during his June 16, 2015 speech announcing his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic].They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”2 His proposed solution was to severely limit authorized Mexican immigration and the number of admissible refugees, curtailing unauthorized entries by building an impenetrable wall along the US-Mexico border, for which, Trump vowed, Mexico would pay.

Mexican immigration to the United States officially began in 1848. It has continued to the present without any significant interruption, something that makes this labor migration quite distinct as an essential component of the American labor market. The immigration histories of national groups from Asia, Africa, and Europe were much more varied in trajectory and tempo. These usually began with massive movements, driven by famine, political strife, or burgeoning economic opportunities in the United States; they then slowed, tapered off, or abruptly ended, as was the case with Chinese immigration, from 1850 to 1882. This fact helps explain why Mexico has been the single largest source of immigrants in the United States for the longest period of time, which paradoxically begs for explanation at this moment, when so much anti-immigrant rhetoric is focused on Mexico and not the other countries, which have also been major sources of unauthorized immigrants.

Geographic proximity, compounded by profound economic disparities between the two countries and easily accessible work opportunities, have continuously pulled Mexican immigrants northward. Their quick and easy movement has been facilitated by a porous border, one that remains poorly marked, and, for much of the 20th century, laxly and often only seasonally patrolled to assure employers unfettered access to cheap labor with minimal government regulation.

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 runs eastward until it reaches the Rio Grande at El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Júarez, Chihuahua. From there, the border follows the Rio Grande’s flow in a southeastern direction until its mouth empties into the Gulf of Mexico, where Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Tamaulipas meet. This expanse of over 1,945 miles is poorly marked. In many places, only old concrete markers, sagging, dry-rotted fence posts, rusted barbed wire, and the Rio Grande, which has continually changed its course over the centuries, demarcate these two sovereign nations.

Since 1924, when the U.S. Border Patrol was created mainly to prohibit the unauthorized entry of Chinese immigrants through Mexico—not to stop Mexican laborers—American attempts to regulate entries and exits effectively have been concentrated mainly along the most highly trafficked transportation routes leading 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 in the United States has rarely found the border an insurmountable obstacle. If they have encountered it temporarily so, immigrants tried to cross until successful, or they have turned to professional smugglers (known as coyotes) to maximize safe passage into the country without border inspection or official visa authorization. In 2014, there were approximately 11 million such unauthorized immigrants in the United States, 56 percent, or 6.1 million were Mexican, with the rest originating in Russia, Ireland, China, and Central America.3

Over the course of the last 170 years, Mexican immigrants have largely toiled in agriculture, ranching, railroad construction, and mining. Since the 1980s, as agricultural work was increasingly mechanized, displaced workers moved into cities laboring in construction and service industries. The history of this migratory stream and the political responses to it have evolved through six distinct periods, each marked by its own logic, demands, xenophobic anxieties, and levels of federal governance.

The Origins of Mexican Immigration, 1848–1930

Mexican immigration began in 1848, at the conclusion of the US-Mexican War. Driven by annexationist designs for additional western lands and resources, the United States militarily invaded Mexico and occupied its sovereign space for almost two years. The US-Mexican War was popular, broadly supported by a citizenry convinced that its spoils would contribute to America’s grandeur and wealth. In the rhetoric of the day, it was the God-ordained “Manifest Destiny” of the United States to become a nation of continental scope, reaching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, thereby connecting the United States with Europe and the Caribbean on the East and South, and with Asian markets from the Pacific West.

From April 25, 1846 to February 2, 1848, Mexico and the United States were at war. The United States provoked hostilities by entering Mexican territory that the Republic of Texas spuriously claimed after its independence in 1836. When Texas became an American state in 1845, the United States government pressed this claim, sending soldiers into the contested territory and provoking hostilities. At war’s end, the victorious Americans took nearly half of Mexico’s national territory, or what became the states of New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. For this immense expanse Mexico was paid $18 million. To this day, when Mexicans hear American rants about Mexican immigrants illegally invading sovereign American space, their retort is that American Texans were really the first illegal immigrants who invaded Mexico and began the US-Mexico War.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war on February 2, 1848, gave Mexican citizens residing in the ceded territory one year to remove themselves and their property back into Mexico. Those who did not move automatically became American citizens, with federal guarantees, as spelled out in the Treaty, stipulating that their rights, property, and “white” racial status would be honored and held inviolable; guarantees that were rarely honored de facto. No exact count exists on how many Mexicans stayed put and how many moved back into Mexico’s newly configured national territory. Estimates suggest that roughly 31,000 individuals moved back into Mexico.4 Based on the 1850 census, demographers speculate that the resident ethnic Mexican population of the United States then numbered about 86,000. New Mexico, as the oldest and most important region of Mexico’s far north, had the densest population, with about 60,000 persons of Mexican ancestry.5

The first major wave of Mexican immigration northward started in 1848, when gold was discovered at John Sutter’s mill in northern California on January 24, just nine days before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, ending the Mexican War. Mexican men with extensive mining expertise entered California’s placer fields and mines, quickly swelling the territory’s resident ethnic Mexican population by 6,500 persons. According to the 1850 census, California’s ethnic Mexican population more than doubled in two years, to roughly 14,000.6

Very little is known about the number and work experiences of these Mexican immigrants between 1848 and the 1870s, other than that they were mostly skilled workers who had spent decades in Mexico’s silver mining and processing industries. Those who followed the Mexican mining personnel were of peasant origin. They got pushed out of Mexico by high rates of unemployment among an increasingly landless rural peasantry and pulled to the United States by higher wages. Since the 1790s, largely influenced by French, British, and American liberal theorists, Mexican intellectuals believed that if their country was to prosper and modernize, its land tenure system, then characterized by large tracts held by the Catholic Church, the military, professional guilds, and indigenous communities, had to be unfettered and transformed into private property. The legal potential for achieving this goal came through the promulgation of the 1856 Ley Lerdo, legislation that prohibited corporate groups from holding land in common. In the years that followed, many indigenous villages saw their communal lands privatized, morselized, and alienated, leaving behind a swelling landless peasantry. By 1910, 98 percent of all families in central Mexico were landless. The vast majority of Mexican workers who first immigrated to the United States originated from these places.7

Between 1810, when Mexico launched its attempt to gain independence from Spain, and 1876, when Porfirio Díaz became president, the country faced repeated bloody civil wars that contested the country’s forms of governance. Finally, with the election of President Díaz, in 1876, Mexico entered a period of relative stability and economic prosperity, often called the Pax Porfiriana, because the president’s authoritarian rule was used to stem violence and forge Mexico into a modern and prosperous nation. Díaz’s ambitious plan was centered on attracting foreign investment in railroads, mining, petroleum, and manufacturing, paid for with large loans, land concessions, and ceding subsoil mineral rights. Railroads were designed to integrate the country’s regions connecting the south, center, and north with its Pacific and Gulf ports, thereby making it vastly easier to export the nation’s products to Europe and the United States.

Mexico’s railroads were largely constructed by deracinated peasants. In step-like fashion these men first left their ancestral villages, then migrated to urban centers seeking wage work. From there they ventured to Mexico’s north along the railroad routes, finally crossing effortlessly into the United States, where there was plenty of work at attractive wages. A worker laying railroad ties in Mexico, on average, earned 20 cents a day in 1900. In the United States, the same work paid one dollar. Those peasants who found employment on large Mexican export farms and ranches, known as haciendas, were paid 12 cents a day, usually in supplies, while in the United States they could earn as much as $1.50 a day.

Between 1876 and 1930, mostly male Mexican immigrant workers were concentrated in a number of economic sectors. They first came to work in the gold mines of California, then moved on to other extractive industries, mostly copper and coal. Next, they built the railroads that began to crisscross the American West, followed by the construction of the irrigation works that transformed the arid deserts of the West into verdant farmland. Women sometimes migrated with their male kin, working in homes as nannies and domestic servants or in restaurants, hotels, and laundries, but their numbers were never proportionally significant until after the 1960s.

The Mexican immigrant population of the United States grew rapidly in subsequent years. The US census counted roughly 42,000 ethnic Mexicans residing in the United States in 1870; 68,000 in 1880; 78,000 in 1890; 103,000 in 1900; 222,000 in 1910; 486,000 in 1920; and 641,000 in 1930. By 1930, 41 percent of these workers were concentrated in Texas, mostly picking cotton and tending livestock. Next in regional importance was California, where 31 percent of all Mexican immigrants toiled in agricultural fields. Arizona employed 8 percent of the numeric total, New Mexico, 3 percent; and Colorado, 2 percent; most of these laborers worked mainly in sugar beet production.8

The human and economic displacements unleashed by Mexican modernization between 1876 and 1910 made this massive migration into the United States possible at a moment of intense labor demand in the United States. Mexican peasants had lost vast expanses of ancestral lands. High inflation in the price of basic commodities followed, producing profound income inequalities, which, when compounded by middle class grievances against the state, precipitated the Mexican Revolution of 1910. As different factions in this civil war wrestled for control of the state apparatus, perhaps as many as 1.4 million combatants and civilians died. Those able to move sought refuge from the violence in the United States. According to the Annual Reports of the Commissioner General of Immigration, between 1910 and 1929, about 661,000 Mexicans officially entered the United States as immigrants, a statistic that vastly underreports the true magnitude of this influx. Before 1924, federal statistics were kept only on foreign-born immigrants arriving at maritime ports, such as those in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, New York, and Baltimore. During the most violent phase of the Mexican Revolution, from 1910 to 1914, on average, only 16,000 Mexican immigrants requested entry at all of these ports yearly. Clearly, most Mexicans were not traveling to the United States by ship; they were coming by train, on mules, or by foot. In 1924 alone, after inspection stations finally were constructed along the land border between Mexico and the United States, the number of Mexican entrants jumped to nearly 88,000, perhaps better reflecting the true dimensions of this exodus on a yearly basis.

Mexican immigrants were needed in the United States from 1900 to 1929 because the labor of other easily exploitable immigrants had been severely restricted or outlawed. In 1882, the United States enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1907 the Japanese Gentleman’s Agreement drastically cut the supply of agricultural labor from Japan at precisely the moment when the western United States began emerging as one of the most productive and profitable agricultural region in the world. As early as the 1850s the arrival of large numbers of foreign workers ignited nativist fears among American workers. Xenophobes deemed Asian immigrants a “Yellow Peril,” taking jobs only white Americans rightfully deserved. The American government addressed the unregulated entry of immigrant workers slowly, at first with the growth of federal regulation over immigration, which had previously been a state right, then with qualitative restrictions on the type of the immigrants granted entry, which eventually were coupled with quantitative limits.9

US federal oversight of immigration began in 1864, when the Federal Bureau of Immigration was established. Previously, states had the authority to admit whom they wished. A Superintendent of Immigration housed in the Treasury Department came next, in 1891, followed in 1894 by the construction of Ellis Island as an immigrant inspection station. The first qualitative restrictions on immigration were imposed by the Immigration Act of 1907, which excluded

imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, persons with physical or mental defects which may affect their ability to earn a living, persons afflicted with tuberculosis, children unaccompanied by their parents, persons who admitted the commission of a crime involving moral turpitude, and women coming to the United States for immoral purposes.10

To assure that immigrants would not become public charges dependent on poor relief, each arrival had to pay a four-dollar head tax and pass a host of physical exams affirming their fitness, vigor, and ability to engage in hard work.

The Immigration Act of 1917 was more expansive, coupling these qualitative entry restrictions with the first quantitative limits to the total number of immigrants admissible yearly. Literacy tests, ordered for all persons over the age of sixteen, were aimed primarily at excluding Southern European Catholics and Eastern European Jews. The head tax was doubled to eight dollars, and an additional visa fee of ten dollars was levied. Residents from an “Asiatic Barred Zone”—made up of India, Indochina, Afghanistan, Arabia, East Indies, and smaller Asian countries—were completely banned. The impact of this legislation was soon evident. In 1917, 295,000 immigrants entered the United States. By 1918, the number had shrunk to 111,000.

The culmination of this era of heightening immigration restriction came in 1924, with the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act, which established national quotas based on the percentage of foreign born from a particular country as enumerated in the 1890 census. The total number of immigrants admitted yearly was capped at 165,000. The law’s aspiration was to recruit better Americans, to assure that those admitted would fully and quickly assimilate, guaranteeing that the country’s future would be white and Protestant, composed of immigrants from Northern and Western Europe, not Catholics and Jews from Southern and Eastern Europe. In 1924, the total number of immigrants admitted into the United States was 162,000, of which 141,000 were from Northern and Western Europe. Only 21,000 immigrants came from Southern and Eastern Europe.

The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act also created the U.S. Border Patrol under the jurisdiction of the Department of Labor, which was given broad authority to enforce immigrant entries and exits, particularly along the southern border. The reasons for this were several. First was to guarantee the exclusion of Asians immigrants who were surreptitiously entering the United States through Mexico, despite their exclusion since 1882 (Chinese Exclusion Act) and 1907 (Japanese Gentleman’s Agreement). Mexico had actively courted Chinese and Japanese capital since the late 19th century as part of its own modernizing ambitions, offering wealthy investors rapid paths to Mexican citizenship. Mexican citizens, even of ethnic Chinese and Japanese ancestry, were not barred from entry into the United States. The border patrol was tasked with the regulation of this traffic.

Though many American nativists and their congressional allies railed loudly against the increasingly visible presence of large numbers of Mexican immigrants, demanding entry limits, the Johnson-Reed Act did not placate them largely because of the political power of economic interests in the American West. The Act included a major quota exception for workers from Western Hemisphere countries, meaning from Mexico and Canada. Since the net migrant flow between Canada and the United States was minimal, the exception placated agricultural, mining, and manufacturing enterprises, which by 1924 had become almost completely dependent on Mexican labor, which they found cheap, tractable, subservient, and willing to endure wretched work conditions without complaint.

From 1900 to 1930, nearly 700,000 authorized Mexican immigrants entered the United States. The majority, or 87 percent, was congregated in rural areas of the Southwest, working mainly as seasonal itinerant agricultural wage laborers. Some of the men brought their wives and of the women who came, only 18 percent worked outside the home, mostly employed in Anglo households performing domestic and personal service (44%), or toiling in the fields (14%) alongside their male kin.

Since the 1880s, and particularly after the 1910 Revolution, Mexican presidents, politicians, even local priests constantly urged their countrymen to resist the allure of American labor markets, committing themselves instead to Mexico’s modernization. They vividly described the brutal work and living conditions that awaited them, along with widespread super-exploitation and racism. They emigrated, nevertheless. There was little work in Mexico. Mexico’s 1917 Constitution, which codified many of the Revolution’s ideals, clearly guaranteed its citizenry free movement, but required emigrant laborers to have signed contracts verified by local municipal officers and by the consular office of their foreign host. Since the ratification of the US Alien Contract Law in 1885, American employers had been prohibited from issuing such contracts to foreign workers before they set foot on American soil. Mexicans who emigrated north between 1917 and 1942 faced a double bind. They could not legally obtain contracts and thus could not obtain the requisite local exit approvals. Nor did they have the resources to pay US head taxes and visa fees. For the majority of these immigrants, their exit from Mexico was unsanctioned, as was their entry into the United States, thus rendering them particularly vulnerable to the abuses and exploitation, of which Mexico constantly warned its citizens.

Mexican seasonal immigrants became the preferred work force in the American Southwest because they bore the costs of their own travel and domestic reproduction during the winter and fallow seasons. As one California grower bluntly put it, when the harvest is done, “I will kick them out . . . My obligation is ended.” If they refused to vacate, as some were wont to do, a simple missive to immigration authorities assured departure. Typically, Mexican immigrants migrated into cities at the end of the harvest and there sought poor relief for their months of unemployment. Farmers relished this arrangement because it maximized the possibility that Mexicans would remain in the area, available to pick the next year’s crops without farmers having to foot recruitment costs anew. The director of Colorado’s Catholic Charities summarized the conflicting interests relief agencies and employers had with this arrangement: “Why the citizens at large, the Community Chest, the churches, the tax-payers, should have to care for the employees of the sugar companies, the railroads, and mines, between seasons of labor, is not clear to the students of economics or justice.”11 These community subsidies were the topic of bitter debates that were framed politically as the so-called Mexican Problem. The rhetoric of the Mexican Problem eventually encompassed other seething resentments toward these immigrants, made all the more potent by their rising numbers, their increasing visibility, and the racially motivated fears they ignited about the potential mongrels they would surely sire if allowed to mix with white women freely, as some of these Mexicans were clearly doing.

Mexican Repatriation, 1930–1942

Reverse migration, accomplished through massive repatriation campaigns, characterizes the second phase of Mexican immigration history. Black Thursday, October 24, 1929, marks its start, when the American stock market crashed, causing a major global economic depression. Social workers, who had been instrumental in rhetorically framing and militating against the Mexican Problem, accelerated their campaigns, taking them to Congress, complaining that Mexican immigrants were lazy, inordinately dependent, diseased, delinquent, illiterate, and inassimilable. Success finally came shortly after 1929. Working together, social workers and immigration officials identified Mexicans who had asked merely for food baskets and clothing, declared them public charges, and demanded their rapid deportation.

What followed were dragnets between 1930 and 1934 in workplaces, in parks, and even in public squares throughout the Southwest. The dragnets indiscriminately swept up Mexican immigrants—Mexican American citizens, and permanent visa residents alike—put them on trains and sent them south to the border, sometimes deep into Mexico. The intent of these forced deportations and so-called voluntary repatriations was clear: to rid the republic of ethnic Mexican competitors for unskilled, low wage work that white Americans said they would willingly perform and rightfully belonged to them. While social workers doggedly resisted undertaking such draconian actions against Northern and Western European immigrants living in the Midwest and Northeast, massive deportations became possible in the Southwest because few Mexicans had naturalized as citizens, most were politically disenfranchised, and most also had toiled in racially segregated enclaves that limited their social integration into local communities and the larger body politic. Organized labor forged alliances with American workers through working class solidarity, something Mexican American community organizations did as well, favoring their American citizen kin over their Mexican co-ethnics and former countrymen. The mechanics of deportation were hastened by cooperation between federal immigration authorities and local charity agencies. “[T]he welfare office quite literally turned into an immigration bureau or became an extralegal arm of the Immigration Service,” explains sociologist Cybelle Fox of this collaboration, “expelling those [that] immigration laws could not touch.”12

In 2005, some 75 years after the beginning of these campaigns of mass deportation, the State of California enacted the “Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program.” The legislation noted that some 400,000 ethnic Mexicans were deported from California alone in the early 1930s, with the total number reaching nearly two million, of which 1.2 million were American citizens of Mexican descent.

The State of California apologizes to those individuals . . . for the fundamental violations of their basic civil liberties and constitutional rights committed during the period of illegal deportation and coerced emigration. The State of California regrets the suffering and hardship those individuals and their families endured as a direct result of the government sponsored Repatriation Program of the 1930s.13

The lull in emigration from Mexico to the United States lasted from roughly 1930 to 1942. As the economy quickened and the United States prepared to enter World War II, the traditional employers of Mexican labor repeatedly petitioned the federal government to alleviate their desperate labor needs as young men rapidly expanded the military’s ranks. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) routinely denied their requests, explaining that there was an abundant supply of American labor eager to perform the necessary work if offered competitive wages.

Guest Workers, Wetbacks, and the Birth of a Deportation Regime, 1942–1965

The December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into World War II marks the beginning of the third phase of Mexican immigration history. Congress quickly negotiated a set of increasingly expansive bilateral labor agreements with Mexico for the importation of guest laborers, known as braceros (brazo in Spanish means arm; braceros were men who worked with their arms, mostly as farmhands). In 1885, the United States had outlawed contracting foreigners to work on American soil, deeming such agreements unfree labor akin to chattel slavery. Despite such laws, reaffirmed in the 1917 Immigration Act, on August 4, 1942, the United States and Mexico established a program for the recruitment and importation of Mexican contract laborers. It was the first such guest worker program, although several more followed.

In the United States, the Bracero Program was packaged as a wartime emergency measure that would prevent the disruption of agricultural production and minimize food price inflation. The Mexican government, meanwhile, saw the program as an opportunity, at last, to effectively regulate the number and regional origins of emigrants, managing its own needs for cheap and flexible agricultural labor as it undertook the industrialization of this sector in Mexico’s north. Since the enacting the 1917 Mexican Constitution, the country had demanded that emigrants gain local sanction and obtain a foreign contract to exit. Now, as the official labor contractor, Mexico had a way to enforce its laws, only approving the exit of young, working-age, landless men formally contracted by the government, which could prove that their labor was not needed locally, thus largely originating from the central Mexican states where peasant unemployment was highest.

The US State Department, through the auspices of the Department of Agriculture, represented American employers. Employers initiated the process by requesting a certain number of Mexican contract workers. The State Department then conveyed the request to the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Relations, which in turn recruited the number requested. Once braceros entered the United States, American intermediaries transported them to assigned sites. Braceros were guaranteed set wages comparable to those paid American agricultural workers, for specific periods of time, with decent living and working conditions, transportation to and from the border, and a withholding of 10 percent of their earnings, which would be set aside in a Mexican bank account and paid if and when they returned to Mexico. Because Mexicans previously had experienced poor treatment in Texas, the state was initially barred from participation in the program, though after the 1948 agreement’s extension, braceros were finally recruited to work there too.

This emergency labor mobilization, initially known as Public Law 45, originally was congressionally authorized from 1942 to 1945. It was renewed each year through 1951 and then reauthorized in Public Law 78, which expired in 1964. From 1942 to 1947, 219,000 Mexican braceros participated in the program, working in twenty-four states. The majority were concentrated in California agriculture, tending to cotton, citrus fruits, melons, lettuce, and a host of other table vegetables. About a third of all braceros were employed by railroad companies. Despite contractual guarantees, many braceros complained about their exploitative work and living conditions, their inability to organize unions, Mexico’s cumbersome labor recruitment procedures, and their inability to actually collect the 10 percent deferred wages promised when they returned home. This issue is still being litigated in Mexican courts.14

The Bracero Program provided the ideal, pliable workers American employers desired. As the US President’s Commission on Migratory Labor described it, these were individuals who “go to work when needed; to be gone when not needed.”15 The contracting system was radically changed in 1948 to facilitate creating a more mobile and flexible labor force. Government-to-government agreements were abandoned for face-to-face negotiations between growers and individual braceros, a fundamental change that left Mexican workers exposed to employers’ impunities.

By 1948, the United States acknowledged that the limited number of bracero contracts and the immense demand for cheap labor during World War II had resulted in a large Mexican immigrant population that easily found employment without border inspection or work authorization documents. These workers were derisively called wetbacks because some of them had swum across the Rio Grande, entering the United States literally wet, and without inspection. Between 1942 and 1947, the INS apprehended 428,000 Mexicans lacking work authorization, almost twice the number (219,000) who came as contracted braceros. While some of these unauthorized entrants were repeat offenders, these numbers provide a sense of the proportion of authorized to unauthorized immigrants during these years.

Mexican workers crossed the border without authorization or inspection for two reasons. Despite the high demand to participate in this guest worker program, Mexico limited the number, geographic origins, and skill set of its braceros, increasingly patrolling its northern border in tandem with U.S. Border Patrol to prohibit unauthorized exits. American employers deemed the guest worker program managed by two federal bureaucracies as slow, expensive, cumbersome, and unresponsive to their ever-changing seasonal labor needs. American employers were all too eager to offer Mexicans work, indeed encouraged it, clearly knowing that they were entering the country without inspection or authorization. Nevada’s Senator Pat McCarran summarized the issue succinctly when he declared that “a farmer can get a wetback and he does not have to go through the red tape.”16

As American employers saw it, there was no penalty or government sanction for hiring unauthorized Mexican immigrants. Mexicans were a good, plentiful, tractable, and cheap labor source, easily exploited, and effortlessly deportable whenever they acted up, demanded higher wages, better work conditions, or tried to organize unions. They were expendable wetbacks who were gradually were criminalized as illegal aliens, further eroding their status and heightening their vulnerability to exploitation and deportation. This was precisely what American employers wanted, a labor force deemed criminal, ever vulnerable to deportation for the slightest insubordination, or one they could defraud of their pay, knowing that they had no legal recourse on either side of the border.

As early as 1943, nativists and anti-immigrant activists lampooned the Bracero Program as a foil for a border out of control, where wetbacks and illegal aliens easily crossed and openly subverted American law. This rhetoric quickly eclipsed the Depression-era representation of the Mexican Problem as one that depleted relief for the poor and stole jobs meant for white Americans. To address mounting public concern about unauthorized border crossers from Mexico, in 1943 the Federal government doubled the number of Border Patrol officers stationed there to 300, with the ringing endorsement of the Mexican government, which mercilessly managed its resettlement of deportees.

The 1948 extension of the Bracero Program ordered the INS to dry out the so-called wetbacks, legalizing their status through a bureaucratic alchemy whereby unauthorized immigrants were deported just a few yards back into Mexico, then immediately inspected, and readmitted as authorized visa holders. Congress demanded that before additional Mexicans could be recruited for the Bracero Program, those already in the United States had to have their immigrant status regularized. In 1949 and 1950 alone, 238,000 Mexicans were dried out.

The Bracero Program ended in 1964. Between 1942 and 1964, approximately 4.6 million guest worker visas were issued by the United States. In most years, the number of visas averaged around 200,000. Many of these braceros were seasonal sojourners, returning yearly, often to the same employer, so the actual number of individuals participating in the program was probably closer to 3 million. During these same years, the INS apprehended and deported 5.5 million unauthorized Mexican workers, or about 500,000 per year, reaching its highest point in 1954.

Then, in a highly publicized INS repatriation campaign known as “Operation Wetback,” hastened by increasing security concerns about potential Communist infiltration of the United States, 1.2 million Mexican illegal aliens were arrested and deported to placate a mobilized anti-immigrant citizenry, particularly in Texas and California, where employers for a long time had simply ignored immigration laws and contracted the labor they needed whenever and however they wanted. By 1955, the number of Mexicans apprehended and deported by the INS dropped to 242,608. Because of lax and seasonally variable INS enforcement procedures, sociologist Kitty Calavita estimated that the ratio of authorized to unauthorized Mexican workers at any one time was about 1 to 3.17 Based on this estimate, roughly 800,000 Mexicans probably were entering the United States surreptitiously each year by 1964.

Anthropologist Nicholas De Genova argues that the creation of the Bracero Program in 1942 marked the beginning of what he calls a deportation regime, created to advance the interests of American employers, freeing them from burdensome government sanctions while criminalizing their Mexican workforce as illegal aliens. The majority of these men (and later women, too) lacked work visas and failed to undergo border inspection, the two requisites that made them always vulnerable to deportation, creating the legal foundation of their criminalization, labor subservience, and exploitation.

Immigration Liberalization and the Illegal Alien, 1965–1986

As a candidate for the country’s presidency in 1960, John F. Kennedy ran on a platform that included a celebration of immigrant contributions to America. He even ghost-authored A Nation of Immigrants, a book that chronicled their historical importance.18 Kennedy promised immigration reform if elected, but his assassination less than three years into his presidency left it to his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, to shepherd the legislation through Congress. Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Act into law on October 3, 1965, which marks the beginning of the fourth phase of Mexican immigration history.

Also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the Hart-Celler Act was celebrated as liberal, egalitarian, and anti-racist, rooting out many of the old prejudices that had been written into America’s immigration laws since 1924, which had explicitly attempted to create a dominant white population of Northern and Western European ancestry. With the Statue of Liberty as the backdrop for the 1965 signing, President Johnson explained that it would

repair a very deep and painful flaw in the fabric of American justice. It corrects a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American Nation . . . [Henceforth] those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationship to those already here.19

Prohibitions on immigrants from the “Asiatic Barred Zone” were abolished. National origins quotas were replaced by country-specific numeric limits. The number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States was raised from 165,000 to 290,000 yearly, of which 170,000 were allocated to the Eastern Hemisphere (Europe, Africa, Middle East, Asia, Pacific), with each country allowed up to 20,000 immigrant visas based on a set of conditional preferences. The Western Hemisphere was limited to 120,000 immigrants yearly.

By 1965, Mexico and Canada already accounted for roughly two thirds of all immigrants from Western Hemisphere nations, and for that reason no country limits were initially articulated. A rank-order set of preferences promoting family reunification was established, thus allowing the emigration first of unmarried children of American citizens, then the spouses and children of legal residents, professionals with exemplary skills, the married children of American citizens, the siblings of American citizens, followed by skilled and unskilled workers needed by particular industries. Refugees came last.20

Countries that previously had suffered tremendous restriction under the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act rapidly experienced relief. In 1964, Portugal was allowed 2,200 immigrant visas. By 1975, it had 11,000. India’s 300 visa-authorized entries rose to 14,000. China went from 1,000 to 9,000. Sixty percent of all immigrants between 1924 and 1965 had come from Europe, 35 percent from Central and South America, 3 percent from Asia, and 1 percent from Africa. By 1975, these proportions were dramatically transformed. Now only 19 percent of all immigrants came from Europe, 43 percent from Central and South America, and 34 percent from Asia. Africa experienced little change, remaining at 1 percent.

Mexico, which in 1964 supplied the United States with roughly 800,000 immigrant workers yearly, immediately felt the law’s sting when it went into effect in 1968. Mexico now had to compete with Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean for the 120,000 visa slots that favored family reunification. Instantly, the status of the roughly 600,000 unauthorized Mexican workers who had continued entering the United States, and who easily found work when they arrived, no longer had a legal way to change their status or be dried out. They were increasingly vilified as illegal aliens, as persons who broke the law, while their American employers suffered no significant consequences. So Mexicans again became America’s dream workers—illegal, vulnerable, servile, deportable. The Hart-Celler Act, heralded for its liberalization of immigration law, in fact had the opposite effect on Mexico, dramatically narrowing the number of visa authorizations and instantly defining the sustained worker flow northward as illegal.

Historian James Cockcroft characterized this new law as a revolving door, contingent on seasonally lax border inspections for maximal labor recruitment, followed by ruthless mass deportations. The anthropologist Leo Chávez called this process a “game of cat-and-mouse.” Between 1968 and 1976, the number of “deported aliens” jumped from 151,000 to 781,000. According to the INS, 99 percent of them were Mexican. Mexicans apprehended without visas or inspection often voluntarily waived their right to a hearing before an immigration judge to hasten their deportation back to Mexico, only to repeat the process, knowing that on average, only one out of every three unauthorized entrants got caught.21

Concern over the increasing visibility of unauthorized Mexican immigrants mounted. In 1976, Congress amended the Hart-Celler Act, limiting Mexico to 20,000 immigrant visas yearly, permitting family reunifications only between spouses, unmarried minor children, and parents of adult US citizens. With the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, Mexico’s visa limit fell to 18,200. This severe restriction on Mexican immigrant visas simply accelerated the pace of unauthorized entry. Sociologists Douglas Massey and Audrey Singer estimate that between 1965 and 1986, there were 28 million unauthorized Mexican entries into the United States, 23.4 million exits. They estimate a net gain of 5.7 million Mexican immigrants. The majority—some 4.6 million—were unauthorized.22

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA)

The growing numbers of unauthorized Mexican immigrants visible in the major cities by the 1980s were being vilified increasingly by conservative politicians and the media as potential security threats, provoking fears among many citizens. Many began to claim that the US-Mexico border was “out of control.” Something had to be done. For years, a number of legislative proposals had circulated in Congress to address the problem, but without success. Finally, legislation authored by Senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyoming) and Representative Peter Rodino (D-New Jersey) was passed and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) took effect on January 1, 1987, becoming the fifth major turning point in Mexican immigration history.

To enact the law, a number of different constituencies had to be placated, among them Mexican American civil rights groups, immigrant advocates, and organized labor. This came in the form of an amnesty and access to legalization for close to 3 million unauthorized immigrants. The majority, some 2.3 million, were Mexican. To qualify for legalization, unauthorized immigrants had to prove that they had entered the United States prior to January 1, 1982, had continuously resided in the United States, were law-abiding residents without criminal convictions, spoke English, had a working knowledge of American civics, and were willing to confess that they had entered without authorization or inspection, pay a fine, and pay any back taxes they might owe.

The law placated American organized labor too. Any enterprise employing more than three workers had to verify the immigrant status of their employees or face stiff fines for knowingly hiring unauthorized foreign workers. To heighten border enforcement, the budget of the INS was increased by 50 percent. The Labor Department’s budget was likewise significantly increased to undertake mandated document verification and work site inspections.23 Employers complied by having copies of their workers’ documents, but rarely verified their authenticity. Many enterprises simply turned to hiring Mexican laborers through subcontractors who were responsible for verifications. INS work site inspections became a sham. Employers were given three days’ notice of an upcoming inspection, allowing them to purge their records and those workers they knew were unauthorized.

IRCA’s main impact on Mexican immigration was to turn a long-standing circular migratory process into permanent settlement north of the border. The US government began pouring 90 percent of its INS budget into border interdiction and only 10 percent into workplace verification and employer sanctions. Thus, the probability and cost of getting caught crossing the border rose significantly for unauthorized immigrants, but if they succeeded, they stood excellent chances of avoiding deportation and remaining undetected for years. This fact became a major deterrent to seasonal circular migration, increasing the number of unauthorized Mexican immigrants who now had little choice but to stay put and live isolated and fear-filled lives in the United States.

After the passage of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, the number of Mexican immigrants (authorized and unauthorized) in the United States grew steadily in size and as a percentage of the total immigrant population (see Table 1). Between 1990 and 2010, roughly 7.5 million Mexican immigrants entered the country, many without authorization. They skirted border inspection by taking more dangerous routes northward across the Sonoran Desert into Arizona, raising the danger and mortality of the trek. In 2012, the unauthorized immigrant population of the United States was estimated at 11.2 million, with roughly half (49%) originating in Mexico, while the rest, for the most part, had simply overstayed their visas. The Great Recession of 2008 led many Mexicans to return to their homeland, significantly slowing migration northward. The Pew Research Center estimated that, in 2007, the Mexican unauthorized population in the United States was 6.7 million; by 2014, it had dropped to 5.6 million.24 While Mexicans represented 28 percent of all immigrants in the United States in 2013, by 2017 their proportion was down to 25.4 percent, mainly because of increasing migration from Central America.

Three new draconian immigration laws were enacted in 1996: The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), and The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which was primarily hailed as welfare reform, but which included immigrant provisions. IIRIRA empowered the Border Patrol to admit, detain, and deport, without judicial review, any person arriving at the nation’s border, an authority that also applied to refugees and asylum petitioners.

Table 1. Mexican Immigrants and their Share of Total Immigrant Population


Mexican Born

Total Immigrants

Mexicans as Percentage of Total (%)





































Note: The term immigrants refers to people residing in the United States who were not US citizens at birth. This population includes naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents, certain legal non-immigrants (e.g., refugees and persons on student or work visas), and persons illegally residing in the United States.

Sources: Migration Policy Institute tabulations of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 American Community Surveys. Data from the 1970, 1990, and 2000 Censuses were accessed from: Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010. Data for 1970 to 1990, were from: Campbell J. Gibson and Emily Lennon, “Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850–1990,” U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, Working Paper No. 29, February 1999. Immigrant statistics from 2017 come from the Pew Research Center, “Origins and Destinations of the World’s Migrants, 1990–2017,” (Working Paper, February 28, 2018).

IIRIRA redefined a host of minor, non-violent offenses previously deemed simple misdemeanors, into aggravated felonies, which automatically resulted in mandatory deportation, increasingly stripping immigrants of access to any form of judicial review before exit. Unauthorized immigrants were prohibited from receiving social security benefits and federal student financial aid. The anti-terrorism legislation, AEDPA, severely restricted the “constitutional rights and judicial resources traditionally afforded to legal resident aliens,” authorizing local police forces to enforce immigration laws.25 Finally, although PRWORA was not directly aimed at immigrants, it nevertheless radically limited benefits that authorized immigrants could receive from federal and state agencies. These three laws instantly augmented the level of immigrant detentions and deportations.

Then came the “War on Terror.” More immigration legislation followed the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. The securitization discourse, which marked much of the 1996 legislation, was increasingly deployed by American presidents, the media, and concerned citizens. First came the USA Patriot Act, an acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism,” which President George W. Bush signed into law on October 26, 2001. Though its most rigorous provisions targeted the financing of international terrorism, foreign immigrants were swept into its web, allowing the government to monitor all private communications originating in foreign countries, establishing the legal means to keep suspected terrorists from entering the United States and to deport suspects already living in the United States, even with valid visa authorization.

Still more security-focused legislation followed. The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, signed by President Bush on May 14, ordered the INS to share all its alien databases with the State Department, to form a single computer search engine accessible at all inspection stations, to include computer-readable and tamper-resistant biometric identifiers on American visas, entry, and travel documents, and funding the recruitment of 1,600 new INS agents. Later that year, on November 25, 2002, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created, unifying 22 different federal departments and agencies, thus “creating a strengthened homeland security enterprise and a more secure America that is better equipped to confront the range of threats we face.”

The Real ID Act of 2005 followed, establishing federal information standards for all drivers’ licenses and state identification cards used for boarding airplanes, entering federal buildings, and nuclear power plants. It changed visa limits for temporary workers, established “delivery bonds” (akin to bail bonds) for aliens released pending immigration hearings, tightened laws regarding asylum and the deportation of terrorists, and funded the construction of a border wall along of a 14-mile stretch across San Diego County, California.

Several highly publicized DHS “enforcement and removal” campaigns by the newly formed Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE; previously the INS) buttressed the new laws. “Operation Endgame” sought to detain and deport all “removable aliens” and suspected terrorists in the United States by 2012 (2003–2012). “Operation Frontline” (2004–2005) was undertaken to deport illegal aliens who were deemed national security threats. The goal of the Arizona Border Control Initiative (2004) was “to achieve operational control of the Arizona border and [the DHS’s] priority mission of anti-terrorism, detection, arrest and deterrence of all cross-border illicit trafficking” through the assignment of additional ICE agents at the Arizona border and enhanced patrolling with drones and motion detectors.26 Other enforcement and removal campaigns followed, such as Operation Stonegarden (2004), the Secure Borders Initiative (2005), and the 2010 “If you see something, say something” campaign, perhaps best known by the American public.

Between fiscal years 2001 and 2008, during George W. Bush’s presidency, 8.3 million immigrant “voluntary returns” occurred, a number that anti-immigrant advocates lampooned as a “catch and release” program. Unauthorized Mexican immigrants apprehended during such sweeps were transported to the border without fingerprinting, legal sanction, or annotations to an entry/exit record. Formal deportations, known as alien removals, numbered 2 million in these same years, were overseen by a judge or ICE official, and resulted in a record of their exit circumstances. Because of the harsh criticism President Bush faced for what some deemed his lax border enforcement policies, by the end of his presidency, the number of alien removals rose almost 90 percent, from 189,000 in 2001 to 360,000 in 2008.27

During Barack Obama’s presidency, from fiscal years 2009 to 2016, the ratio of alien removals to voluntary returns increased significantly. Then DHS recorded 2.1 million voluntary returns and 3 million removals; a total of 5.2 million emigrant exits.28 This won President Obama the derision of the National Council of the Raza, the main Mexican American Civil Rights organization in the United States, calling him America’s “deporter-in-chief.” His retort was instrumentalist. To get the Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform, his priority was to demonstrate that the US-Mexico border was secure and relatively impenetrable. His “zero tolerance” policy toward unauthorized border crossers relied primarily on formal deportation proceedings and removals, but as the above cited statistics show, large numbers of unauthorized immigrants were encouraged to voluntarily depart or face slow and costly formal deportation proceedings. The statistics show that from 2001 to 2008 President Bush deported a total of 10.3 million immigrants; three out of every four were voluntary returns. From 2009 to 2016, President Obama deported half as many, or 5.2 million; the majority—two out of every three—were alien removals, prioritizing the deportation of persons with criminal records and repeated immigration violations.29

Several attempts were undertaken to pass comprehensive immigration reform during George W. Bush’s administration, and another attempt was undertaken during Obama’s presidency in 2013. Senators Charles Schumer (D-New York), John McCain (R-Arizona), Richard Durbin (D-Illinois), Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), Robert Menéndez (D-New Jersey), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Robert Bennet (D-Colorado), and Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) authored the bipartisan “The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.” It won Senate approval (68 to 32) but failed to move forward in the House of Representatives in the proscribed time, the reform effort failing again.

Mexican Immigrants Respond

Unauthorized immigrants, a labor force working in the shadows of American society since 1942, seeing their lives and work increasingly criminalized, deportations reaching soaring levels, and US borders militarized, began asserting their political agency in organized ways, thus marking the sixth and current phase of this history. With securitization legislation increasingly employed to monitor immigrant movements and force their deportation on the ruse that they were potential terrorists, a variety of pro-immigrant organizations sought legislative relief to prevent the removal of children they had brought to the United States. With the help of Senators Dick Durbin (D-Il) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), on August 1, 2001, they introduced the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), which had been debated by Congress repeatedly but not yet passed. Those who met the criteria of the DREAM Act—brought into the US before the age of 16, four years of continuous residence in the United States since arrival, graduation from high school or its equivalent, good moral character, males born after 1960 registered with the Selective Service—are promised “conditional” immigrant status for six years. If they then graduate from a two-year community college, show two years of progress toward a four-year university degree, or serve in the military for two years, they will be granted permanent resident status, eligible for citizenship after five years.

Organizers staged a host of pro-immigrant demonstrations to bring attention to the plight of DREAMers and the conditions in which their unauthorized parents toil. Among the first was the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a caravan of 18 chartered buses with protesters from around the country who converged on Washington DC on October 2, 2003. Visiting over 100 cities along the way, the organizers intentionally evoked memories of the 1961 African American freedom rides to desegregate public transportation in the American South. In 1961, African Americans protested their second-class citizenship. In 2003, the immigrant worker caravans emphasized their hard work at slave wages and the constant threat of deportation. They brought attention to the fact that as political subjects unauthorized immigrants had absolutely no rights.

The December 16, 2005 passage of what became widely known as the “Sensenbrenner Bill” (after Congressman James Sensenbrenner, R-WI)—formally the “Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005” (H.R. 4437)—further heightened tensions in immigrant communities across the country. The bill included more rigorous employment verification requirements and sought funding for a 700-mile border fence. But most controversial were the proposed penalties for entering the United States without authorization. These included a ten-year minimum sentence for entry with forged documents; the criminalization of any person caught helping undocumented immigrants, be they providing water, food, or teaching them English; the deportation of authorized immigrants convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol; and the bill’s reclassification of all unauthorized entries and reentries as aggravated felonies subject to extended detention.

Latino immigrant communities exploded in rage. On March 10, 2006, half a million people protested the Sensenbrenner Bill in Chicago, followed by a million in Los Angeles on March 25, with many others rallying in cities across the nation demanding legal protections for unauthorized immigrants who had become part of America’s lowest working class, toiling without protection. These events helped coalesce immigrant and labor organizations, religious and civil rights leaders, and legal aid advocates into an immigrant rights movement that quickly became visible and stridently articulate in their demand for rights. The movement’s genesis was rooted in the intensification of immigrant restrictions, in the accelerating pace of Mexican deportations, and by the enactment of discriminatory local and state laws targeting immigrants, denying them the housing, medical care, and public education. Federal courts mostly struck down these local ordinances as unconstitutional, as encroachments on federal jurisdiction over immigration, but the uninterrupted racial profiling and local policing that accompanied them, were particularly frightening to Mexican immigrants and citizens alike.

These were the events that birthed an immigrant rights movement that had been a long time in the making. Together they organized “The National Day of Action for Immigrant Social Justice,” on April 10, 2006, with major marches and rallies in over sixty cities. The placards the protesters carried read: “No Human Being Is Illegal,” “We Are Not Criminals,” “The 9/11 Hijackers Did Not Speak Spanish,” “Aquí Estamos, No Nos Vamos (We Are Here, We Are Not Leaving),” “Y Si Nos Sacan, Nos Regresamos (And If We Are Deported, We Will Return).” Next, they organized a one-day general strike held on May 1, 2006, called “A Day Without an Immigrant,” rallying massive crowds in the name of immigrant rights, demonstrating the impact the work of immigrants had on the American economy. President Bush responded by calling for “comprehensive immigration reform,” code words for harsher border enforcement, coupled with proposals for the creation of a new guest worker program akin to the highly exploitative 1942–1964 Bracero Program, which provided American employers with cheap, servile, and easily deportable labor.

Immigration reform has been a hot-button issue during the Bush, Obama, and Trump presidencies. In general, Democrats have favored pathways to citizenship, the legalization for young people brought into the United States as children, and amnesty for their parents if they were long-time residents of good moral character. Anti-immigration Republicans, on the other hand, have refused to forgive or forget. They often answer calls for amnesty with the slogan, “What part of illegal don’t you understand?”

Given the repeated failure of Congress to pass the DREAM Act, President Obama responded to their plight on June 12, 2012, instructing DHS to grant persons who entered the United States before their 16th birthday and before June 2007, a renewable two-year work permit and temporary exemption from deportation, under the provisions of his executive order, “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA). Since DACA was issued, 790,000 applications have been approved; some 72,000 denied. After the inauguration of President Donald Trump on January 20, 2017, he ordered the program ended by March 2017, explaining that “the Attorney General of the United States, the Attorneys General of many states, and virtually all other top legal experts have advised that the program is unlawful and unconstitutional and cannot be successfully defended in court.” New York and California sued. On April 24, 2018, Judge John D. Bates of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia prohibited the government from abolishing the program, explaining that no evidence had been offered that the program was unlawful. DACA’s temporary work permits and stay on deportations continues, highly publicized by the Dreamers themselves. What the future holds remains uncertain, though President Trump’s repeated pronouncements on immigration, have demonstrated his desire to abolish nationality-based immigration quotas, offering instead entry and work visas to immigrants based on merit, shrinking refugee and asylum entries, and building a wall along the US-Mexico border.30

As this survey of the history of Mexican immigration to the United States has shown, it has been a long one—170 years thus far—marked by the migration mainly of unskilled, minimally educated males and females seeking to improve their lot and those of the households they leave behind. Their monetary remittances have had a tremendous impact on the well-being of Mexico and Mexicans. Since the 1930s, whether they be citizens of the United States, authorized immigrant, or undocumented, ethnic Mexicans have been victimized by avowed racists and by their allies complicit in enacting racially motivated laws that have defined them as criminals, as problems, as illegal aliens whose work is needed and desired to maximize profit, but whose human bodies are imagined as polluting the body politic and therefore cannot be assimilated. The fate of Mexican immigrants in America since the passage of the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 has been increasingly determined by the criminal justice system’s punishment of lawbreakers. Though the DHS pronounces that it simply enforces immigration laws, this rhetoric normalizes and dehistoricizes what have long been racially motivated, anti-Mexican laws; laws that are selectively and seasonally ignored to attract criminalized labor, then to mercilessly expel those who refuse to be servile, who demand humane treatment, fair wages, and paths to citizenship for their years of toil and taxes. As immigration historian Bill Ong Hing reminds us, “Like white privilege, institutionalized racism generally goes unrecognized by those who are not negatively impacted.”31 As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump unmasked the depth of American nativist and anti-immigrant convictions by raising them in his opening campaign speech: “They’re [Mexico] sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bring those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”32

Discussion of the Literature

The literature on Mexican immigrants in the United States is immense, mainly because this migrant stream has existed for more than 150 years. The least-documented period is the one following the US-Mexico War, from 1848 to roughly 1900. The historical literature on this period chronicles the impact of American colonial rule on the former Mexican residents of the territory annexed by the United States—their land loss and the onset of Mexican labor migration north, spurred by the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath. On these themes see Laura E. Gómez, Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race; Albert Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society: From Mexican Pueblos to American Barrios in Santa Barbara and Southern California, 1848–1930; Richard Griswold del Castillo, The Los Angeles Barrio: 18501890: A Social History, David Montejano, Anglos and Mexican in the Making of Texas, 18361986; and Leonard Pitt. The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of Spanish-Speaking Californians, 18461890.33

The impact of the Mexican Revolution on migration and politics in both Mexico and the United States is another important topic that has yet to receive its due, especially the tensions and labor competition that developed between ethnic Mexican American citizens and the newly arriving immigrants. On this topic see, Benjamin Heber Johnson, Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into American; David G. Gutiérrez, Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity; Charles H. Harris and Louis R. Sadler, The Texas Rangers and the Mexican Revolution; Colin M. MacLachlan and John Mason Hart, Anarchism and the Mexican Revolution: The Political Trials of Ricardo Flores Magón in the United States; Kelly Lytle Hernández, Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol; Alfonso Fábila, El problema de la emigración de obreros y campesinos mexicanos; Mercedes Carreras de Velasco, Los mexicanos que devolvió la crisis, 19291932; Moisés González Navarro, Los extranjeros en México y los mexicanos en el extranjero, 18211970.34

How Mexicans have integrated into American society is a major theme in the literature. One should start with George J. Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 19001945. More recent is the comprehensive tome by Edward E. Telles and Vilma Ortiz, Generations of Exclusion: Mexican American, Assimilation, and Race, which was a follow-up study to Leo Grebler, Joan W. Moore, and Ralph Guzmán’s, The Mexican American People: The Nation’s Second Largest Minority. Some scholars likewise have sought to compare the Mexican immigrant experience of integration to that of other ethnic groups. See: Luis Fraga et. al., Latino Lives in America: Making it Home and Joel Perlmann, Italians Then, Mexicans Now: Immigrant Origins and Second Generation Progress, 18902000.35

The current anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States begs for robust social scientific analysis but has yielded little so far. Instead, the printed word is still dominated by anti-Mexican rants, the best known being Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. The following works look at xenophobia and immigrant identities more extensively: Juan Perea, Immigrants Out! The New Nativism and the Anti-Immigrant Impulse in the United States; Douglas Massey and Magaly Sánchez, Brokered Boundaries: Creating Immigrant Identity in Anti-Immigrant Times.36

The primer on the securitization literature elaborated by the Copenhagen School of International Relations is Barry Buzan, Ole Waever, and Jaap de Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis. For concrete examples of how this discourse had been deployed in the United States, see Nicholas De Genova and Nathalie Peutz, eds., The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement; Cecilia Menjívar and Daniel Kanstroom, eds., Constructing Immigrant “Illegality”: Critiques, Experiences, and Responses. On the Dreamers, see Walter J. Nicholls, The DREAMers: How the Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed the Immigrant Rights Debate; Roberto G. Gonzales, Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America; and, Manuel García y Griego and Mónica Verea, México y Estados Unidos frente a la migración de indocumentados.37

Primary Sources

Since the beginning of the 20th century, immigration has been a process exclusively controlled by the nation-state through the offices of the federal government. The agents, agencies, and the laws they enforced, as mandated by Congressional legislation, can be found in many digitized archives. The history of the federal bureaucracy charged with the control of immigration, now denominated as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security, can be intensively studied at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. The Library of Congress also has an extensive collection of primary source material, mostly geared toward classroom use and teaching, that can be accessed at Immigration: Challenges for New Americans A number of academic institutions, under the aegis of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, have partnered to create the Bracero History Archive.

Also immensely useful is Harvard University Library Open Collections, “Immigration to the United States, 1789–1930,” which contains extensive holdings on the California Gold Rush, the construction of railroads in the American West, The Dillingham Commission hearing on immigration restriction in the 1920s, the papers of the Immigration Restriction League, and the yearly reports of the Commissioner-General of Immigration.

There are many first-person narratives of the Mexican immigrant experience in the United States. See Manuel Gamio, The Mexican Immigrant: His Life Story; Ernesto Galarza, Barrio Boy (1971); Julian Samora, Los Mojados: The Wetback Story; Ramón T. Pérez, Autobiography of an Undocumented Immigrant; Helen Thorpe, Just Like Us: The True Stories of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America; Reyna Grande, The Distance Between Us: A Memoir; José Angel N., Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant; Jenny Rodriguez, Undocumented: The True Stories of Illegal Immigrants and their Children; Larry Siems, Between the Lines: Letters Between Undocumented Mexican and Latin American Immigrants and Their Families and Friends.38

Further Reading

  • Archdeacon, Thomas J. Becoming American: An Ethnic History. New York, NY: Free Press, 1983.
  • Balandrán-Castillo, María. “After the Braceros: Mexican and American Immigration Politics, 1964–1986.” PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2016.
  • Calavita, Kitty. Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Immigration, and the I.N.S. New Orleans, LA: Quid Pro Books, 2010.
  • Cardoso, Lawrence A. Mexican Emigration to the United States, 1897–1931. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1980.
  • Chávez, Leo. Shadowed Lives: Undocumented Immigrants in American Society. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.
  • Cockcroft, James. Outlaws in the Promised Land: Mexican Immigrant Workers and America’s Future. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1968.
  • Craig, Richard B. The Bracero Program: Interest Groups and Foreign Policy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.
  • De Genova, Nicholas, and Nathalie Peutz, eds. The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.
  • Delgado, Grace. Making the Chinese Mexican: Global Migration, Localism, and Exclusion in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.
  • Divine, Robert A. American Immigration Policy, 1924–1952. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957.
  • Ennis, Sharon R., Merarys Ríos-Vargas, and Nora G. Albert. “The Hispanic Population: 2010.” United States Census Bureau.” U.S. Department of Commerce.
  • Fox, Cybelle. Three Worlds of Relief: Race, Immigration, and the American Welfare State from the Progressive Era to the New Deal. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.
  • Gonzalez-Barrera, Ana and Jens Manuel Krogstad. “What We Know about Illegal Immigration from Mexico.” Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2015.
  • Gutiérrez, David G. Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
  • Hernández, José Angel Hernández. Mexican American Colonization during the Nineteenth Century: A History of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Krogstad, Jens Manuel, and Jeffrey S. Passel. “5 Facts about Illegal Immigration in the U.S.” Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2015.
  • Krogstad, Jens Manuel, and Jeffrey S. Passel, “Those from Mexico Will Benefit Most from Obama’s Executive Action.” Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2014.
  • Lytle Hernández, Kelly. Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
  • Martínez, Oscar J. “On the Size of the Chicano Population: New Estimates, 1850–1900.” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 45 (Spring 1975): 43–59.
  • Massey, Douglas S., Jorge Durand, and Nolan J. Malone. Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002.
  • Massey, Douglas S., and Audrey Singer. “New Estimates of Undocumented Mexican Migration and the Probability of Apprehension.” Demography 32 (1995): 203–213.
  • McBride, George. Land Systems of Mexico. New York: American Geographical Society, 1923.
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