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.