Alienating Laws: How Mexican Migration Became Illegal, Pt. 1

By Diego Mulato-Castillo

Note: I was fortunate to teach “The History of Mexican Migration” Spring 2018 at San Francisco State University. I say “fortunate” because never during my lifetime has the need for an accurate, historical, evidence-driven understanding of the movement of Mexican peoples across the U.S.-Mexico border been more important. With the Trump administration’s attacks on the migrant community in the United States, students were eager to find out the history behind the violent rhetoric and policies that characterized Trump’s rise to power. Needless to say, students were all overwhelmed with the long, ugly
xenophobic history of the United States. At the beginning of class I informed my students that I co-managed a blog focused on the history and politics of the Southwestern borderlands. As the course progressed students suggested that whoever wrote the best final paper should have their work published on the blog. What an excellent idea!

There were many excellent papers written about diverse topics relating to racism, labor,
environmentalism, eugenics, and more. But, in the end, only one would get the honor. I am pleased to announce that Diego Mulato Castillo’s essay titled “Alienating Laws: How Mexican Migration Became Illegal,” is the winner of our mini-contest. A timely piece, Mulato Castillo examines the legal history and the various social turns that drove the U.S. to make the migration of Mexican people and by extension Latin Americans “illegal.”

Diego Mulato Castillo is an undergraduate student at San Francisco State University and is majoring in literature with an interest in the Central American diaspora, specifically from the so-called northern triangle. He finds the history of Mexican migration interesting for it sheds a distinct light on the migration of Central Americans to el norte, and migration from all of Latin America as a whole. 

This essay will be presented in two parts. Enjoy! -Lina Murillo

Mexican immigration into the United States is perceive as an illegal act in the twenty-first century warranting expulsion, however, historically this has not always been the case. The ebb and flow of Mexican migration has been influenced and framed differently throughout the complicated and intertwined history of the United States and its neighbor to the south, Mexico. The U.S. and Mexico not only share one of the most militarized borders in the world, but also a shared history fraught with tension and vast inequality. It is this historic tension and inequality that has served as a catalyst for the vast migration of Mexicans to the United States, which has possessed a historical ambivalence towards these immigrants, at times welcoming them as cheap labor hands to then call for their return to their native land. This paper will focus on the history of Mexican migration and the law beginning with the first Mexican Americans after the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 and the events leading up to the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border in the late twentieth century in order to understand how Mexican immigration became illegal in twenty-first century.

The first Mexican immigrants were not quite immigrants, but rather became conquered subjects of the United States after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which forced the Mexican state to cede nearly half of its northern territory to the United States. In the aftermath of the U.S. War with Mexico, an estimated 100,000 Mexican citizens lived in the ceded territories. One of the main caveats pursued by Mexico in the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was for the Mexican citizens left in the ceded territories to be awarded all the benefits of U.S citizenship—the United States agreed. In 1848, the United States perceived itself as a “white” nation of a predominantly northwestern European background, and citizenship was awarded only to individuals who fit this racial makeup. As a result, the sighing of the treaty had the impact of assigning the former Mexican citizens in the annexed territories the racial category of “white”[1]. Despite the treaty, former Mexicanos of indigenous decent were not awarded the status of citizenship. Moreover, Mexican-Americans were treated as second class citizens, despite possessing the same claim to citizenship as their counterparts of European ancestry. Laura E. Gómez argues that U.S. colonialism is responsible for the creation of the first Mexican-Americans. Indeed manifest destiny was the impetus behind the acquisition of Norther Mexico, as the United States hoped to obtain a vast amount of natural resources and create a large swatch of land prime for settlement[2]. It was through this destabilization of the Mexican state that the pull of individuals from Mexico came into being.

As the nineteenth century came to a close, immigration law leading into the 1920s exceedingly criminalized migration from China, Japan, and the Philippines, but not Mexican migration which provided the cheap labor needed to jumpstart the massive agricultural boom in the southwestern United States. Adopted in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act made the entry of all Chinese laborers into the country illegal, and bared Chinese immigrants from citizenship[3]. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was in many forms a precursor to the National Quotas Act of 1924—a truly racist immigration law— which placed numerical restrictions on immigration into the United States and created the U.S. border patrol. The law disproportionately impacted migration from Asian countries which historically provided laborers to the United States. Unlike in Asian, the National Quotas Act was not enforced on the Western Hemisphere, and for a strategic reason—cheap exploitable Mexican labor. After agriculture became more and more industrialized, the need for labor increased and Mexican laborers stepped in to fill the vacuum of exploitation. The Immigration Service did not require a passport or visa from Mexicans entering the country. In addition, immigration policy great benefited the burgeoning agricultural sector looking for seasonal laborers. Ngai explains that as a Mexican laborer one had to only pay a head tax and leave when the season ended or be deemed illegal[4]. Immigration policies thus created a pathway towards not only working in the U.S. but to potentially become an illegal immigrant. Therefore, Mexican migration became increasingly perceived as illegal, a concept that would have drastic consequences during the coming depression.

After the 1929 crash of the U.S. stock market the United States embarked on a massive program of repatriation in the hopes of alleviating the economic crisis raging throughout the country. Despite being responsible for providing the back-breaking labor that fueled the agricultural sector, Mexican immigrants became increasingly looked at unfavorably. U.S. officials and social leaders undertook on a massive repatriation program that sought to put pressure on Mexicans living in the United States to return to Mexico. What resulted was the exodus of 1.6 million Mexicanos, among them 469,000 Mexican-Americans, the majority of them children born in the United States[5]. Local private groups such as the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, charities, municipal governments and both the U.S. and Mexican federal governments aided repatriation efforts[6]. Harassed with deportation, many individuals decided to repatriate back to Mexico. The Mexican government believed that Mexican repatriation could provide a stimulous to the Mexican public, for returning Mexican immigrants were expected to aid in the economic and social development of Mexico as a result of having previously resided in the United States. The Mexican government sponsored returning Mexicans with subsidized transportation and relocated many in agricultural colonies—however, most colonies slowly declined into abandonment[7]. Indeed, Mexican immigrants in the United States where framed as an unwanted burden despite their contributions to the U.S. economy, and thus began a period of Mexican migration being framed as unwanted. Nevertheless, as the United States was thrust into the World War II in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the agricultural sector with the help of the federal government once again welcomed Mexican migration into the country.

As the United States shifted into a wartime economy, there was once again a need for labor especially in agriculture and Mexican migrants were welcomed into the country; furthermore, in 1942 both the United States and Mexico agreed to enforce a guest worker program label the Bracero Program to better enforce “legal Mexican migration.” According to Douglas S. Massey, the Bracero Program began with the recruitment of only 4,200 workers[8]. As demand for cheap farm labor intensified so did the recruitment of Braceros. The Bracero Program developed into a legal system of endentured servitude, in which Mexican laborers were extracted from the heart of Mexico and shipped into the fields of the United States. Under the guise of “controlled and legal migration,” the United States government was able to provide agribusinesses with a vast sector of second class laborers. Ernesto Galarza, a longtime farm labor activist and avid critic of the Bracero Program, argued that the U.S. farmers strategically sought to employ Braceros to depress wages, break strikes, and undermine working conditions[9]. In turn, because there was now a legal method to enter into the country, all other entries by Mexicans seeking work in the United States was labeled illegal. During the whole of the Bracero Program which lasted from 1942 to 1964, 4.6 million bracer contracts were issued for temporary agricultural work in the United States—another 5 million individuals were detained for being illegal immigrants[10]. Farm labor was then split between workers who were legally employed in the U.S. and those who were seen as illegal workers. Due to the nature of the Bracero Program, the Mexican state was able to exert some influence over the contracts of their workers, and at times Mexican consulates in the United States advocated on the behalf of braceros. However, the United States on multiple occasions infringed on its own immigration laws to lessen the influence of the Mexican state. In 1948, for instance, the Mexican government temporarily paused all migrant labor under the Bracer Program in order to pressure the U.S. government into yielding to demands of improving wages and living conditions. Under pressure of growers, the United States at the border of El Paso, allowed the entry of roughly four thousand illegal Mexican migrants, a direct disregard not only for labor laws in the United States but Mexico[11]. The Bracero Program years clearly showed the ambivalence the United States government had towards illegal migration.

The Bracero Program ended in 1965, to the dismay of the Mexican government, which attempted to renew the program. In the same year, the United States government shifted immigration policy with the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act which added numerical restrictions to legal Mexican migration into the country, creating once again a new sector of illegal immigrants. As explained by Massey, prior to the Immigration Nationality Act, Mexicans possessed the access to 438,000 temporary work visas, and an unlimited number of resident visas. By 1979 the new amendments to the prior immigration policy had reduced work visas for Mexican laborers to 1,725 and the annual quota for resident visas was reduced to a trickle of just 20,000 individuals[12]. Yet, the demand for labor continued to steadily increase and unauthorized workers, the vast majority of them Mexican, migrated into the United States. Indeed, the Bracero era hopes of controlling Mexican migration were unsuccessful, and Mexican immigration into the United States steadily increased from 1965 to 1986. With the inception of the Immigration and Nationality Act the illegality of Mexican migration became more entrenched and the enforcement of border security more systemically enforced. Mexican migration which sustained the economy of the United States was restricted; but the pull for cheap and exploitable labor was not addressed. Therefore, immigration policy by imposing numerical numbers on Mexican immigration, created a vast population of Mexicans who remained in a state of suspended limbo, unable to acquire the social benefits of documentation, and, yet, keeping the United States economy afloat.

The second part of Diego’s essay will appear this Friday on the blog, check back soon!

[1] Lisa García Bedolla, Latino Politics (Malden: Polity Press, 2014), 50.

[2] Laura E. Gómez, Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race (New York: New York University Press, 2008) 19.

[3] Julian Lim, Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017)54.

[4] Mai Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 70.

[5] Kelly Lytle Hernandez, “Mexican Immigration to the United States” OAH Magazine of History, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Oct., 2009): 25.

[6] Lytle Hernandez, 26

[7] Fernando Saúl Alanís Enciso, “The Repatriation of Mexicans from the United States and Mexican Nationalism, 1929-1940”: 69.

[8] Douglas S. Massey, “The Past and Future of Mexico-U.S. Migration”: 253.

[9] Lytle Hernandez, 26.

[10] David Fitzgerald, “Mexican Migration and the Law”: 182.

[11] Fitzgerald, 182.

[12] Massey, 253.

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One thought on “Alienating Laws: How Mexican Migration Became Illegal, Pt. 1

  1. Pingback: Alienating Laws: How Mexican Migration Became Illegal, Pt. II | Borderlands History

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