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

By Diego Mulato-Castillo

This is the second part of Diego’s essay, to read the first installment, click here.

As undocumented Mexican migration increased, the debate raged within the United States government about how to put a stop to what was perceived as a flood of illegal immigration, a solution was proposed by the introduction of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which militarized the U.S.-Mexico border and further criminalized Mexican migration. The IRCA immigration reform of 1986 clearly highlighted the contradictory stance the U.S. government possessed towards Mexican immigration. IRCA provided amnesty to an estimated 2.7 million undocumented immigrants, and sought to put an abrupt end to further illegal migration by imposing worker sanctions and beginning the remarkable militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border that continues to present day[1]. Ngai further explains that Congress authorized the doubling of the Border Patrol and set the groundwork for the vast network of walls, drones, surveillance equipment, and personnel which now costs taxpayers 2 billion dollars a year[2].

IRCA did little to dramatically reduce undocumented migration in the United States. The long-lasting impact of IRCA, nevertheless, includes the framing of Mexican migration as a criminal act. Mexican immigration as a problem became cemented in the U.S. psyche. The fatal flaw of the U.S. government and the implementation of IRCA was that it did not address the structural problems that drive migration—unequal distribution of wealth, globalism, poverty—and instead addressed immigration on an individual, and short-sided basis[3] .

The failure of IRCA to curb Mexican migration by criminalizing individuals can best be grasped by the 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants residing in the United States as of 2016[4]. What IRCA achieved was the remarkable targeting of the unauthorized population, along with the channeling of migrants through increasingly more dangerous routes of entry. The traditional corridors into California through Baja California became heavily patrolled and closed off, opening a new corridor through the dessert that is shared by Sonora and Arizona, a grueling and dangerous trek that has claimed the lives of hundreds. IRCA, which belongs to a long line of exclusionary laws, all provided the backdrop for the debate over Mexican migration that permeated the weaning years of the twentieth century, and spilled over into the twenty-first century.

Mexican migration continued to be perceived as a problem, and vehemently targeted by anti-immigration policies, and with the passing of the Patriot Act, as a response to September 11, 2001, an all-out war was declared on immigrants by the United States government. Originally intended to target terrorists, the Patriot Act revoked what little humanity was awarded to immigrants in the United States. It authorized the immediate deportation or incarceration of undocumented immigrants. Labeled “illegal aliens,” these individuals became the target of Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE), which moved their operations deep into the United States—no longer staying close to the U.S-Mexico border[5].

Massey reveals the scale of the growth of both ICE and the Border Patrol. Beginning during the implementation of IRCA in 1986 and to 2008, the number of border patrol agents increased from 3,700 to 18,000. The budget of the Border Patrol increased from 151 million dollars in 1986 to a staggering 7.9 billion, a fifty fold increase[6]. Comparatively, ICE since its inception in 2003, has grown to an agency of 17,000 workers with an annual budget of 59 billion[7]. ICE and the Border Patrol possess only one purpose: apprehending undocumented migrants and either deporting them as quickly as possible or incarcerating them in the various immigrant detention centers throughout the country. In the twenty-first century, the systemic deportation of millions of individuals, especially prevalent during the Obama administration, coupled with immigrant hysteria has increasingly framed Mexicans, both documented and undocumented, as a threat to the security and social make up of the United States. One has to only experience the current rhetoric emanating from Washington to perceive how Mexican migration is framed as a criminal act.

Today, the framing of Mexican migration, and migration from Latin America as a whole, has been strategically deemed illegal and constructed to fit a politicized agenda. Currently in the United States, the theory of a migrant invasion is utilized to sow xenophobia and racism throughout the public as a whole, and to instill fear on undocumented individuals. Migrants from Mexico are framed as foreign bodies not worthy of etching out a living in the United Sates. Jeff Sessions, United States Attorney General, in a recent press release stated that illegal aliens are criminals that should be deported, and that they will face the extent of the law. Indeed, immigration laws continue to create a vast number of illegal subjects, who in many ways, remained trapped within the demarcated boundaries of the nation state—for their home countries have ceased to be their homes.

Moreover, immigration law have begun to target refugees and even children in a new cruel phase intended to criminalize all immigration from Mexico and Central America. Sessions, in a May press release given in San Diego, stated that immigrants accompanied by children will be prosecuted and separated from each other, and will no longer be house in detention centers together[8]. Immigration laws have resorted to draconian methods of punishment for undocumented migration from Mexico and Central America. As soon as Mexican migrants cross the demarcated border between Mexico and the U.S. they cease to be humans, and under U.S. immigration law become illegal aliens that are at the mercy of the state—or lack thereof.

In closing, the history of Mexican migration is one that it tightly intertwined with laws, stemming from the creation of the first Mexican Americans in the aftermath the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, to the twenty first century were present day rhetoric and cruel laws are aimed at criminalizing and prosecuting immigrants from Mexico and Central America. As the period of the American War on Mexico reveals, the U.S-Mexico border has undergone several fluctuations before becoming the militarized border of today. The border, after the annexation of half of Mexico, crossed the 100,000 former Mexican citizens and created the first Mexican Americans and began the process of Mexican migration in the North. With the implementation of IRA and the Patriot Act, the U.S and Mexican border has become the stringent arbiter of legality, on one side an individual possesses a form of personhood, but when they cross over this personhood is tripped and they become a criminal—a criminal alien, no longer deserving of any human rights. Alas, the urgent question remains—what now?

Migration for many Mexicanos, and increasingly Central Americans, is no longer a choice but a means for survival. So called illegal aliens are in fact refugees, created in large part by both economic and armed interventions in Latin America by the United States. The opaque shroud of illegality must be lifted, and the true identity of these refugees revealed. The illegality of Mexican migration as it has been historically crafted in the last century to today, is one clouded by racism and xenophobia. Migration is not a criminal act, but a means of survival.

[1] Ngai, 266.

[2] Ngai, 266.

[3] García Bedolla, 238.

[4] García Bedolla, 239.

[5] Massey, 254.

[6] Massey, 257.

[7] Massey, 257.

[8] Jeff Sessions, “If you are Smuggling a Child, We will Prosecute You” (2018, San Diego: NBC News, 2018) Broadcast.

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