I have been doing some research into the history of immigration originating from “south of the border”. The more I read, the more clarity I have in this unhealthy dance between the U.S. and Mexico. This article by the Harvard Magazine, succinctly points out, the historical migratory relationship throughout the last century, and the story does not seem to alter, no matter what decade. It goes something like this, America needs labor, cheap labor, we enlist help from our “south”, we get irritated with the “help” and send them home. Some time later, not a long period of time mind you, we realize that we need more cheap labor. We send out the “bat” signal, calling all cheap labor, and next thing you know, we have immigrant workers, legal and illegal.   Clearly, many of the immigrant workers, legal and illegal who are hispanic are not all from Mexico, but I believe the premise of the article, this country needing an expanded unskilled work force, holds true for many of our southern neighboring countries.   

This cycle has continued to this day. Isn’t it about time we figure out how to create some real workable and fair solutions to this ongoing dilema?

The first significant wave of Mexican workers coming into the United States began in the early years of the twentieth century, following the curtailment of Japanese immigration in 1907 and the consequent drying up of cheap Asian labor. The need for Mexican labor increased sharply when the Unites States entered World War I. The Mexican government agreed to export Mexican workers as contract laborers to enable American workers to fight overseas. After the war, an intensifying nativist climate led to restrictive quotas on immigration from Europe and to the creation of the U.S. Border Patrol, aimed at cutting back the flow of Mexicans. But economic demand for unskilled migrant workers continued throughout the Roaring Twenties, encouraging Mexican immigrants to cross the border—legally or not.

The Depression brought a temporary halt to the flow of Mexican labor. During the early 1930s, Mexican workers—including many legal residents—were rounded up and deported en masse by federal authorities in cooperation with state and local officials. Mexicans became the convenient scapegoats for widespread joblessness and budget shortages; as Douglas Massey, Jorge Durand, and Nolan J. Malone point out in Beyond Smoke and Mirrors (2002), Mexicans were accused, paradoxically, of both “taking away jobs from Americans” and “living off public relief.”

Although intended as a wartime arrangement, the Bracero program continued under pressure from U.S. growers, who feared a continued labor shortage in the booming postwar economy. Still, the numbers of legal braceros fell short of demand, and growers began regularly recruiting undocumented workers to tend their fields. By the end of the Korean War, illegal immigration had become a fixture of the U.S. agricultural economy—and public sentiment had again turned restrictionist. In 1954, the U.S. government responded with “Operation Wetback,” apprehending close to one million illegal workers. Meanwhile, to appease the growers, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) reprocessed many of these undocumented Mexicans and returned them to the fields as legal braceros.

The passage of the IRCA set the stage, many observers believe, for the enormous and entrenched problem of undocumented immigrants that exists today. While granting amnesty to 2.3 million Mexicans residing illegally in the United States, the law began a process of border fortification and militarization that has had the opposite of its intended effect. The idea of building a wall—which began under the Clinton administration—turned a pattern of circular migration into one of permanent settlement. “Now ‘Once I make it, I’m not going back,’” Domínguez explains. As Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey pointed out to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005: “From 1965 to 1985, 85 percent of undocumented entries from Mexico were offset by departures and the net increase in the undocumented population was small. The build-up of enforcement resources at the border has not decreased the entry of migrants so much as discouraged their return home.”

20 Thoughts to ““Uneasy Neighbors: A Brief History of Mexican – U.S. Migration””

  1. Emma

    America needs labor, cheap labor, we enlist help from our “south”, we get irritated with the “help” and send them home.

    Let’s get our nouns straight here, and not paint this issue with one big “we” brush:

    “America” = businesses who want cheap labor to enhance their bottom lines.

    “We” #1: politicians who are funded by business interests and refuse to strengthen or even enforce existing laws against illegal immigration.

    “We” #2: The middle-class homeowners who have to watch their neighborhoods degrade and their personal security threatened, and the workers who see job opportunities drying up in favor of the cheap labor.

    That leaves one missing noun. “Who” sends them home?

  2. Elena

    The middle class benefited from this housing boom. Those who were homeowners saw the home assesements double, even triple in some cases. Certainly, all the people who bought in brand new developments reaped the benefits. I would agree that we have mis-used this willing cheap labor. By ignoring the reality of this ongoing relationship with “cheap labor” , as a country, “we” are complicit.

    What are your thoughts on the history of immigration? Do you see its history relevant in todays dilema?

  3. Emma

    I would argue that many in the middle class looked at the housing boom as an opportunity to get in way over their heads, buying houses that were vastly overvalued and are now simpering for a government bailout from their mortgage obligations. Those of us who bought within our means, financing our homes with boring, fixed 15-year mortgages and who didn’t jump at the chance to own more square footage than we could afford to heat or cool, see the influx of cheap labor as having enabled this greed machine that has helped to push us into recession.

  4. Here’s a very good news story about how the death of Luis Ramirez is forcing Shenandoah, PA to confront the bigotry that has been lurking and growing under the surface.

    It’s unfortunate that it took the death of an innocent man to expose it. Hopefully, the residents of good will in Shenandoah will make sure he didn’t die for nothing.

  5. Elena

    Thank you for the video. I will do a thread featuring the video. I am encouraged by the determination of the mayor to deal with the underlying racial issues head on. I hope it helps to heal this community and educate its citizens.

  6. Poor people get exploited. And immigrants are the most vulnerable because they really don’t have any rights here.

    Without our rights, we’ve got nothing. And just like the immigrants, if we lost our rights, each one of us would be at the mercy of the political winds.

    Until we fix our immigration system to give legal status to all those who come here to work, these people will always be exploited.

    It’s disgusting. It’s a blot on our nations’ honor. I thought we were better than this.

  7. tickle_me_ELVIS

    why do “we” have to suffer because “someone” didnt enforce the law back in the day? why do “we” care about history? I care about the now, I want (and now) the illegals gone from the corners and the 7-11’s. I want (now) the crime committed by illegal aliens to stop. Forget about this work stuff, what we are getting now is criminals.

    the solution is to send them all back, give them temp visas (i’m actually fine with this) to work in this country. that way they are vetted on the way back in. I think your buddy obama is saying pretty much the same thing. i hate to sound racist here, but I dont have a problem with a mexican mowing my lawn the same as I dont have a problem with a white guy. I just want the guy to be vetted by “somebody”, not saying the federal government is error free but at least having someone look at these people should separate the wheat from the chaff

    I know a lot of people here will say sending them back is too inconvenient, well so what? inconvenient for who? give them a prospect of a temp visa and I’m sure they’ll take the bait. otherwise they should face immediate arrest and deportation (with no chance of visa after that). so that’s my mythical immigration plan, in my own little world it would work that like

  8. Moon-howler

    I don’t think most people intentionally got in over their heads. It is ever so easy to sit back and smuggly finger point at others. People buy at the going rate. People get sick, people get divorces, their spouses die, they have increased child support obligations, they care for sick parents …the list goes on.

    To say that many people simply wanted to over extend is grossly unfair and arrogantly lacks compassion for those who might have life altering situations happen in their lives. I thank my lucky stars that it didn’t happen to me, rather than gloat over the misfortune of others as I have seen happen to a couple of my friends who ran into difficulty.

  9. Moon-howler

    Crooner, explain to us how you are going to get them all back. Cattle cars? Jets? I understand your incentive, but what if they aren’t fooled by it all? How are you going to catch those who don’t trust the government and leave voluntarily?

  10. Marie

    Thanks Elena for doing the research. As you said in an earlier post this immigration issue did not happen in a vacuum. There is much history and I have been some research as well. I was astonished to learn all the things I have learned over the past few months.

  11. Marie

    I would like to know how you plan to arrange and pay for the transportation to send them all back. How will you know who to send?

  12. Emma, I’m going to return to my endorsement of domestic employment agencies that can arrange temporary work visas. This covers people who just want to come here to work. If their spouses want to work, they can apply as well and then they can come over as a family. THEN, if they want to become citizens, they can while they are here working. This would alleviate waiting lists, breaking up of families, and claims of illegals busting the economy.

  13. I am all for people who are already here applying to such agencies, epecially if they are already working. If they are already working, then obviously, there is no issue of employment and it will allow these folks to get their taxes fixed if indeed there is a tax issue to be fixed.

  14. Over-extension—this country loves to live on credit. Credit is sold to us at young ages. We grow up with the idea that debt is okay. We see it in the media and direct marketing. This is a mass cultural problem that affects us all, not just immigrants. We have the dream of a home and we do what we can to get it. Some of us will never achieve this dream because we don’t work in profitable fields or we have hard times or are born into poverty and work harder to get out of it.

    Here’s another shameless plug for helping to make that dream reality for the working poor, the disabled and elderly:


    Make your donations now! Give those unusual items just sitting in your basement, your services, or whatever else you might have.

  15. Bring it On

    Thanks for posting this article.

    It reminds me of Stirrup’s and Widowski’s claims that they left Arlington/Fairfax and moved to Prince William because of the ‘Illegals’. Excuse me then you obviously knew who was building the housing communities here in the County and your home in Dominion Valley. Funny never heard you complain then. It’s hypocrital for these people to now to complain especially after they have benefited from their labor.

  16. Marie

    You are right kgotthardt. This is a country that loves to live on credit. I remember as a teen there was an ad on television it said “You can have all the things you seek for a dollar down and a dollar a week” Guess that philopshy has been adopted.

    Thanks for the donation link.

  17. Thank you Elena! Please keep the information coming. I had no idea the militarization of our border is causing people to risk the journey here but not risk returning. It makes sense though. It’s survival that causes them to risk their lives to come here. They don’t have the same incentive once here. Why risk it, even if it means not seeing your family again until you adjust your status.

    I stopped reading Elvis after he said “who cares about history.”. Ignorance is simply the ONLY PATH to the Anti-Immigrant Lobby position. That’s why they spend so much money to spread misinformation with fear and hatred as the comfort blanket and lure.

    Emma, when I read this historical account I was hoping for a more thoughtful response from you. Don’t forget your neighborhood does not exist in a bubble. A collapsing economy due to labor shortages would affect you much more than the composition of your neighborhood, and the solutions would be much more complicated. With this historical context in mind, would you prefer the workers hadn’t been here for us when we needed them, not supported our war efforts, and not powered the economic growth that made this country great? In other words, would you prefer the anti-immigrant alarmists had succeeded and America had failed?

  18. Emma

    WHWN, you still seem to be wearing rose-colored glasses when it comes to the state of the economy. We are in recession, overvalued houses stand in foreclosure, and cheap foreign labor displaces American citizens for whatever jobs are left. And yes, many in the middle class did get in way over their heads, intentionally or not, and taxpayers will be paying for their bailouts for a long time to come. And I would argue that PWC doesn’t exist in a bubble, either, because this is a nationwide issue. I’m not seeing what the illegal immigrants are doing right now, above and beyond everyone else, to make this country great, as you say.

    You cannot assume that every illegal immigrant comes from abject poverty or political oppression. Some just want to live the good life. Do we owe that to them, just because they demand it and simply show up at our door? Or, as a sovereign nation, are we allowed to set limits and ensure that all nationalities have a fair crack at coming here?

  19. Emma,

    I think you’re misunderstanding the issue. Immigration is not an assault upon our sovereignty. That is a myth to create fear.

    We are not sacrificing one ounce of sovereignty by recognizing that they are part of our economy.

    The border patrol and other agencies you would pay with our tax dollars do not contribute to our economy. They are an expense. Not only are the an expense but they are a useless expense because the undocumented get here anyways. So why are we paying so much money for nothing? Because they act as a placebo for those people who worry that ‘nothing is being done about the border’. That is all the border patrol is, a placebo.

    The undocumented are part of our economy. They build and maintain our infrastructure. These are very dangerous jobs. When we attack them, we are also attacking our own economy.

    When we send out tax dollars to ICE, we are paying people to hurt our own economy.

  20. Marie, thanks and my pleasure to give the link 🙂

    “Send donations now!” 🙂

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