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US-Mexico Immigration history


…is something I’ve been reading about a bit lately. So while taking nothing away from Yglesias’ larger point in this post, the following observation:

there was no legal curb on immigration from Latin America until 1965, though there was a lot of quasi-legal harassment

understates the case a bit, I think. It is indeed the case that the quota system set up in the 1924 Immigration Act exempted the Western hemisphere. However, while the interwar restricitonist period did indeed produce a significant amount of what might reasonably be characterized “quasi-legal harrassment,” it also included an order from the federal government to consular officials, in August of 1928, to “deny entry visas to most Mexican applicants and enforce for the first time against Mexicans the provisions of the 1917 Immigration act denying entrance to the illiterate. The authortities also began demanding the eight dollar head tax called for in the 1917 legislation” (Joseph Nevins, Operation Gatekeeper, pg. 27). Based on my understanding of the 1917 act, I don’t see why this order should be understood as anything other than legal–while the 1917 act targeted Asian immigration specifically, it also included provisions regarding the rejection of all manner of categories of ‘undesirables,’ including the illiterate. While I don’t have historical data on Mexico’s literacy rate, the active application of the literacy provision and the head tax surely constitute a ‘legal curb.’ The ensuing decade would witness the forced deportation of roughly half a million Mexican migrants. Some of those expulsions may be reasonably characterized as quasi-legal, but the 1928 directive regarding the 1917 law might plausibly have given some portion of them a reasonable claim to ‘legality’.

The Bracero program, inaugurated in 1942, is generally understood as a legal enticement to Mexican immigration, rather than a curb, but it is best understood as both. ┬áMany agricultural employers in the US found the limitations of the program excessive and costly, and their hiring practices served to effectively promote extralegal, non-Bracero Mexican immigration. Any guest-worker program that doesn’t have the relevant employers on board (by hook of by crook) can reasonably characterized as a de facto curb to legal migration. While many undocumented, non-Bracero Mexican migrants were incorporated into the program after their arrival in the US, nearly a million others were deported in the first decade of Bracero.

None of this, of course, did much to disrupt the general pattern of migration that was emerging and the development of an economic order that was dependent on said migration. But the (largely arbitrary) injection of illegality into the process began well before 1965.

The act of non state-sanctioned border-crossing raises interesting philosophical issues regarding the classification of all acts as either illegal or legal (I’m somewhat attracted to Hans Lindhal’s argument that unauthorized crossings are better understood as alegal than illegal), but that’s the subject of another (probably more interesting but currently unwritten) post.

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  • Indeed. And there was also the mass expulsion of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression for taking jobs away from whites, even though some of these people were American citizens having been born here.

    The real concerns with Mexican migration begin in the early 1920s, with the sudden arrival of a lot of people fleeing the Mexican Revolution and then the Cristero revolt.

    The 1917 act was indeed primarily aimed at the Chinese, who were using the Mexican border to cross illegally, but could certainly be applied against the Mexicans, which does begin to happen by the 1920s.

    For more on all the weirdness of border enforcement against the Chinese and Mexicans, I highly recommend Patrick Ettinger’s article, “‘We Sometimes Wonder What They Will Spring On Us Next’: Immigrants and Border Enforcement in the American West, 1882–1930,” in the Summer 2006 issue of the Western Historical Quarterly.

  • I’m glad to see Eric Loomis setting the record straight on this. Mr. Yglesias is usually not taken as an authority on Latin America, and those of us who write and comment (and live) in this part of the world find it a bit disconcerting when his ruminations about us are taken seriously.

  • If you’re interested in this subject I cannot recommend too highly Douglas Massey et. al., _Beyond Smoke and Mirrors_, or Massey’s other work on the subject. It’s really excellent.

  • djw

    Agreed, Massey et al’s work–esp. Beyond Smoke and Mirrors–is consistently excellent. (And a fellow viking; he’s probably the most successful academic from my alma mater) I’ll take a look at Ettinger’s article; thanks Erik.

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