The History of Immigration

bra·cer·o noun /brəˈserˌō/ one who works with his hands

Mexican immigrants have occupied an important part of the history of the United States from its very beginning. Millions of US citizens can trace their origins to Mexican citizens who have migrated to the United States or returned to the lands that had been lost to them. Contrary to the belief held by many, Mexicans had already occupied many parts of the United States even before the United States was conceived as a nation.

Any discussion about immigration almost always includes a discussion about Mexican migration although the issue of immigration reform includes immigration from all other nations of the world. However, immigration reform cannot exist without the Mexican component because Mexicans are the largest group of migrants to the United States, today and in the past.

Unfortunately, because of the complexity of the issue of immigration and because immigration is such a volatile topic the discussions about immigration are distorted by public agendas for various reasons. This fog of distorted propaganda drives the discussion and the realities and truth are lost along the way.

Likewise, as immigrants, we fail to engage in the national discussion and we neglect to participate at the electoral box allowing the distorted immigration discussion to drive immigration policy.

We must end the cycle of distorting the immigration discussion for political agenda in order to effect a proper and equitable solution to the immigration problem.

This website is intended to serve as the repository for reliable and factual data on immigration to the United States in order to allow immigration reform advocates the ability to correct the distorted record through historical and current data based on facts. Although centered on the Mexican experience for brevity reasons, immigration reform should include and welcome all immigrants to the United States because the reality is that the United States is a country based and driven by immigration from the moment it was founded.

The History of Mexican Immigration

Mexicans have been part of the cycle of human and social movements within the borders of the United States from the moment the United States was being formed. Mexican immigration is a complex phenomenon that is unique to the Mexican-United States relationship. The dynamic of Mexican immigration to the United States has always been one of need for both countries with some in society welcoming while others angrily rejecting the immigrants in their communities. Regardless of the hostility be some in the US, Mexican immigrant have thrived in significant portions of the United States and continue to do so. Mexican culture, identity and influence can be found in almost any community in the United States today. Over 37 million individuals living in the United States speak Spanish at home, making Spanish the dominant, by far, foreign language in the United States. [1] This makes the United States the fifth-largest country in the world based on its Spanish speaking population.

Mexican food influence dominates US cuisine and some places it has replaced tradition US food styles. However, Latino influence on US culture is continuously rising in music and television as well as in national politics.

Although the perception about Mexican immigration is centered on Mexican citizens coming to the United States, the fact is that Mexican immigration was not immigration but rather a borderline on a map being redrawn turning Mexican citizens in their homes into instant US citizens.

After the War with Mexico ended in 1848, Mexico lost the land that is now the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. Thousands of Mexican citizens were now US citizens even though they had not crossed a border, in effect; the border crossed them.

Although the treaties changing the border guaranteed the newly minted US citizens the right to their properties and the right to continue living in their homes the reality is that many were displaced by the US government’s inability to contain lawlessness in the new territories.

Mexican immigration to the United States has always been based on economic necessities and the historical record clearly shows that Mexican immigrants always have intended to work in the US to fill a labor void and return to Mexico. Although the relative closeness of Mexico made cross-border labor travel feasible US inaction on concrete immigration policy created and continues to cultivate uncertainty forcing Mexican immigrants to live in the shadows forcing many of them to remain in the US, instead of traveling back to Mexico when the work dries off.

Initially, the openness of the border allowed unrestricted and un-documentable flows of migration between the US and Mexico. Their inability to have access to official governance forced most of the immigrants to live in the fringes of society subjecting them to abuse by employers and others taking advantage of their vulnerability.

This abuse is the nexus to the engrained fear of official government actions that remains prominent within immigrant communities today.

The Great Depression of the 1930’s increased US citizen hostility towards Mexicans in general and brought about the first forced mass relocations of Mexicans. In what is, now known as the “Mexican Repatriation” an estimated 400,000 to 1 million Mexicans, many of them US citizens, were forced out of the United States. [4] The basis of the forced relocations was the scarcity of jobs in the marketplace. As today, immigrants were blamed for unemployment. Some research shows that as many as 2 million Mexicans were forcefully displaced and as many as 1.2 million were US citizens forced to Mexico.

There is a lack of concrete documentation on the repatriations because as has been acknowledged by the federal government many of those forced out of the country were intimidated or illegally forced out of the US by local and state officials with the tacit approval of the federal government. [4] Immigrants, then as today, especially Mexican were used as scapegoats for political expediency on domestic issues.

On February 22, 2005, the California approved Senate Bill 670 that was enacted on January 1, 2006. The bill enacted the “Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program” and acknowledged that between 1929 and 1944, “United States citizens and legal residents of Mexican descent” were “unconstitutionally” removed and “coerced” into leaving the United States.

This forced and illegal repatriation of Mexicans was the beginning of the cycle of using immigrants as scapegoats for political purposes when convenient and encouraging immigration when the United States needs labor for economic prosperity.

As immigrants generally and historically do not advocate politically and many of them legally prohibited from engaging in the ballot box they became the perfect scapegoats to politicians catering to their electorates. It became convenient to ignore immigration policy in order to keep the immigrants as political fodder.

The next phase of the “yo-yo” immigration politics once again welcomed immigrant labor to shore up US farms that needed labor to pick crops. The onset of World War II offset the US workforce by moving able-bodied men from the farms into the military. Other workers were shifted into war material manufacturing leaving the agricultural sector without much needed labor.

In 1942, Mexico and the United States created a labor program to provide Mexican labor to the farmers. This program became known as the Bracero Program. The Bracero Program came as a result of a shortage of labor in various sectors of the economy because of the need for manpower in the war effort. Before we look into the Bracero Program it is important that we first look at the place Mexicans played in the war effort in World War II.

World War II

Unlike African-American servicemen, Latinos were not segregated in World War II and because of this it is difficult to ascertain exactly how many Mexican-Americans served in World War II. Nonetheless the contributions by Mexican citizens and US citizens of Mexican descent made such a significant impact on the war effort that even though improperly documented their contributions are readily pointed out. It is generally accepted that between 2 to 4 percent of the US armed forces in World War II were of Hispanic descent. The most obvious demonstration of Latino contributions to the war effort is the fact that Latinos outpace all others in the nation’s highest award – the Medal of Honor.

As of November 30, 2014, the United States has awarded the Medal of Honor to 266 individuals for combat in World War II. Of those, 27 were awarded to Hispanics for valor in the world war. [5] The Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force which can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States. A little over ten percent of the Medal of Honor awarded to servicemen for service in World War II was awarded to Hispanics. According to the Congressional Medal of Honor, as of November 30, 2014, 59 of the 3,493 Medals of Honor so far awarded were awarded to Hispanics.

Mexican immigrants, still citizens of Mexico have also been awarded the nation’s highest award in service to the United States. Seven immigrants who were citizens of Mexico at the time of their heroism have been awarded the Medal of Honor. [6]

During World War II, as today, undocumented immigrants were encouraged to serve in the military in return for citizenship. [7]

Although there are many examples of Hispanics serving in World War II with distinction the following example illustrates the extent to which Latinos served with distinction. First Lieutenant Oscar F. Perdomo (ASN: 0-763328), born in El Paso, Texas, of the 464 Fighter Squadron has the distinction of being the last “ace in a day” of World War II by shooting down five enemy fighters on August 13, 1945. An “ace” is a distinction attributed to a fighter pilot who becomes a fighter after their fifth enemy kill. An “ace in a day” is a fighter pilot who becomes an “ace” by shooting down five enemy airplanes in single day. Perdomo was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations. [8]

In addition to US citizens of Mexican-descent and Mexican citizens fighting under the US flag in Word War II, Mexico itself was one of only two Latin American countries to actually send troops to the war effort on behalf of the Allies in World War II. Brazil was the other Latin American country.

However, the war effort required much more then military combatants it also required a home front effort to sustain the war effort. The Bracero Program was a significant part of the war effort at home. It also illustrates the importance of how immigration is a hot potato with politicians tacitly acknowledging the need for immigrant labor, especially from Mexico, while publicly pretending it is not essential to the US economy for political expediency.

The Bracero Program

As a result of labor shortages in the United States caused by World War II, the US enacted Public Law 45 on April 29, 1943. The Mexican Farm Labor Supply Program and the Mexican Labor Agreement, also known as the Bracero Program, allowed temporary workers to fill labor shortages for agriculture and railroads. Over 4.5 million immigrant workers used the federal program to work in the United States until 1964, when the immigration program was officially ended. Further demonstrating how immigrants are used as pawns in the immigration debate, Texas farmers initially opted out of the federal program and instead used undocumented immigrants for their labor needs. [13] The duplicity of this action lies in that Texas argues against federal immigration reform while relying on immigrant labor for its economy. Texas government officials argue that immigration reform requires secured borders while tacitly allowing Texas farmers to continue to use immigrant labor for farming and construction.

The Bracero Program was managed by the Department of Agriculture. It is also important to point out that it was the Mexican government that insisted on establishing a formal framework for the recruitment of its citizens to work the US harvest. The reason for this was that the Mexico wished to avoid the issues of the previous mistreatment of Mexican workers and the recent expulsion of immigrants due to the Great Depression was still in the minds of the government. [14] Advocates on the US side for Mexican labor argued that harvesting “was critical for the war effort.” Mexico, for its part wanted to hold the US government for any mistreatments of its citizens. [14]

This initial formalized labor program for agriculture cemented the major interest groups that have politically influenced the debate on immigration reform; the labor groups, mainly the unions and farmers who needed to fill the labor voids.

The Bracero Program was the first time a formal process was established that guaranteed that Mexican immigrants would not be discriminated against and establishing a legal framework for wages and the transportation and living arrangements for the migrants. [14]

The Mexican government initially refused to allow its citizens to work Texas farms because of the prevalence of racial discrimination against Mexicans in Texas farms. Texas Governor, Coke Stevenson, pleaded for Mexican labor. Stevenson was repeatedly rebuffed by the Mexican government. [14]

Soon after the end of World War II, the US military began to draw down its manpower and thus decreasing the immigrant labor needs as more US citizens entered the job markets. However, although initially a temporary measure to fill needed labor voids, the Bracero Program was kept in place because the need for immigrant labor remained as the US citizen labor did not want to work the fields. The federal program recruited Mexican laborers and transported them to the agricultural fields.

The Bracero Program was implemented in three major phases. The first period, 1942-47 served the initial requirement to provide temporary immigrant labor to fill the void left by the war. The second phase, 1948 to 1951 was supposed to end the labor emergency and return the immigrant labor to Mexico. Once documented immigrants now found themselves with willing employers but unable to secure the proper documents to remain in the country to work. Interestingly it was the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) that stepped in and helped the immigrant workforce by legalizing them at the border before sending them on to the worksites. [14] Farmers had grown accustomed to Mexican labor for their crops.

Between 1942 and 1947, 219,600 immigrant laborers were admitted to work US fields. However, the INS reported a significant increase of apprehension of undocumented immigrants from just under 12,000 in 1943 to 190,000 in 1947. [14] US landowners wanted and needed the labor for their crops but they wanted a laborer that they had more control over. Undocumented laborers provided the needed work and because of their status, the crop owners had control over their labor.

This is the point often overlooked in the debate about immigration reform, the fact that the “undocumented” status of immigrants is a result of those who need the labor and the immigrants who fill the positions. A worker looking for a paycheck does not much care about the process when an employer is willing to issue paychecks regardless of the status of the worker. This constant tug-of-war is also influenced by the third prong in this debate, the consumer who pays less for the foods they eat, either consciously or unconsciously aware of the fact that the pricing is a result of the undocumented status of the labor.

Although intended to fill a labor void because of the war, the reality is that the immigrant labor was still needed even when the war ended. On December 28, 1945, the importation of immigrant labor framework was extended. A serious of congressional decrees kept extending the formal documenting of immigrant workers, however, undocumented workers continued to enter the country. Farmers continued to employ immigrant workers regardless of their immigration status.

As the undocumented population continued to increase, the United States implemented at least three “legalization” programs legalizing undocumented immigrants working the fields. [14] Farmers liked to contract with undocumented workers because by doing so they did not have to abide by the conditions spelled out in the agreements between Mexico and the United States. Many of the conditions guaranteed wages and benefits to the documented workers. As more undocumented workers were enticed to enter the market, the domestic market that included many recently documented immigrants who themselves had been undocumented or processed through The Bracero Program began to use unions to demand a freeze on new immigrant labor. The Immigration and Naturalization Service now became a pawn in the politics of immigration.

The INS district director at El Paso testified to the 1951 U.S. President’s Commission that “nearly every year at cotton-chopping or cotton-picking time…I get word to go easy” until the crops had been tended. On one hand, certain political necessities were forcing the agency to deport as many undocumented as possible yet immediately turn around and admit them again to harvest the crops.

Again, it is important to remember that the greatest beneficiary of this process was the US consumer who benefited from lower prices at the grocery stores.

Operation Wetback

The politics of immigration intervened and again used immigrants as pawns for domestic political purposes. Between 1952 and 1964, about 3 million Mexican immigrants were contracted under the Bracero Program to work the fields. Clearly, the immigrant labor force was needed by the US farming community. On one hand, INS was legalizing workers at the border but the agency needed to legitimize its border security duties by apprehending and deporting over one million immigrants back to Mexico.
On June 17, 1954, incoming INS commissioner Joseph Swing initiated “Operation Wetback.” The operation apprehended and deported over one million immigrants that year. [14]

It now became common practice that Mexican immigrants, on one hand, were being welcomed into the US to work the fields and at the same time, the federal agency giving them working papers was also deporting them by the millions. The immigrants were nothing more than Ping-Pong balls between the farmers recruiting them to work the fields and the federal agency welcoming them in which was also deporting them. Over 3.6 million immigrants were admitted between “Operation Wetback” in 1954 and the end of the of the Bracero accords in 1964. [14]

Mechanization in the 60’s eventually led to end of the migration accords started at the end of World War II. By 1963, 72 percent of the cotton crops were now being harvested by machines. [14] The Bracero Program ended in 1964.

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

On June 30, 1968, the US Congress adopted the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the Hart-Cellar Act. This law dramatically changed the use of a national-origin quota system to one based on a preferential system linked on immigrant skills and familial relationships. This fundamental change in immigration policy was driven by the notion that immigration policy benefited European immigrants over other immigrants from non-European countries. Although the move from immigration policy based on national origins was the goal of the 1965 law it nonetheless put in place quotas on a per country basis. This especially affected citizens of Latin America who now had a quota imposed on them. Rather than be stymied by the quota system, many immigrants continued to fill the labor markets by entering the country undocumented. Asians particularly benefited from the change in immigration policy increasing in numbers as the law was implemented.

As a result of the unintended consequence of excluding immigrant labor, the number of undocumented workers increased dramatically. The 1965 law created a complex and inflexible immigration framework that grew more convoluted and complicated as the need for labor forced adjustments to the framework on a piece-meal basis. It got more convoluted and inflexible while the need for immigrant labor continued to increase. As a result, on November 6, 1986, Congress adopted the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).

The Simpson-Mazzoli Act

The immigration measure signed into law by President Ronald Reagan reformed immigration law and attempted to legalize four million undocumented workers. The law required employers to verify the immigration status of all employees. This is what created the I-9 form routinely filled out each time someone is hired in the United States. The law also made it illegal to knowingly hire undocumented workers.

Recognizing the need for agricultural workers, the law also provided for the legalization of seasonal agricultural workers. Finally, the law addressed the issue of the undocumented already in the country. It attempted to legalize the 4 million undocumented immigrants that were estimated to be in the country already. The caveat was that the undocumented immigrant had to have entered the country prior to January 1, 1982.

By the time the legalization of the undocumented was completed about 2.7 million immigrants were documented. About 2 million either did not qualify and many simply did not apply under the law. [15] The new immigration framework also attempted to enforce immigration law be sanctioning employers and securing the borders. However, as it has already been demonstrated, immigration is a constant tug-of-war between the laborers and the employers who need them.

Doris Meissner, former Commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and now a Senior Fellow at the Migration Policy Institute explains it best. The bill’s sponsors watered down the sanctions provisions, “essentially gutted the employer sanctions” because the sponsors needed the support of the business community. [15]

Meissner adds, “Congress didn’t foresee at the time that employers would want more immigrants in the years ahead,” validating the nexus to the immigration reform problem; ignoring the fact that the US economy needs immigrant labor for political expediency. [15] In essence, the law had no built-in mechanism to allow for additional legal immigrants into the workforce.

Undocumented immigration continued to increase and the mechanisms for properly integrating them into the workforce was nonexistent. The continued growth of undocumented immigrants in the United States led to the next phase of piece-meal immigration policy in 1996.

Prior to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, enacted by Congress on September 30, 1996 it was not a crime to be out of status in the United States for most immigrants. The law enacted a new requirement that immigrants in the United States out of status for more than 180 days but less than a year had to wait three years outside of the country before they could legally immigrate to the United States. Those unlawfully present had to wait ten years before being allowed back into the country. A “pardon” could be issued to bypass the waiting period.

One of the consequences of this new immigration framework is that immigrants now became criminals for many different reasons that were previously nothing more than administrative violations. The law also made documented immigrants deportable for crimes, such as shoplifting, that were previously considered minor and not a deportable offense.

The immigration framework of the United States continue to ignore the fundamental problem of immigration that is the need for immigrant labor in certain sectors of the US economy. In an attempt to placate the two major positions on immigration, the United States government adds piecemeal legislation further complicating the framework and ignoring the fundamental problem of labor.

In 2001, President George W. Bush and President Vicente Fox set out to reform immigration policies. The attempt was abandoned because of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The terrorist attacks aggravated an already difficult process by increasing security at the US-Mexico border as a result of the various reforms enacted for homeland security.

Many immigrants who previously migrated to work and returned to Mexico suddenly found themselves stuck in the United States facing the difficult decision to remain in the US or return to Mexico knowing that coming back to the US to work was now nearly impossible. A previously yearly migrating population was now stuck on the US side of the border.

Today, we are now at the vanguard of the next phase in immigration reform in the United States with the announcement by President Barack Obama that he will unilaterally implement executive action to give relief to about 4 million undocumented immigrants. As this plays out, we will continue to update this page with the latest information.

It should be pointed out that there have been other congressional acts dealing with specific immigration issues at various times. For example, the United States Refugee Act of 1980 amended the Immigration and Nationality Act by codifying how the United States will process refugees and other humanitarian-based immigrants.