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A Collection of Views on Mexican Immigration
to the United States

Immigration and Naturalization Service Bus Waiting to Return Border-Crossers to Tijuana,
2:30 A.M., San Ysidro, California, 1992

I. Introduction IV. The Bracero
VII. Immigration in the Bush-Fox Years  
II. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

V. Anti-Immigrant Initiatives in California 

VIII. Benefits and Costs of Immigration
III. Early Immigration VI. Changing Voting Patterns IX. Summary


World-wide, migration is on the rise. Millions of people are on the move, forced from their homelands by war, famine and changing economic circumstances. This website focuses on one facet in the larger context of migration: the immigration of Mexicans to the United States. The purpose of this site is not to provide definitive answers to the questions posed by immigration, but to present background information as well as different voices and opinions on this complex topic.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

The immigration of Mexicans to the United States follows a different pattern than that of any other ethnic group for several reasons. The first of which is the fact that the American Southwest, where immigration is concentrated today, used to be part of Mexico. At the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo sold New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, California and parts of Utah, Colorado and Nevada to the U.S. for $15 million. The terms of the treaty gave the 80,000 Mexicans living in the territories the same rights as American citizens. In spite of these protections, violence, fraud and discrimination forced many Mexican-Americans from their land. Some fled to Mexico, others stayed in the U.S. in spite of their reduced economic and social status. It has been said that “the United States never remembers, and Mexico never forgets,” and when it comes to the loss of nearly half its territory, Mexico has certainly not forgotten.

Early Immigration

In years between the passage of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the creation of the Border Patrol in 1924, Mexicans moved freely between the U.S. and Mexico, working in agriculture, cattle ranching, mining, railroads and other industries. The creation of the U.S. Border Patrol marked a change in status for Mexican workers. For the first time they were seen as “illegal aliens.” Conditions for immigrant workers further deteriorated during the Great Depression. With so many Americans out of work, immigrants were seen as a threat to American jobs. From the early 1930’s until the onset of World War II, over 500,000 Mexicans were forcibly deported. However, the U.S. government quickly changed its tune when World War II once again created the need for labor.

The Bracero Program

The Bracero Program, instituted in 1942, allowed Mexicans to work legally in the United States on a temporary basis. In theory, the program was intended to be mutually beneficial, providing jobs for underemployed Mexican workers and labor for U.S. agricultural interests. However, the terms of the treaty made it easy for workers to be exploited. Since their contract, written in English, only allowed them to work for one employer, workers who were mistreated could not change jobs. Illegal immigrants, who could always leave a job they didn’t like, actually had more freedom and protection from unscrupulous bosses.

Braceros were also treated badly when they returned home. In order to provide motivation for temporary workers to go home at the end of their contracts, ten percent of their salary was withheld. It was supposed to be kept in a fund managed by the Mexican government and paid to workers when they returned to Mexico. Very few workers ever received this money, and to this day the Mexican government has not explained what happened to the funds.

Greater mechanization of farms, the complaints of labor unions and evidence of human rights abuses led to the end of the Bracero Program in 1964. At the time, the U.S. Department of Labor officer in charge of the program, Lee G. Williams, described the program as a form of “legalized slavery.” Farm workers made gains in the period between 1965 and the early 1980’s. Cesar Chavez organized the United Farm Workers Union, and conditions and pay improved. The number of field workers at this time was also lower than it had been during any time in U.S. history. The process of farm mechanization had reduced the number of workers from 2 million in the 1920’s to about 200,000 in the 1970’s.

Anti-Immigrant Initiatives in California

The rise of labor intensive strawberry farms reversed this trend. By 1995, the number of migrant workers had grown to between 800,000 and 900,000. The power of agricultural unions also declined during the 80’s and 90’s. Wages fell 53 percent from 1985 levels and recently gained benefits such as sick leave, health insurance and family housing were lost. Few natives would accept the low wages, an average of $5,000 a year, or work the long hours, 10 or more a day, that migrant workers endured. The combination of an increasing demand for agricultural labor and the poor pay and working conditions of field workers set the stage for a new wave of Mexican immigration.

Between 1970 and 2000, the number of Mexican immigrants in the United States grew from under 800,000 to nearly 8 million. By the early 1990s it became evident that the surge in immigration was drastically changing the ethnic make-up of California’s population. As the state sunk deeper into recession, politicians like Pete Wilson used anti-immigrant sentiment to their electoral advantage, advocating legislation like Proposition 187, passed in 1994, which barred illegal immigrants from schools, health clinics and other public programs.

Operation Gatekeeper also began in 1994. It was designed to seal off the Mexican border to prevent more illegal immigrants from coming to the United States. A 14-mile-long wall was built along the Tijuana border and the number of Border Patrol Officers was increased.  As enforcement was stepped-up along the San Diego border, immigrants moved east. Border crossings in the less-patrolled desert became increasingly common, as did the deaths of immigrants, which increased 600 percent. Over 1,600 people died trying to cross the border between 1995 and 2001.

Changing Voting Patterns

Proposition 187 remained tied up in the courts and was never actually implemented. However, its passage combined with programs like Operation Gatekeeper, created a backlash among Latino groups in California. Mexican-Americans voted in the 1996 elections in unprecedented numbers. Latinos went from 9 percent of the voting population in California to 11 percent. This growth continued, rising to 14 percent in 1998. Mexican-American voter turn-out made political leaders rethink the strategy of using anti-immigrant sentiment to gain votes. The economic boom of the late 1990’s also drove worries about the cost of immigration from the public consciousness.

Immigration in the Bush-Fox Years

With the election of Pres. George Bush in the U.S. and Pres. Vicente Fox in Mexico, it appeared that a change in immigration policy was at hand. Fox had appealed to Mexican citizens living in the U.S. during the elections and made the normalization of their status one of his priorities. While down-playing Fox’s ideas about creating an open border, Pres. Bush seemed eager to create a new “guest-worker” program that would allow for the legal immigration of temporary workers. He argued that guarantees for workers’ rights would be built into the agreement, avoiding the abuses of the past while at the same time providing a solution to the increasing death rates of border crossers.

The events of Sept. 11 ended the dialogue about immigration. The plea of the Mexican government for more open borders fell on deaf ears in Washington. The War on Terror made the U.S. more determined than ever to control its borders.

And yet the immigrants still come. The United States may be pursuing an impossible dream in its attempt to seal off a 2,000 mile border. In addition to its sheer length, the U.S.-Mexico border remains permeable because of its unique status; it is the only land border in the world between a first and a third world country. In fact, the Mexican government estimates that immigration, both legal and illegal will continue at a rate of 3.5–5 million people a decade until 2030.

Benefits and Costs of Immigration

It seems unlikely that immigration from Mexico to the United States will end in the near future. Immigration benefits important groups in both countries. American growers use immigrant labor to keep farm wages down. Consumers, in turn, pay less for agricultural products and the service industry jobs that immigrant laborers perform. The availability of cheap labor has given states like California a “competitive edge” which has helped fuel economic growth at a rate consistently higher than the rest of the nation. In Mexico, migration takes the pressure off the government to provide more jobs for its citizens. The remittances sent home by immigrant workers add stability to the economy. In addition, the political danger of a large, disgruntled group of unemployed is avoided.

Immigration does entail costs as well as benefits. For Mexico, it can be argued that the safety-valve provided by migration has delayed the implementation of meaningful government reform. In the United States, low-skill native workers have seen wages fall. It can be argued that this drop is at least partly due to competition with Mexican workers. Additionally, the low education levels of Mexican immigrants, which translate to low income potential, has increased the number of people living in poverty. Immigration has also contributed to overall population growth. Since Mexican immigrants tend to be young and to have more children than natives, the influx of people has created the need for more schools.


Neither Mexico nor the United States is officially candid about what it gains and what it loses by immigration. When it is politically useful, and especially during difficult economic times, American politicians use immigrants as a scapegoat for the nation’s problems. When labor is scarce, immigrant workers are encouraged to come north, although preferably on a temporary basis and without their families. The Mexican government is likewise happy to use immigration to avert political instability and as a bargaining chip for more U.S. aid. Immigrants themselves are left to their own devices, fighting for survival in a constantly changing legal, economic and political climate.

-Jean Spencer



Research Questions

What factors cause people to emigrate from Mexico to the United States?

What is the history of Mexican immigration to the United States?

How has emigration to the United States affected the political climate in Mexico?

How has immigration from Mexico changed politics in California?

What was the Bracero Program? How did it intend to benefit immigrant workers? How did it intend to benefit growers? What problems arose?

Should a new Bracero Program be initiated? What are the arguments for and against a new “guest worker program”?

What are conditions like for immigrant workers in California’s fields?

How does the United States benefit from immigration? What are its costs?

What would a fair U.S. immigration policy look like? What proposals have been put forward?