and Naturalization Service Bus Waiting to Return Border-Crossers
2:30 A.M., San Ysidro, California, 1992
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.
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Initiatives in California
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.
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.
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.
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
in the Bush-Fox Years
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.
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.
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.
and Costs of Immigration
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
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.
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.