Digital History ID 594
The United States and Mexico share one of the longest international borders in the world--1,951 miles in length. The history of Mexican migration to the United States involves sharp shifts between periods of labor shortages, when employers aggressively recruited cheap Mexican labor, and periods of intense anti-Mexican sentiment, when many Mexicans and even Mexican Americans were deported or pressured to leave the country.
Until the 1920s, the Mexican border was basically open. Mexicans were specifically excluded from the immigration quotas of 1921 and 1924 that radically reduced immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Convinced that cheap Mexican laborers were indispensable to southwestern agriculture, Congress imposed no limit on immigration from the Western Hemisphere, though it did establish a patrol along the Mexican border and imposed an eight dollar head tax and a ten dollar visa fee. In 1929, the federal government required Mexicans to obtain visas in order to enter the United States. During the late 1920s, professional labor contractors and border-crossing experts helped immigrants avoid the head tax and the expense of a visa and bureaucratic delays at the border.
During the Great Depression, when dust bowl farmers from Texas and Oklahoma poured into California, Mexicans were unneeded. Between 1929 and 1935, more than 415,000 Mexicans were expelled and thousands more left voluntarily. The legal pretext for deportation was that many Mexicans lacked proof of legal residency (even though no visa had been necessary prior to 1929).
World War II created another labor shortage. The Mexican and United States governments established the Bracero Program, a system of labor permits for temporary workers, which lasted until 1964. In the early 1950s, however, rising unemployment led to mass roundups and deportations. This wave of "repatriation," known as Operation Wetback, sent more than one million Mexicans to Mexico in 1954. The Immigration Act of 1965, which established immigration quotas for the countries of the Western Hemisphere, had the ironic effect of encouraging undocumented entry into the United States. Bitter over the demise of the Bracero Program in 1964, the Mexican government refused to restrict emigration. In addition, the quotas for Mexicans were far lower than the demand for Mexican immigrants in agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and service industries.
During the 1980s, the United States responded to public anger about undocumented immigration by adopting the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (the Simpson-Mazoli Act), which prohibited the hiring of undocumented aliens and proclaimed an amnesty for those who had been in the country continuously since 1982.
In this speech delivered in the House of Representatives in 1928, Congressman John Box calls for restrictions on Mexican immigration.
Every reason which calls for the exclusion of the most wretched, ignorant, dirty, diseased, and degraded people of Europe or Asia demands that the illiterate, unclean, peonized masses moving this way from Mexico be stopped at the border....
The admission of a large and increasing number of Mexican peons to engage in all kinds of work is at variance with the American purpose to protect the wages of its working people and maintain their standard of living. Mexican labor is not free; it is not well paid; its standard of living is low. The yearly admission of several scores of thousands from just across the Mexican border tends constantly to lower the wages and conditions of men and women of America who labor with their hands in industry, in transportation, and in agriculture. One who has been in Mexico or in Mexican sections of cities and towns of the southwestern United States enough to make general observation needs no evidence or argument to convince him of the truth of the statement that Mexican peon labor is poorly paid and lives miserably in the midst of want, dirt, and disease.
In industry and transportation they displace great numbers of Americans who are left without employment and drift into poverty, even vagrancy, unable to maintain families or to help sustain American communities....
The importers of such Mexican laborers as go to farms all want them to increase farm production, not by the labor of American farmers, for the sustenance of families and the support of American farm life, but by serf labor working mainly for absentee landlords on millions of acres of semiarid lands. Many of these lands have heretofore been profitably used for grazing cattle, sheep, and goats. Many of them are held by speculative owners.
A great part of these areas can not be cultivated until the Government has spent vast sums in reclaiming them.... Their occupation and cultivation by serfs should not be encouraged....
Another purpose of the immigration laws is the protection of American racial stock from further degradation or change through mongrelization. The Mexican peon is a mixture of mediterranean-blooded Spanish peasant with low-grade Indians who did not fight to extinction but submitted and multiplied as serfs. Into that was fused much Negro slave blood. This blend of low-grade Spaniard, peonized Indian, and Negro slave mixes with Negroes, mulattoes, and other mongrels, and some sorry whites, already here. The prevention of such mongrelization and the degradation it causes is one of the purposes of our laws which the admission of these people will tend to defeat....
To keep out the illiterate and the diseased is another essential part of the Nation's immigration policy. The Mexican peons are illiterate and ignorant. Because of their unsanitary habits and living conditions and their vices they are especially subject to smallpox, venereal diseases, tuberculosis, and other dangerous contagions. Their admission is inconsistent with this phase of our policy.
The protection of American society against the importation of crime and pauperism is yet another object of these laws. Few, if any, other immigrants have brought us so large a proportion of criminals and paupers as have the Mexican peons.
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