Mexican immigrants, along with their Mexican American descendants, occupy a unique place in the story of U.S. immigration. They are known by many different names, come from divergent origins, and took widely different paths to becoming part of the United States. Millions of people in the United States today identify themselves as Mexican immigrants or Mexican Americans. They are among both the oldest and newest inhabitants of the nation. Some Mexicans were already living in the Southern and Western regions of the North American continent centuries before the United States existed. Many more Mexicans came to the country during the 20th century, and Mexican immigrants continue to arrive.
The multicultural inheritance of Mexican Americans is rich and complex. It reflects the influences of Spain, Mexico, and indigenous cultures, and has been shaped by hundreds of years of survival and adaptation in the crucible of North American history. Their history was also shaped by wars and depressions, by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Gadsden Purchase, and by shifting attitudes toward immigration.
By the 1890s, pacification of the Apache Indians and the construction of American owned railroad spurs into Mexico provided unprecedented transportation for Mexican laborers to reach employment opportunities in American railroad, agricultural, and mining industries. The penetration of railroad lines into the Western Plateau region of Mexico encouraged American labor recruiters to target the states of Guanajuato, Jalisco, and Michoacán, the primary source states of migration to the US for the remainder of the 20th century. Soon, large numbers of undocumented Mexican workers regularly crossed the US-Mexican border establishing a pattern of seasonal return migration that would become a part of Mexican culture.
Prior to 1924, U.S. customs officials provided little effective international border regulation in the Southwest. Growing concern over Mexican immigration, particularly the smuggling of Chinese immigrants through Mexico, prompted the Commissioner General of Immigration to assign a token force of inspectors to patrol the entire US-Mexico Border beginning in 1904. Fanned by national anti-immigration sentiment, the Johnson-Reid Act of 1924 both imposed an immigrant quota system and created the United States Border Patrol, the first permanent border authority assigned to begin shoring up America's perimeters.
However, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 greatly reduced migrant flow from Mexico as many laborers remained in their own country for lack of work in the United States. Significant northward movement of workers did not resume until the WWII induced labor shortages of the following decade.
Mexican immigration occupies a complex position in the U.S. legal system and in U.S. public opinion. Immigration law has swung back and forth throughout the 20th century, at times welcoming Mexican immigrants and at other times slamming the door shut on them. The public reception of this immigrant group has also been unpredictable; Mexican immigrants have been able to make a place for themselves in communities across the United States, but frequently have had to battle hostile elements in those same communities to survive. In many ways, this push-and-pull dynamic continues.
Mexican immigrants and their descendants now make up a significant portion of the U.S. population and have become one of the most influential social and cultural groups in the country. Mexican American culture will likely continue to shape U.S. life in language, politics, food, and daily living and will help define the nation's identity for a new century.
The United States had made sporadic efforts over the years to exert greater control over its porous southern border. Mexican and Central American illegal immigrants crossed the border almost at will to seek low-paid jobs. Organized labor, among others, urged the United States Congress to act. This pressure, based on the belief that illegal aliens took large numbers of jobs that United States citizens might otherwise fill, gave impetus to the Simpson-Rodino bill of 1986. The bill's two major provisions constituted a carrot and a stick for illegal immigrants. The carrot came in the form of an amnesty for all undocumented residents who could prove continuous residence in the United States since January 1, 1982. The stick imposed legal sanctions on employers of illegal aliens, an unprecedented attempt to deter migrants indirectly by denying them employment.
The Simpson-Rodino bill, which became law as the United States Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, represented the most serious effort to date to reduce illegal Mexican immigration. Northern migration had provided an economic safety valve from the Mexican economy's chronic inability to produce sufficient employment. Many Mexicans resented the timing of this new law, which came in the midst of severe economic distress in Mexico and relative prosperity in the United States. Although the level of migration dropped immediately after passage of the law, joblessness and poverty eventually drove the number of illegal migrants up again.
Pew Hispanic Center analysis of the March 2005 Current Population Survey showed that there were 11.1 million unauthorized migrants in the United States a year ago. Based on analysis of other data sources that offer indications of the pace of growth in the foreign-born population, the Center developed an estimate of 11.5 to 12 million for the unauthorized population as of March 2006. Monthly Census Bureau data show that the number of less-educated young Hispanic immigrants in the United States has declined significantly. The evidence indicates that the illegal population declined after July 2007 and then rebounded somewhat in the summer of 2008 before resuming its decline in the fall of 2008 and into the first quarter of 2009. Both increased immigration enforcement and the recession seem to explain this decline. The illegal population declined 13.7 percent (1.7 million) from a peak of 12.5 million in the summer of 2007 to 10.8 million in the first quarter of 2009.
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