Through both my professional and community work as well as a student in Chicana/o Studies, I’ve often stumbled upon many conversations regarding the “illegality” of Mexican (im)migration to the United States.
Most discussions center on points similar to this: Mexicans should follow the rule of “law” of the United States; Mexicans who come here don’t “assimilate”; Mexicans take advantage of social services meant for “Americans” and Mexicans should follow the “immigrant model” established by the early Europeans of the late 1800s and early 1900s who emigrated and entered the United States “legally” through “proper immigration channels.”
But as always, these conversations ignore the fact that prior to 1924 when the majority of Europeans entered the United States there were no “proper immigration channels” to speak of. It was easy to enter the United States during this period and whatever border enforcement existed at the time was lax or non-existent.
For Euroamericans today to claim that their parents came to the United States the “right way” or through “legal means” is a bunch of gibberish based on myths. It wasn’t until the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 that limits were placed on who could enter the country and the formation of the U.S. Border Patrol or the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was formalized.
Thus, these historically inaccurate one-sided “proper immigration channels” arguments and narratives obscure the facts and realities of history while illuminating racist underpinnings that are manipulated by racist Euroamerican politicians who offer no solutions to the problems they created in the first place through their own legislation.
Of course, most of these conversations also ignore the fact that Mexican (im)migration to the United States is not a new phenomenon but is a result of the end of the U.S. War on Mexico in 1848 and with the signing of both the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Protocol of Queretaro affirmed citizenship protections for Mexicans.
As such, Mexican (im)migration has continued unabated for 165 years. Thus, the old adage: “We Didn’t Cross the Border, the Border Crossed Us” perfectly describes the Mexican experience.
Since the late 1800s, national security concerns and geopolitics have often determined the immigration policy and the treatment of specific nationalities within the borders of the United States.
As the economy faltered during the 1880s, the Chinese community was blamed and scapegoated by federal, state and local authorities for depressing wages and creating poor living conditions in the United States primarily in the state of California.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for instance, denied entry to the United States for the first time to a specific nationality. The Act placed restrictions on Chinese labor entry for a period of ten years under penalty of imprisonment and deportation.
In addition, the Act made Chinese immigrants permanent “aliens” by excluding them from American citizenship opportunities. Through the racialization of a specific ethnic/racial group, American immigration policy in 1882 shifted towards separating families based on perceptions of “citizenship.” This model would be duplicated again and again with each successive punitive immigration law passed.
Moreover, the Chinese Exclusion Act legitimized racial discrimination based on “citizenship” and which would later be used against the Mexican and Japanese communities during the 1930s and 1940s.
Through various court decisions, the Chinese Exclusion Act was upheld until 1943. Within the larger scope of American immigration policy, the Chinese Exclusion Act had the impact of legalizing the racialization, marginalization, criminalization, and deportation of the “Other.”
United States congressional legislation vis-à-vis Mexican (im)migration has, of course, been racialized and through the power of language and judicial law, “Mexicanness” has been historically equated with “illegality.”
At the turn of the century, the American economic infrastructure was rapidly developing and attracting thousands of Mexican nationals to the booming railroad, mining, and agricultural industries. Mexicans in El Norte filled a vital economic void in the United States.
Mexicans helped build the United States through blood, sweat and tears. They have never been fully repaid or recognized for their hard work, yet they are continuously deported and criminalized despite protections embedded in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which is ignored by both the United States and México when it comes to addressing the human rights of Mexicans and Chicanas/os in this country.
The issue of (im)migration impacts many of us. Many of us, despite being American “citizens,” have been conditioned to fear the MIGRA at border checkpoints set up throughout the United States, especially in what is today known as the American Southwest.
Many of us have had family and friends who have been caught in racist raids and deported without due process. The most glaring examples have been the deportation and repatriation campaigns of the 1930s and the military-style campaigns of the 1950s known as Operation Wetback.
It was in this scenario that my own father, who as an American citizen, was deported at the height of the Great Depression because the Hoover Administration conceived a racist plan to deport all Mexicans because government officials blamed Mexicans for “stealing American” jobs and draining the national economy.
My dad was born in Bayard, Nebraska, US of A in 1932 to Mexican parents who were following the railroad, mining, and agricultural industries yet they were also land owners in this country. My dad’s brothers and sisters were also American citizens.
In the ordeal of the racist deportation and repatriation campaign, my dad’s parents, of course, lost their plot of land in Nebraska and to this day have never been fully compensated for being emotionally and financially uprooted. Even when they did return to the United States after the racist hysteria had subsided, things were never the same.
The deportation and repatriation campaign against Mexicans was initiated at the federal level, but was made possible through local city and county efforts. With President Hoover’s blessing, Secretary of Labor William Doak made calls to remove deportable “aliens” in order to open up jobs for “Americans.”
A Los Angeles relief coordinator by the name of Charles P. Visel followed suit and even had the audacity to also declare that enough jobs existed for “Americans,” but that Mexicans and “other aliens” were stealing jobs. The City and County of Los Angeles repatriation efforts was the model followed nationwide.
The deportation and repatriation of Mexicans was not exclusive to the American Southwest, but extended to the Midwest, the Eastern seaboard, and even as far as Alaska.
This racist attack on Mexicans was welcomed by a large segment of the American populace who hypocritically proclaimed freedom and democracy for all, but somehow this did not include Mexicans.
Euroamericans demanded that Mexicans be sent “back home” and various immigration sweeps of Mexican neighborhoods were begun with the infamous raid in 1931 at La Placita taking center stage in creating an environment of fear in the City of Los Angeles.
In The Deportation Terror, Rachel Ida Buff provides a brief historical survey into the phenomenon of both the “racialized state terror” and a “culture of fear” that originated with the use of social control strategies resulting from the formation of the border patrol in 1924.
Historically, the border patrol has been used to carry out immigration raids in communities in order to instill fear.
Deportation is used as a terror tactic to secure and enhance borders while building a specific national identity based on whiteness as a marker of distinction. In essence, some individuals are considered citizens, while others are not.
As Natalia Molina points out in Fit To Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939, Los Angeles public health officials developed a racial lexicon that racialized ethnic groups into social hierarchies equating social membership with citizenship.
Thus, the Chinese then eventually the Mexican and Japanese communities were excluded from participating in the social fabric of American society because they were perceived as non-citizens due to the racist narrative that held that these communities posed a threat to the health of Euroamericans.
Thus, by the early 1900s American government officials had at their disposable a readily available “legal” means to restructure existing labor and political situations as conditions demanded.
Within the political climate of the red scare of the 1920s, the United States entered a new period of immigration legislation designed to not only keep certain “undesirables” from reaching American soil, but ensuring that political radicals and activists could be detained and deported.
With the formation of the Immigration Naturalization Service in 1924, the category of “illegal alien” was devised resulting in the creation of a “racialized Mexican identity.” Mae Ngin argues that the category of “illegal alien” transformed existing deportable categories based not only on political subversive activities, but on citizenship status as well.
The Michigan Alien Registration or Spolansky Act of 1931, for instance, was aimed at political activists in the Detroit Mexican American community. By deporting Mexican American political activists, social control strategies were implemented by governmental agencies in conjunction with American business conglomerates who were poised to curtail pro-labor-union activities meant to improve the socio-economic conditions of working-class communities.
With American railroad, mining and agribusiness industries importing Mexican workers into the United States, the makings of a disposable (deportable) labor force was now practically permanent.
Thus, after the initial deportation campaign in the early 1930s, many Mexican families repatriated “voluntarily” and by the end of the decade, over 1 million Mexicans and Chicanas/os were sent to Mexico.
It was under this climate that my dad, his brothers and sisters, and his parents were deported despite being American citizens.
As the youngest of the bunch, my dad didn’t come back to the United States until the 1950s. With his education stunted, my dad never made it past the 6th grade and never learned to speak English fluently, he was forced to work dead-end jobs due to the rampant discrimination that ran wild in the United States during this time.
My dad would never discuss this issue with me, but when it did come up there was a lot of resentment and so it was one of the many reasons I eventually wanted to major in Chicana/o Studies in order to learn not only about my family but the history of my people.
By now I’ve realized that during times of economic prosperity, Mexican (im)migration to the United States seldom attracts the fervent national political and public attention. Yet this national and public silence does not mean an end to the raids, deportations and criminalization of Mexicans.
Of course, in times of economic despair, the immigration debate takes on negative epidemic proportions in the national mainstream media with many politicians making a name for themselves by exploiting the fears of “patriotic” Euroamericans.
Since the 1920s, there has been a convergence between American immigration legislation and what Tanya Golash-Boza calls the “immigration industrial complex” arising primarily from an American immigration policy principally serving the capitalist interests of the private sector, which naturally stands to gain financially from the criminalization and marginalization of undocumented (im)migration to the United States.
The traditional economic push and pull factors that have historically forced migrants from Mexico, Central and South America to the United States have been re-energized by recent developments in international free trade agreements through the process of globalization.
Globalization has created a disposable underclass in dozens of countries within the Global South and Global North, which is financially advantageous to several American multinational corporations. This underclass labor force, moreover, is seen as a commodity that is easily exploitable, expendable and deportable.
With the news in October 2013 that eight members of Congress, along with labor leaders and immigration reform advocates were “arrested” in a show of “civil disobedience” to protest government inaction in overhauling the “broken” immigration system, the immigration “debate” was once again filtered through a top-down approach advancing a purely economic narrative, while ignoring the human rights of the families most affected by an imperialist immigration policy.
Historically, the immigration debate in the United States has been tilted in favor of those seeking open borders to serve the needs of American corporations to those wanting stricter enforcement of existing immigration laws through the punitive use of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and now with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
While most tend to connect the post 9/11 period as intensifying the militarization of the border, I think its important to note that with the onset of World War II, the United States with a gaping hole in the labor industry pushed México to formalize a guest-worker agreement known as the Bracero Program.
According to Kelly Lytle Hernández, it was during the midst of the Bracero Program that the national immigration narrative for deportation and racialization of Mexicans was spearheaded, which eventually culminated with Operation Wetback in 1954.
By viewing the use of punitive immigration policy during the initial stages of World War II and the onset of the Cold War, it is clearly apparent that a state of deportation terror is not a new phenomenon, but rather part of a long-standing legacy to dehumanize and marginalize Mexicans.
In the context of post 9/11, ICE controls the border through its use of advanced military equipment and tactics, and the implementation of carefully selected raids and deportation campaigns that ultimately divide families, which completely exclude the undocumented from the political, economic and cultural landscape of society.
The public narrative on immigration has been contextualized through a nativist and xenophobic lens that easily lends itself to creating a racist American discourse of an impending “invasion” from the “Other,” supposedly threatening the national security of the United States.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States has engaged in a so-called War on Terror designed to target and neutralize so-called terrorist networks militarily, politically, legally, and ideologically.
The tentacles of the endless War on Terror, however, have been extended domestically through the passage of a series of laws after 9/11, such as the USA PATRIOT and REAL ID Acts. Furthermore, the United States has engaged in a massive illegal surveillance of individuals in the United States and throughout the world.
In particular, the USA PATRIOT and REAL ID Acts have been used to inform an immigration narrative that weighs heavily on selective punitive enforcement while placing restrictions on judicial reviews of immigration cases, and making the process for “citizenship” even more difficult.
The war on immigrants has manifested itself in the establishment of an immigration narrative that dehumanizes Mexicans, and sees them as overwhelming the social fabric of society.
Due in large part to the federal government’s inability to codify a new “comprehensive immigration reform,” the undocumented have been criminalized and racialized. At the same time, an increase in the militarization of the border has led to heightened interior enforcement of immigration policies.
Although “Operation Wetback” in the 1950s used similar tactics of social control and fear, in today’s atmosphere of an endless “War on Terror” and in the context of globalization, raids and deportation campaigns ultimately are structured to have the most impact in separating families, breaking unionizing efforts, and disrupting traditional paths toward “citizenship.”
In recent years, the federal government has facilitated the rise of a militaristic police-state within existing local community law-enforcement agencies through a series of agreements known as “Secure Communities,” or 287(g) which empower police agencies to inquire about a person’s citizenship status virtually assuring that “racialized state terror” will be permanent. The use of indefinite periods of detention contradicts constitutional law and human rights covenants.
In a broader perspective, however, the immigration debate extends into other facets of society, such as the so-called “drug war,” for instance, where Mexicans and other Latin American residents are more likely to be caught in the tentacles of the prison industrial complex.
Capitalist interests in the name of national security, border protection, and labor shortages continue to exploit and profit from the criminalization and racialization of the undocumented.
The undocumented have been forced to live and work in the shadows of American society, where they are vulnerable to exploitation. Of course, many undocumented communities have organized themselves into legitimate forces of resistance.
The past is ever present when it comes to enforcing immigration border policies. The use of advanced military technology by ICE might have changed between 1924 and 2013, but its scope in capturing, detaining, and deporting individuals who are deemed “illegal” has not changed but only intensified.
While recent legislation has been crafted within the discourse of 9/11 and is, on the surface, directed at the “War on Terror,” the underlying nature of immigration policy is geared towards what Nicholas de Genova terms “policeability” and “deportability,” assuring that migrants regardless of their citizenship status remain in a marginal and vulnerable state within American society.
The ideas of “policeability” and “deportability” guarantees that some undocumented workers will be arrested and detained while others will be deported. Meanwhile, the border is further militarized and anyone detained while crossing without documentation is subject to criminal proceedings and deportation and sometimes even death.
Thus, it is no surprise that the merging of the Military Industrial Complex (MIC), the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), along with the corporate media have a vested economic interest in developing the discourse of the “illegal” while at the same time using the tactics of fear as political ploys to secure political votes for politicians whose vision of America is misguided and based on fear-mongering.
The current immigration policy and legislation is designed in such a way as to maximize profit at the expense of the humanity and dignity of all individuals.
Thus, the immigration system is not broken and works exactly as it is designed in order to allow the central actors in this immigration melodrama to essentially spread fear and social control among the populace for economic gain.
Through the racialization of undocumented migrants, nativist and racist political campaigns, such as 1994’s Proposition 187 in California against the undocumented are pushed forward in an effort to not only deny critical social services and education, for instance, but are a smokescreen for the failure of politicians to address social, labor and economic realities. Racism is profitable and gets Euroamericans elected.
The larger question remains as to who benefits from an immigration policy that targets undocumented migrants as criminals?
The answer is complex, however, it is certainly based on the economic profit motive that continues to drive American Capitalism. The failure to qualify immigration policy as a human rights issue will surely cause more migrant deaths as they are pushed further to the margins as they attempt to cross into the United States.
Likewise, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has caused devastation across Indigenous communities throughout Latin America. Indigenous lands have been destroyed resulting in Indigenous migration to the United States where their low-skilled labor fills a necessary gap in the new American labor structure.
Any debate of the immigration issue needs to begin with a complete moratorium on the raids, deportations, and the release of thousands of individuals who are currently being detained in immigration centers.
Behind the horrific numbers of raids and deportations that devastate communities, there exists real families and individuals who are struggling to survive. These families and individuals make the “American Dream” for an ungrateful and ahistorical aging Euroamerican population possible.
I will never know the full extent of my dad’s story as he passed away in 2007. I do know for certain that I will continue to struggle for the self-determination of our people because WE DIDN’T CROSS THE BORDERS, THE BORDERS CROSSED US! Hasta La Victoria Siempre!