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Illegal Immigration and the Border with Mexico

1924 to 1996 (page one of two pages)

In 1924 the US Border Patrol was established. Immigration across the border with Mexico had been relatively easy. "A Mexican caught crossing the border illegally was told that if he wished to enter the US he had to do so at a regular station and pay the fees." 1

Many Mexicans were native to what had been a part of Mexico but were now a part of the United States, This included Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and California. Families had members living on both sides of the border. This had facilitated movement back and forth between the countries, and the ease of movement left many in the US without paper documentation. The populations of the US in 1920 was 106 million, less than a third what it would be in 2010. Mexico's population was 14 million, less than an eighth of the 117.9 million of 2010. The Hispanic population in the US in 1920 has been estimated at 1.2 percent of the population, or 1.3 million persons – a difficult calculation. 2

The Great Depression came in 1930. Jobs became more scarce and hostility increased against those who were thought of as taking jobs away from the native born. This was when racist attitudes were more prevalent in the US, and local law enforcement was infected by an anti-Mexican sentiment. There were deportation sweeps. Mexicans were rounded up without bothering to check for legal status. Such actions were "authorized by President Herbert Hoover and targeted areas with large Hispanic populations, mostly in California, Texas, Colorado, Illinois and Michigan." Studies have provided conflicting numbers for how many Mexicans were "repatriated" during the Great Depression, but estimates range from 500,000 to 2 million. 3

The United States entered World War II in December 1941. Its citizens went into the military and there was a need for people to labor in agriculture. In August 1942, the Franklin Roosevelt administration asked Mexico to send workers. It was known as the "bracero program."

After the war ended, in August 1945, farmers in the US asked for a continuation of the bracero program. The farmers spoke of their need of workers and an increased demand for food in the US and around the world.

Mexico removed Idaho from its list of approved states for the bracero program. Idaho's legislature had created rules that forced braceros to stay on the job or face arrest and deportation, and the braceros had been forced to work unpaid while awaiting trial.

In an agreement with Mexico in 1947, bracero recruitment was turned over to US farmers, who would begin entering Mexico to hire workers.

The Hispanic population was rising, to be described as more than 2 percent by 1950, perhaps not including illegal immigrants – up from 1.2 percent in 1920. In 1951 and '52, strikes by farm workers annoyed some non-Hispanics. There was complaining about an invasion by "wetbacks," and the Teamster's union spoke of a "wetback menace" that was as a threat to wages and working standards.

With the Eisenhower presidency the bracero program remained on-going, and the Border Patrol stepped up its deportations. In 1953, growers in California complained about deportations and asked their fellow Californian, Vice President Nixon, for help, and the deportations were "quietly curtailed." 4

In 1954 as part of the bracero program the Eisenhower administration launched "Operation Wetback" with assurances to farmers that they would have an adequate of workers. It was in cooperation with Mexico's government, which disliked abuses against its citizens in the United States. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) reported by 1955 that "The so-called 'wetback' problem no longer exists. This is no longer, as in the past, a problem in border control. The border has been secured."

In the spring of 1955 the book Strangers in Our Fields was published. It described how bracero contracts were consistently violated. In 1959 the books author, Ernesto Galarza, and Cesar Chavez began advocacy work in California's bracero camps to expose poor living and working conditions. Bracero registry in the US was at a new height – 430,000.

By the late fifties, Operation Wetback was declining, and it lasted to 1962, with 3.8 million people to be described as having been deported. There were some who had fled back to Mexico out of fear of being arrested. It was policy that those caught in the roundup were to be transported deep into Mexico on busses and trains before being set free, to discourage their return. There was inefficiency in the operation, with some US citizens included in the roundups.

In he early 1960s the civil rights movement was growing, and it focused on equal treatment regardless of race or ethnicity, and this had an impact on the federal government's immigration policy. In June 1963, President Kennedy described the national-origins immigration quota system (in place since the 1920s) as "intolerable."

In 1964, pressure labor unions and human rights groups led the Johnson administration to unilaterally backed out of the 22-year-old bracero "guest-worker" program with Mexico. Many braceros in the US secured "green cards" and legal residency while others headed for work without these.

Growers and others would now hire Mexican nationals as they pleased, while remaining hostile to unionization. Documentation was not a great concern among those doing the hiring, but they could threaten those they had hired with deportation.

In 1965 the US Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act (also known as the Hart–Celler Act), which became law in 1968. It abolished the national origins quota. US politicians, including Senator Ted Kennedy, assured their fellow citizens that the new law would not alter the country's demographic mix. President Johnson described the old system as having violated "the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man." The Act was also to be described as having encouraged " illegal immigration from Latin America, especially Mexico" 5

By 1980 there were 14.6 million Hispanics living in the US, a little more than 8 percent of the non-Hispanic population – up from a little more than 2 percent in 1950. The illegal immigrant number for 1980 has been estimated at 3 million. 6

Running for re-election in 1984, President Reagan complained that the borders were "out of control." He was sentimental about the US being a nation of immigrants, and he spoke for "amnesty for those who had lived here and had put down roots even though sometime back they may have entered illegally." Then came the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which he signed into law. The bill gave any immigrant who had entered the country before 1982 eligibility for "amnesty." It legalized the hiring of undocumented immigrants for some seasonal labor in agriculture but otherwise made it illegal to hire or recruit undocumented immigrants knowingly, and employers were required to attest to the immigration status of those working for them. The bill is said to have allowed the 4 million or so undocumented immigrants in the US a path the legal status and citizenship.

An article in the Journal of American History titled "A New Era of Mexican Immigration to the United States" writes,

Of the 2.3 million Mexicans who ultimately filed for legalization, most ceased crossing illegally in early 1987... arrests along the border fell from 1.6 million in 1986 to 830,000 in 1989, a decline of nearly 50 percent in just three years... Even after being legalized, most Mexican migrants did not return home as frequently as before. [The new law] required them to remain in the United States and take classes in English and civics in order to obtain their permanent 'green cards'. Once permanent legal status was achieved, moreover, migrants who returned home were compelled to reenter the United States each year in order to maintain a bona fide status as legal resident aliens, and few families could afford to throw away the economic security represented by having legal residence papers.

President Reagan's friend and his attorney general, Edwin Meese, was to describe Reagan as having considered the 1986 amnesty a big mistake. It incentivized more illegal immigration.

For the first six months after the amnesty there was a modest fall in illegal immigration, but within 12 months illegal immigration was breaking all previous records. (http://www.vdare.com/posts/ed-meese-says-reagan-regretted-1986-amnesty)

In California and elsewhere, small businesses in construction, landscaping and grounds care continued to hire cheap labor from across the border, which angered Anglo individual contractors. Enforcement of the new law regarding business people was lax. Employers turned to indirect hiring through subcontractors, relieving them of liabilities and reducing wages as the subcontractors got their cut.

By 1992 the estimate of illegal migrants in the US is said to have risen to 3.4 million, up 400,000 from 1980, an increase of around 12 percent, and a total that was 1.3 percent of the US population.

Then came Mexico's economic crisis, a steep recession, peso devaluation and a big increase in the flow of illegals into the US. In November 1994, California's Proposition 187 called for denying illegal immigrants health care, education and welfare benefits. It was supported by the state's Republican governor, Pete Wilson. President Clinton urged rejection of the California proposition, but it passed 58 percent in favor and 41 percent against. Then California's court system ruled against it, arguing that regulating immigration was the federal government's responsibility.

In 1996 the estimate of illegal migrants in the US is said to have risen to 5 million. In 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. It aimed at upgrading border patrol enforcement and equipment and penalties regarding racketeering, alien smuggling and fraudulent immigration-related documents. And the bill included sanctions on employers who failed to comply with existing regulations and restrictions in hiring non-citizens.

By the year 2000 the number of illegals in the US would be described as 8.46 million. 7

CONTINUE to PAGE TWO: Illegal Immigration and the Border with Mexico, 2001 to 2015


1. Hoffman, Abraham (1974). Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression:Repatriation Pressures, 1929-1939. Tucson University Press.

2. Hispanics in the United States, 1850-1990" (PDF). Latinamericanstudies.org.

3. "Mexican Repatriation," Wikipedia.

4. Don Mitchell, They Save the Crops, by Don Mitchell, p 241.

5. "Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965," Wikipedia.

6. http://immigration.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000844

7. Ibid.

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