America is a country grounded in immigration, and while foreign nationals from all over the world have immigrated to the United States in droves, one of the most significant immigration histories is that of Mexico and the U.S.
Currently, Mexicans are the largest group of foreign-born residents in the United States, and there has been no significant period of interruption in immigration from Mexico to the U.S. since Mexican immigration is officially considered to have begun in 1846 (Gutierrez, 2017; The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, 2015).
Given the current political climate, and the prominent debate on immigration, especially from Mexico, it is important to examine the historical foundation of Mexican immigration, and consider the roots of this diaspora in order to gain a contextual understanding of the current immigration debate.
Following the annexation of Texas in 1845, Mexican immigration to the United States is considered to have officially begun in 1846 (Gutierrez, 2017). The flow of Mexican immigrants increased in the 1890s when the U.S. Southwest’s industries of agriculture and mining took root (The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, 2015). Immigration numbers increased between 1910 and 1920 dramatically due in large part to the instability created by the Mexican Civil War: refugees and political exiles fled their home country to escape the violence and turmoil created by the war, and many Mexicans who lived in rural areas immigrated to America in search of economic opportunities and employment – often found in the agricultural sector as migrant workers (The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, 2015).
In 1924, the U.S. passed immigration quotas from which Mexico was exempt (The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, 2015). This exemption was due in large part to the influence of the Agricultural Lobby during that time (The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, 2015). Citing Mexican immigrants as the backbone of any planting or harvesting operation, the lobby was adamant that farmers in the Southwest would not be able to continue production without the work of Mexican immigrants (The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, 2015).
Immigration from Mexico again increased between 1926 and 1929 due to the Cristero War, and yet another wave of Mexican refugees and political exiles entered the U.S (The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, 2015). However, in 1929, with the onset of the Great Depression, major industries (including agriculture) contracted, and the need for immigrant workers contracted as well, prompting many Mexicans to return to Mexico either voluntarily or by being deported by the government (The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, 2015).
Mexican immigration increased yet again following the authorization of the Bracero Act in 1942 (National Farm Worker Ministry, 2017). Farmers voiced their concerns over World War II causing a labor shortage in the agricultural sector, and so a bilateral agreement between the Mexican and American governments allowed Mexican immigrants temporary passage to the U.S. to work (National Farm Worker Ministry, 2017). This temporary use of Mexican labor by the U.S. government was the largest guest-worker program in history, and saw an influx of Mexican immigrants. Ending in 1964, this program contributed to consistent immigration of agricultural workers from Mexico to the U.S.
And while immigration from Mexico to the United States has been consistent since 1846, mass Mexican migration has ramped up in recent years. In 1970, the number of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. totaled 800,000 (Camarota, 2001). By 2000, this number reached 8 million (Camarota, 2001). This increase since the 1970s can be linked to a number of political, economic and trade-related factors. Between 1982 and 2008, Mexico experienced two major economic crises (one in 1982 and another in 1994), held contested elections, and elected corrupt government regimes which destabilized the societal security of Mexico (Council on Foreign Relations, 2018). In addition, drug cartels and anti-government militias gained traction during this time as well, furthering Mexico’s sense of instability (Council on Foreign Relations, 2018).
In examining the historical immigration of Mexican farm workers to the U.S., there are three discernable influencing factors in what causes a surge in movement: 1) political instability 2) lack of economic opportunity in home country/economic opportunity in host country and 3) military conflict. And while these are all causal factors in matters of immigration, Mexican immigration also historically maintains consistency, where immigration from other countries has ebbed and flowed much more dramatically.
The cause of this continuous immigration from Mexico can be linked to two things: its immediate proximity to the U.S. (and shared border), and the relative economic disparity between the two countries.
In the current political climate in the US, immigration has become a divisive issue yet again (as it has in the past for Americans). While American citizens may take different viewpoints on acceptable immigration policy, we can all agree that immigrants make a positive contribution to our economy and their interest in migrating to the U.S., in most cases, is driven by economic interest. Given this, it is important to note that the most advisable tack for legislators to take is to create an institutional structure that allows for industries to employ a seasonal and non-seasonal immigrant workforce. Such a system should include a multianual visa, with a fitting set of procedures and protocols agreed upon by the source countries and the U.S. in order to promote a mutually beneficial cyclical program that would provide U.S. employers the workforce to grow their businesses, and migrant workers the right set of programs which would allow them to invest in their home country, and have a future to return to.