A Century of Informality on the United States-Mexico Border
Published on: Aug 17, 2006

Aristide Zolberg is Walter Eberstadt Professor of Political Science and Director of the International Center for Migration, Ethnicity, and Citizenship at the New School University in New York City. His most recent book is A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (Harvard University Press and Russell Sage Foundation, 2006).

The present situation on the United States-Mexico border is not exactly new, but nearly a century old, and largely of the U.S.’s own making.1 Mexican labor first came to be used in the West after the United States enacted Chinese Exclusion, precisely when completion of the transcontinental railroad the Chinese had been imported to build opened up opportunities to develop California as the country’s sub-tropical fruit producer. As early as 1908, an analyst observed that “within less than a decade there has been a large increase in the amount of Mexican labor employed in the United States; but more marked than the growth of numbers has been the increasing range of its distribution.” He observed that whereas hitherto Mexicans were seldom found more than 100 miles from the border, “Now they are working as unskilled laborers and as section hands as far east as Chicago and as far north as Iowa, Wyoming, and San Francisco. The number of different industries dependent upon Mexican labor is increasing.”2 According to census data, as many as 500,000 Mexicans may have entered the United States between 1900 and 1910; and although they were for the most part “sojourners” rather than immigrants, their comings and goings contributed to substantial settlement,3 largely indistinguishable from the Mexican-origin native population of the Southwest that had been incorporated into the United States in the wake of the 1846-48 war.4 After the U.S. entered World War I, it recruited Mexican labor to overcome manpower shortages in agriculture, transportation, and steel production. This contributed to the formation of new settlements in the Great Lakes region (South Chicago as well as Gary and Hammond in northern Indiana). After the war, despite vociferous objections to Mexican settlement by the triumphant anti-immigration activists of the 1920s, the unprecedented immigration restrictions enacted at that time did not extend to the Western Hemisphere because of effective opposition on the part of agricultural interests, as well as of the Department of State, which was engaged in negotiations concerning compensation for U.S. property nationalized by Mexican revolutionary governments. Although the Border Patrol was created at that time, its mission was to prevent the entry of alcohol rather than people, so that in effect, the border remained an informal affair. This was the case as well on the northern border, where the Québécois—commonly referred to at the time as “Mexicans of the North”—entered informally to work in agriculture, lumber, and the textile industry throughout New England. After the onset of the Depression, informal immigrants in the northeast and southwest were subjected to equally informal deportations (push-outs carried out by local authorities and ad hoc citizen militias). After the U.S. entered World War II, Congress enacted an official “guest worker” program to provide Mexican and West Indian labor for agriculture. From then until the mid-1960s, the official bracero program co-existed with continued informal entry and employment, as well as occasional “push-outs” (notably in the Southwest in 1954).

The term “informal” is more appropriate than “illegal” with regard to the understanding of the situation by both workers and employers as well as, in practice, U.S. national authorities.5 An attempt to institutionalize a formal distinction between “legal” and “illegal” was enacted in 1965 as part of that year’s major immigration reform, which abolished the “national origins” quota system, the remnants of Asian exclusion, but also for the first time firmly inserted the “Western Hemisphere” within the U.S. immigration regime—as part of a congressional enactment package deal, i.e., granting conservative Republicans, notably Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, the restrictions they sought on Mexican and West Indian immigration in exchange for dropping “national origins” quotas that limited immigration from southern and eastern Europe whose ethnics constituted a mainstay of the Democratic electorate. However, little or no thought was given to the policy’s implementation, notably to the fact that the “remote control” system that had been elaborated to enforce restrictions on immigration from overseas (verification by carriers and, from 1917 onward, the requirement of valid passports issued by the country of origin, bearing immigration visas issued by U.S. authorities abroad) could not be applied to overland movement along a sparsely settled two-thousand-mile border consisting largely of desert regions. This was true in the North as well, albeit with lakes and dense forests rather than desert, but given Canada’s rapid development and Quebec’s reduced population growth, there was much less concern in the United States regarding the possibility of controlling entry through that even much longer border. Yet, as was revealed on the morrow of 9/11—when some Detroit hospitals were forced to close because of the absence of their commuting Canadian nurses, suddenly subjected to unusual border controls—informal management of the border still prevails throughout the Great Lakes region as well.

Uneasiness over the high rate of uncontrolled crossing has caused the issue of Mexican entry to be on the legislative agenda for several decades, ever since the Western Hemisphere was placed within the global immigration regime. In the wake of a report issued by the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy in February 1981, Congress tried to hammer out a politically acceptable solution. At the end of five years, the result was another cross-party “package deal” which combined a wide-ranging legalization measure for potentially every illegal immigrant with strengthened enforcement of the “remote control” variety, but now involving not transporters, but U.S. employers who would henceforth be under obligation to verify the status of their prospective employees, with significant sanctions for violators. As it turned out, the legalization side was successfully implemented, ultimately covering the bulk of illegal residents at the time of enactment, whereas the “employer sanctions” provision triggered widespread resistance among the business community, was hesitantly applied, and ultimately practically abandoned. Some 70 percent of successful applicants for legalization turned out to be Mexican. Another commission was formed shortly afterwards with the aim of shifting the immigration regime from a family-oriented system to an economically rational Canadian-style system and a law to that effect was enacted in 1990; but once again, electoral considerations prevailed, and the outcome was to largely maintain established family reunion priorities, but with some economic recruitment provisions added on. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), long under fire as one of the Federal government’s worst agencies was dealt a coup de grâce by 9/11, and border control placed in the supposedly more reliable hands of the newly created Homeland Security Agency (HSA); but however effective the HSA has proven so far with regard to keeping out dangerous terrorists, its impact on informal immigration has apparently been altogether negative, as successive estimates of the number of illegal residents in the United States have continued to climb. Those provided by anti-immigration activists currently reach as high as 17-20 million. The one thing everyone agrees on is that the vast majority of the undocumented are Mexican.