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

An important contributing factor to the flow into the United States is the expansion of internal movement within Mexico itself. This is attributable in part to the industrial development of the country’s northern region, bordering the United States, where international capital (largely of U.S. origin) has invested in manufacturing and assembly plans for products exported to the United States (generally known as maquiladoras). As is generally the case with migration, once uprooted, migrants easily keep going; for a Mexican who leaves his village in Chiapas, it makes little difference whether the final destination is Ciudad Juarez, San Antonio, or Omaha.

Although Mexico is currently experiencing quite rapid economic development, with its international balance of payments now benefiting from high oil prices as well, it is also still experiencing rapid population growth attributable to a high rate of fertility. Moreover, it is undergoing an economic transition in many ways comparable to that of Britain and other industrializing European countries in the middle of the nineteenth century, involving a decisive shift from protected agricultural production on secure family farms that, in the case of Mexico, had been established in the course of its early twentieth century revolution. While over the medium-to-long term these policies will arguably accelerate the country’s economic development, during the transition itself large numbers of people are being abruptly uprooted by the sudden non-viability of family farms and the end of subsidized or at least guaranteed prices for basic staples. In short, Mexico now imports industrially-produced maize (corn) from the U.S., because it is less expensive than the home-grown traditional variety.

A key irony of the situation is that its northern neighbor’s competitive advantage is itself largely attributable to the availability of Mexican immigrant labor, both legal and undocumented. The “guest worker” program currently under consideration would further reinforce the established pattern. Exclusion of undocumented Mexican workers from the U.S. labor market would require either abnegation by U.S. employers, from very small to very large, of their economic self-interest, or the effective institutionalization of a discriminatory cultural boundary that would exclude persons of apparent Mexican origin from employment altogether. The first is unattainable, as already demonstrated by the failure of the “employer sanctions” component of the 1986 IRCA; the second both undesirable and in fact illegal under established civil rights laws. Moreover, given the ethnic make-up of the population of the U.S. southwest, it would have a negative impact on a considerable part of the long-time U.S. population and hence provoke electoral retribution.
The elaboration of a hard-to-cross 2,000-mile-long physical boundary (construction of a wall), is problematic as well. As the experience of Berlin and East Germany during the Cold War demonstrated, a wall of this sort can be made secure only by way of ruthlessly brutal deterrence; this would be extremely costly internationally and jeopardize the little that is left of the U.S.’s standing as a democratic beacon. Recurrent proposals to institute national ID cards with a centralized checking system, patterned after those of centralized Continental European states, notably France, would be very costly, entail major institutional changes, and undermine the established federal tradition, without insuring effective results—as can be inferred from the growing incidence of illegal immigration in France itself.

Thus, none of the programs proposed so far are likely to be more than political window-dressing, since they cannot be effectively enforced. It is therefore time for the United States, Canada, and Mexico, to consider other models to fulfill their desire to “have their cake and eat it too”—maintain their distinct national sovereignties and achieve economic prosperity. For the United States and Canada this entails increasing the supply of labor and thereby somewhat reducing its cost or at least preventing it from rising rapidly, so as to lessen capital outflow to countries where cheaper labor is available. For Mexico it entails securing employment opportunities for its “surplus” erstwhile peasant producers during the transition-to-development period, as well as remittances to supplement its population’s income more generally. One interesting model is provided by Europe, which evolved in a few decades (less than the average lifetime of the citizens of one of the countries involved) from a limited Franco-German “coal and steel community” on the one hand, and BENELUX on the other, into a broader common market and eventually a European Union now extending from Portugal to Poland, which facilitated the economic transformation of the region as a whole, while enabling the members to basically maintain their respective national identities. It will be observed that the lowering of the new Europe’s internal boundaries has not led to huge population movements, largely because the countries that initially constituted labor reserves comparable to Mexico in North America, i.e., Ireland, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece, themselves experienced rapid development under the European regime. One major feature of their rapid development was the dawn of a fertility revolution, comparable to the one experienced earlier by the industrialized countries. It is noteworthy that all the countries in question (except for Greece) are Roman Catholic, as is Mexico. It is therefore quite evident that Mexico’s development along similar lines would go a long way toward solving the U.S.’s “illegal immigration” problem. But that would in turn require a significant change in U.S. foreign policy, which currently is very reluctant to promote birth control and related practices.

Although the outcome would undoubtedly be quite different from the European one, in North America NAFTA already provides a platform on which to elaborate a more comprehensive project. Given the vociferous concern in the United States over the impending threat of “hispanization,” movement toward regional integration should be coupled with a more effective program of social and cultural integration; yet there can be no doubt that the changes already under way will persist and that the U.S. will evolve into a more bilingual Anglo-Hispanic culture. Yet it should be remembered that a gradual change of identity need not signify a loss of identity, as is amply evident from the earlier transformation of a Protestant society into a Protestant-and-Catholic society, and eventually a Judeo-Christian one. It should be remembered as well that Spanish has occupied a special place in the U.S. identity panorama, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century with the conquest of what was originally a part of the Spanish-Mexican Empire, and continuing at its end with the conquest of another segment of the Spanish Empire, Puerto Rico. Despite an initial half-hearted impulse of French-style assimilation, the United States in effect allowed the Spanish-language to remain hegemonic throughout Puerto Rico, resulting in the emergence of a Spanish-speaking component of U.S. citizenry who insisted on being enabled to exercise their citizenship rights in that language when migrating to the continent.


1 This historical background is drawn from my book, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, and New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006).

2 Victor S. Clark, “Mexican Labor in the United States,” Bulletin of the U.S. Bureau of Labor 78 (September 1908): 466-522. 

3 The number of Mexican-born enumerated by the U.S. Census approximately doubled from 103,000 in 1900 to 222,000 in 1910; David E. Lorey United States-Mexico Border Statistics since 1900 (Los Angeles: University of California Los Angeles, Latin American Center, 1990). 

4 Information on the demographic effects of the 1846-48 war and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is very scanty because of the unreliability of both Mexican and U.S. census data of the period.

5 Having been stationed for military service in El Paso in 1954-55, I can testify personally to the “informality” that still prevailed in West Texas and New Mexico at that time regarding the border; you were more likely to be stopped crossing the Juarez Bridge if you looked like an American in military service than like a Mexican seeking work.