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.

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.