A History of Immigration in the United States

A Note From the Dramaturg:

Sometimes it seems as though we have always had the laws about immigration that we have today and with it the cultural attitudes towards immigrants that exist today.  However, immigration laws have varied greatly over the course of U.S. – American history and cultural attitudes towards immigrants have also varied greatly over time.  Below is a brief history to help explain how we have arrived at our current relationship to immigrants and Mexican immigrants in particular.

 A quick “down and dirty” history of immigration laws and statistics (compiled from articles featured below).

In the early 1900’s: first significant wave of Mexican workers come into the United States after the decrease of Japanese immigration in 1907 and decrease in “cheap Asian labor”.  Approximately 100,000 Mexicans were in the United States.

1917/World War I: When the US entered World War I in 1917 the need for Mexican workers increased even more (since US-American men were in the war) – at this time the Mexican Government agreed to “export” contract laborers.

End of World War I: Ironically, when the war ended a “nativist” mentality emerged and there was a “crack down” on immigration from Europe as well as the creation of the U.S. Border Patrol.  But economic demand for cheap labor, especially during the 1920s, meant a continued steady flow (legal or not) of border crossings.

1929/Blease’s Bill: According to Blease’s bill “unlawfully entering the country” would be a misdemeanor, while unlawfully returning to the United States after deportation would be a felony. The idea was to force Mexican immigrants into an authorized and monitored stream that could be turned on and turned off at will at ports of entry. Any immigrant who entered the United States outside the bounds of this stream would be a criminal subject to fines, imprisonment and ultimately deportation. But it was a crime designed to impact Mexican immigrants, in particular.

The 1930s/The Great Depression: By 1930, nearly 1.5 million Mexican immigrants lived north of the border.  During the ‘30s there was a halt in Mexican immigration and those already in the U.S. including legal residents were “rounded up” and deported to Mexico. The economic crisis led to a mentality that Mexicans were both “taking Americans’ jobs” and relying too much on public assistance.  Sound familiar? By the end of 1930, the U.S. Attorney General reported prosecuting 7,001 cases of unlawful entry. By the end of the decade, U.S. Attorneys had prosecuted more than 44,000 cases.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the vast majority of immigrants imprisoned for breaking Blease’s law were Mexicans.

World War II and the Bracero Program: After Pearl Harbor when again U.S. American men were going to war - the US sought to make an agreement with Mexico to import a large number of migrant farm workers.  This program was known as the Bracero Program.  The number of Bracero legal workers did not fill the demand and farm owners relied heavily on undocumented workers to fill in the gap.  By the end of the Korean War undocumented workers were a regular fixture of the U.S. economy.

1954/ “OperationWetback”: In response to the growing number of undocumented Mexicans, the U.S. Government apprehended nearly 1 million illegal workers but under pressure from U.S. growers many of these 1 million were legalized and brought back as official Bracero workers 

1960s/End of Bracero Program: With the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s, many began to see the Bracero program as exploitative and the program ended in 1964.  But growers showed no decrease in demand and the “problem of Mexican immigration”, some argue, began with the end of the Bracero Program.

1965/Hart-Celler Immigration Reform Act: removed the racially based quotas on immigration set up in the 1920s, Mexicans for the first time had to compete for visas with immigrants from other areas of Latin America and the Caribbean. Rapid population growth and declining economic conditions in Mexico coincided with a reduction in the legal cap on Mexican immigration beginning in 1968, causing the numbers of undocumented workers to soar.

1970s: Relations between the United States and Mexico worsened as the economically beleaguered 1970s contributed to an anti-immigrant mentality.  This tension between the two governments continued into the 1980s.

1986/Immigration Reform and Control Act: The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), Pub.L. 99–603, 100 Stat. 3445, enacted November 6, 1986, also known as the Simpson–Mazzoli Act or the Reagan Amnesty,[1] signed into law by Ronald Reagan on November 6, 1986, is an Act of Congress which reformed United States immigration law. The Act[2]

·       required employers to attest to their employees' immigration status;

·       made it illegal to hire or recruit illegal immigrants knowingly;

·       legalized certain seasonal agricultural illegal immigrants, and;

·       legalized illegal immigrants who entered the United States before January 1, 1982 and had resided there continuously with the penalty of a fine, back taxes due, and admission of guilt; candidates were required to prove that they were not guilty of crimes, that they were in the country before January 1, 1982, and that they possessed at least a minimal knowledge about U.S. history, government, and the English language.

 The militarization of the border under the IRCA and stricter immigration laws may have backfired and caused a larger problem of illegal immigration.  In part, because it became more difficult to cross the border – once someone made it, they were more likely to stay.

1994/NAFTA: The North American Free Trade Agreement: The issue of immigration was not addressed in the agreement.

1990s: The number of officers from the mid-‘80s through the ‘90s tripled and the U.S. Border Patrol became the largest arms-bearing branch of the U.S. Government.

2000s: With new Presidents in both the U.S. and Mexico a discussion of immigration FINALLY occurred.  President George W. Bush seemed open to a policy along the lines of the Bracero agreement. “But the Mexicans overreached,” Domínguez explains. “They wanted to deal with everything, including the status of Mexicans already here.” The United States said no, and after 9/11, the Bush administration lost interest.

With few exceptions, prosecutions for unlawful entry and reentry remained low until 2005. As a measure of the War on Terror, the George W. Bush administration directed U.S. Attorneys to adopt an “enforcement with consequences” strategy. In 2009, U.S. attorneys prosecuted more than 50,000 cases of unlawful entry or re-entry. The Obama administration continued the surge, betting that aggressive border enforcement would help bring a recalcitrant Congress to adopt comprehensive immigration reform. It did not.

By 2015, prosecutions for unlawful entry and reentry accounted for 49 percent of all federal prosecutions and the federal government had spent at least US$7 billion to lock up unlawful border crossers. 

2016/U.S. Presidential Run: Then Candidate Trump begins his bid for the Presidency by declaring that Mexicans are criminals and rapists and that he will “build the wall.”  Trump appointee Attorney General Sessions still wants more than the above statistics on prosecutions. Traveling to southern Arizona to announce his plan to even more aggressively prosecute unlawful entry, he signaled that, in the years to come, most prosecutions will happen on the U.S.-Mexico border and will target Mexicans and Central Americans.

When the number of Mexicans as well as Central Americans imprisoned on immigration charges soon booms, there will be nothing unwitting or colorblind about it. Congress first invented the crimes of unlawful entry and reentry with the purpose of criminalizing and imprisoning Mexican immigrants and it has delivered on that intent since 1929. The Sessions plan will bear a similar result and, in the process, discharge the racist design of Blease’s law.

Some key takeaways:

With major wars came an increased need for Mexican laborers.  When the wars ended, a nativist climate took place and anti-immigrant mentality emerged.

Farm owners have knowingly relied on illegal workers in order to maintain labor needs and to keep that labor “cheap.”

Stricter border regulations has actually caused a LARGER immigration issues since immigrants who would normally return to Mexico to be with their families do not want to risk an inability to re-enter.

ARTICLES

From Harvard Magazine:

The first significant wave of Mexican workers coming into the United States began in the early years of the twentieth century, following the curtailment of Japanese immigration in 1907 and the consequent drying up of cheap Asian labor. The need for Mexican labor increased sharply when the Unites States entered World War I. The Mexican government agreed to export Mexican workers as contract laborers to enable American workers to fight overseas. After the war, an intensifying nativist climate led to restrictive quotas on immigration from Europe and to the creation of the U.S. Border Patrol, aimed at cutting back the flow of Mexicans. But economic demand for unskilled migrant workers continued throughout the Roaring Twenties, encouraging Mexican immigrants to cross the border—legally or not.

The Depression brought a temporary halt to the flow of Mexican labor. During the early 1930s, Mexican workers—including many legal residents—were rounded up and deported en masse by federal authorities in cooperation with state and local officials. Mexicans became the convenient scapegoats for widespread joblessness and budget shortages; as Douglas Massey, Jorge Durand, and Nolan J. Malone point out in Beyond Smoke and Mirrors (2002), Mexicans were accused, paradoxically, of both “taking away jobs from Americans” and “living off public relief.”

The demand for Mexican immigrants reemerged after Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. government sought an agreement with Mexico to import large numbers of Mexican farm laborers. Known as braceros, these workers would ensure the continued production of the U.S. food supply during the war years. “It was Mexicans and Rosie the Riveter who ran the American economy and enabled American citizens to go to war,” explains vice provost for international affairs Jorge Domínguez, Madero professor of Mexican and Latin American politics and economics.

Although intended as a wartime arrangement, the Bracero program continued under pressure from U.S. growers, who feared a continued labor shortage in the booming postwar economy. Still, the numbers of legal braceros fell short of demand, and growers began regularly recruiting undocumented workers to tend their fields. By the end of the Korean War, illegal immigration had become a fixture of the U.S. agricultural economy—and public sentiment had again turned restrictionist. In 1954, the U.S. government responded with “Operation Wetback,” apprehending close to one million illegal workers. Meanwhile, to appease the growers, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) reprocessed many of these undocumented Mexicans and returned them to the fields as legal braceros.

In the early 1960s, with the advent of the civil-rights movement, public opinion began to view the Bracero system as exploitative and detrimental to the socioeconomic condition of Mexican Americans. The government ended the program in 1964. But growers were still hooked. “The problem of Mexican illegal immigration is born at the moment that the Bracero program ends,” Domínguez explains. “[Mexicans] keep coming, because the demand is still there.”

Following the Hart-Celler Immigration Reform Act of 1965, which removed the racially based quotas on immigration set up in the 1920s, Mexicans for the first time had to compete for visas with immigrants from other areas of Latin America and the Caribbean. Rapid population growth and declining economic conditions in Mexico coincided with a reduction in the legal cap on Mexican immigration beginning in 1968, causing the numbers of undocumented workers to soar.

As the problem of illegal immigration worsened through the recession-plagued 1970s, the prospect of diplomatic talks between Mexico and the United States grew less likely. The Mexican government saw little to gain from cross-border negotiations at a time when restrictionist voices in the United States were gaining ground. As Domínguez explains, “[The Mexican government] realized they had a stake in Mexicans going abroad, exporting the underemployment problem.” They also feared that any discussion with the United States would involve “linkage”—that is, that the United States would tie trade concessions to Mexico’s improved control of the border. This pattern of political avoidance continued into the 1980s. In 1986, when the United States passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), “there was no Mexican government voice in the process,” Domínguez points out. (SEE SEPARATE SECTION DESCRIBING THE IRCA).

The passage of the IRCA set the stage, many observers believe, for the enormous and entrenched problem of undocumented immigrants that exists today. While granting amnesty to 2.3 million Mexicans residing illegally in the United States, the law began a process of border fortification and militarization that has had the opposite of its intended effect. The idea of building a wall—which began under the Clinton administration—turned a pattern of circular migration into one of permanent settlement. “Now ‘Once I make it, I’m not going back,’” Domínguez explains. As Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey pointed out to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005: “From 1965 to 1985, 85 percent of undocumented entries from Mexico were offset by departures and the net increase in the undocumented population was small. The build-up of enforcement resources at the border has not decreased the entry of migrants so much as discouraged their return home.”

Ironically, while the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 heralded a new level of economic integration between Mexico and the United States, the question of labor migration remained off the table. “Even as binational trade with Mexico grew by a factor of eight from 1986 to the present,” Massey points out, “the Border Patrol’s enforcement budget has increased by a factor of 10 and the number of officers tripled. The U.S. Border Patrol is now the largest arms-bearing branch of the U.S. government save the military itself, with an annual budget of $1.4 billion.”

In 2000, a year in which both countries elected new presidents, Mexico finally took the initiative to launch discussions on immigration. President George W. Bush seemed open to a policy along the lines of the Bracero agreement. “But the Mexicans overreached,” Domínguez explains. “They wanted to deal with everything, including the status of Mexicans already here.” The United States said no, and after 9/11, the Bush administration lost interest.

The recent stalemate in the U.S. debate on immigration reform has stalled the possibility of diplomatic talks with Mexico, at least for now. The United States may have to resolve its internal contradictions on the subject of Mexican labor before any substantive cooperation with the Mexican government can take place.

From Newsweek Magazine:
By Kelly Lytle Hernandez,
Associate Professor African-American Studies, UCLA

It was not always a crime to enter the United States without authorization. 

In fact, for most of American history, immigrants could enter the United States without official permission and not fear criminal prosecution by the federal government.

That changed in 1929. On its surface, Congress’s new prohibitions on informal border crossings simply modernized the U.S. immigration system by compelling all immigrants to apply for entry. However, in my new book “City of Inmates,” I detail how Congress outlawed border crossings with the specific intent of criminalizing, prosecuting and imprisoning Mexican immigrants.

The criminalization of informal border crossings occurred amid an immigration boom from Mexico.

In 1900, about 100,000 Mexican immigrants resided in the United States.

By 1930, nearly 1.5 million Mexican immigrants lived north of the border.

As Mexican immigration surged, many in Congress were trying to restrict non-white immigration. By 1924, Congress had largely adopted a “whites only” immigration system, banning all Asian immigration and cutting the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States from anywhere other than northern and western Europe. But whenever Congress tried to cap the number of Mexicans allowed to enter the United States each year, southwestern employers fiercely objected.

U.S. employers had eagerly stoked the era’s Mexican immigration boom by recruiting Mexican workers to their southwestern farms, ranches and railroads, as well as their homes and mines. By the 1920s, western farmers were completely dependent on Mexican workers.

However, they also believed that Mexican immigrants would never permanently settle in the United States. As agribusiness lobbyist S. Parker Frisselle explained to Congress in 1926, “The Mexican is a ‘homer.’ Like the pigeon he goes home to roost.” On Frisselle’s promise that Mexicans were “not immigrants” but, rather, “birds of passage,” western employers successfully defeated proposals to cap Mexican immigration to the United States during the 1920s.

The idea that Mexican immigrants often returned to Mexico contained some truth. Many Mexican immigrants engaged in cyclical migrations between their homes in Mexico and work in the United States. Yet, by the close of the 1920s, Mexicans were settling in large numbers across the southwest. They bought homes, started newspapers, churches and businesses. And many Mexican immigrants in the United States started families, raising a new generation of Mexican American children.

Monitoring the rise of Mexican American communities in southwestern states, the advocates of a whites-only immigration system charged western employers with recklessly courting Anglo America’s racial doom. As the work of historian Natalia Molina details, they believed Mexicans were racially unfit to be U.S. citizens.

Western employers agreed that Mexicans should not be allowed to become U.S. citizens. “We, in California, would greatly prefer some set up in which our peak labor demands might be met and upon the completion of our harvest these laborers returned to their country,” Friselle told Congress. But western employers also wanted unfettered access to an unlimited number of Mexican laborers. “We need the labor,” they roared back at those who wanted to cap the number of Mexican immigrants allowed to enter the United States each year.

Amid the escalating conflict between employers in the West and advocates of restriction in Congress, a senator from Dixie proposed a compromise.

Blease’s Law

Sen. Coleman Livingston Blease hailed from the hills of South Carolina. In 1925, he entered Congress committed, above all else, to protecting white supremacy. In 1929, as restrictionists and employers tussled over the future of Mexican immigration, Blease proposed a way forward.

According to U.S. immigration officials, Mexicans made nearly 1 million official border crossings into the United States during the 1920s. They arrived at a port of entry, paid an entry fee and submitted to any required tests, such as literacy and health.

However, as U.S. immigration authorities reported, many other Mexican immigrants did not register for legal entry. Entry fees were prohibitively high for many Mexican workers. Moreover, U.S. authorities subjected Mexican immigrants, in particular, to kerosene baths and humiliating delousing procedures because they believed Mexican immigrants carried disease and filth on their bodies. Instead of traveling to a port of entry, many Mexicans informally crossed the border at will, as both U.S. and Mexican citizens had done for decades.

When the debate stalled over how many Mexicans to allow in each year, Blease shifted attention to stopping the large number of border crossings that took place outside ports of entry. He suggested criminalizing unmonitored entry.

According to Blease’s bill “unlawfully entering the country” would be a misdemeanor, while unlawfully returning to the United States after deportation would be a felony. The idea was to force Mexican immigrants into an authorized and monitored stream that could be turned on and turned off at will at ports of entry. Any immigrant who entered the United States outside the bounds of this stream would be a criminal subject to fines, imprisonment and ultimately deportation. But it was a crime designed to impact Mexican immigrants, in particular.

Neither the western agricultural businessmen nor the restrictionists registered any objections. Congress passed Blease’s bill, the Immigration Act of March 4, 1929, and dramatically altered the story of crime and punishment in the United States.

Caged

With stunning precision, the criminalization of unauthorized entry caged thousands of Mexico’s “birds of passage.” By the end of 1930, the U.S. Attorney General reported prosecuting 7,001 cases of unlawful entry. By the end of the decade, U.S. Attorneys had prosecuted more than 44,000 cases.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the vast majority of immigrants imprisoned for breaking Blease’s law were Mexicans. Throughout the 1930s, Mexicans never comprised fewer than 85 percent of all immigration prisoners. Some years, that number rose to 99 percent. By the end of the decade, tens of thousands of Mexicans had been convicted of unlawfully entering or re-entering the United States. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons built three new prisons in the U.S.-Mexico border region: La Tuna Prison in El Paso, Prison Camp #10 in Tucson and Terminal Island in Los Angeles.

Only the outbreak of World War II halted the Mexican immigrant prison boom of the 1930s. The war turned the attention of U.S. Attorneys elsewhere and Mexicans workers were desperately needed north of the border.

With few exceptions, prosecutions for unlawful entry and reentry remained low until 2005. As a measure of the War on Terror, the George W. Bush administration directed U.S. Attorneys to adopt an “enforcement with consequences” strategy. In 2009, U.S. attorneys prosecuted more than 50,000 cases of unlawful entry or re-entry. The Obama administration continued the surge, betting that aggressive border enforcement would help bring a recalcitrant Congress to adopt comprehensive immigration reform. It did not.

By 2015, prosecutions for unlawful entry and reentry accounted for 49 percent of all federal prosecutions and the federal government had spent at least US$7 billion to lock up unlawful border crossers.

Throughout this most recent surge, the disparate impact of criminalizing unlawful entry and reentry has endured. Today, Latinos, led by Mexicans and Central Americans, make up 92 percent of all immigrants imprisoned for unlawful entry and reentry.

Attorney General Sessions still wants more. Traveling to southern Arizona to announce his plan to even more aggressively prosecute unlawful entry, he signaled that, in the years to come, most prosecutions will happen on the U.S.-Mexico border and will target Mexicans and Central Americans.

When the number of Mexicans as well as Central Americans imprisoned on immigration charges soon booms, there will be nothing unwitting or colorblind about it. Congress first invented the crimes of unlawful entry and reentry with the purpose of criminalizing and imprisoning Mexican immigrants and it has delivered on that intent since 1929. The Sessions plan will bear a similar result and, in the process, discharge the racist design of Blease’s law.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), Pub.L. 99–603, 100 Stat. 3445, enacted November 6, 1986, also known as the Simpson–Mazzoli Act or the Reagan Amnesty,[1] signed into law by Ronald Reagan on November 6, 1986, is an Act of Congress which reformed United States immigration law. The Act[2]

·       required employers to attest to their employees' immigration status;

·       made it illegal to hire or recruit illegal immigrants knowingly;

·       legalized certain seasonal agricultural illegal immigrants, and;

·       legalized illegal immigrants who entered the United States before January 1, 1982 and had resided there continuously with the penalty of a fine, back taxes due, and admission of guilt; candidates were required to prove that they were not guilty of crimes, that they were in the country before January 1, 1982, and that they possessed at least a minimal knowledge about U.S. history, government, and the English language.

At the time, the Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated that about four million illegal immigrants would apply for legal status through the act and that roughly half of them would be eligible.[3]

According to one study, the IRCA caused some employers to discriminate against workers who appeared foreign, resulting in a small reduction in overall Hispanic employment. There is no statistical evidence that a reduction in employment correlated to unemployment in the economy as a whole or was separate from the general unemployment population statistics.[8] Another study stated that if hired, wages were being lowered to compensate employers for the perceived risk of hiring foreigners.[9]

The hiring process also changed as employers turned to indirect hiring through subcontractors. "Under a subcontracting agreement, a U.S. citizen or resident alien contractually agrees with an employer to provide a specific number of workers for a certain period of time to undertake a defined task at a fixed rate of pay per worker".[9] "By using a subcontractor the firm is not held liable since the workers are not employees. The use of a subcontractor decreases a worker's wages since a portion is kept by the subcontractor. This indirect hiring is imposed on everyone regardless of legality".[9]