My last post discussed how the racism we see today developed. This post focuses on the plight of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. I share it because the issue of illegal immigration is still very much in the news.
For the majority of the past hundred years illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States has been a contentious issue. The debate over Mexican immigrants and their descendants has included overt racism, economic concerns and humanitarian considerations. Long before Latin American immigration became part of the public consciousness, the image of Mexicans as an uncivilized and detestable race developed. Starting in the early 19th century white Americans began to transfer their Anglo-Saxon dominated worldview and its belief in the inferiority of others from the Africans and Native Americans to the Mexican people who they saw as an impediment to progress. The racism of both sides is evident in their arguments. Politicians argued that Mexicans were slow, lazy and more likely to end up on welfare or commit crimes, while farm owners argued that the lower mental capacity of the Mexican made him ideal for repetitive manual labor in the fields. The result of these racist beliefs was the reparation and deportation movement of the 1930s. Politicians, fearing civil unrest caused by the Great Depression, found a scapegoat in the Mexican and Mexican American populations. Due to an absolute disregard for basic human rights by both sides, thousands of legal and illegal Mexican immigrants fled to Mexico out of fear.
In the 1830s and 40s Americans began to adopt Anglo-Saxon mythology as a way of defining their cultural heritage. The Anglo-Saxon myth stated that whites of northern European lineage were the descendants of a noble race of man that extended back to ancient times. They were the superior people - the children of Adam - and all other races were inferior by divine will. This identity was coming into focus as white Americans were attempting to find justification for enslaving Africans and for the massacres and forceful relocation of Native Americans in the name of progress. Blacks and Indians were seen as inferior and not of the same species as Europeans and European Americans.
When settlers and investors began looking west for land and resources and realized that Mexico did not share their interests, the notion of inferiority was quickly transferred to the Mexican people as a way to justify expelling them from the region. The historian Reginald Horsman argues that “While the Anglo-Saxons were depicted as the purest of the pure – the finest Caucasians – the Mexicans who stood in the way of Southern expansion were depicted as a mongrel race, adulterated by extensive intermarriage with an inferior Indian race.” They were seen as half-breeds: part Indian, part black, and incapable of building a proper society.
One result of this racial ideology was the Texas Revolution. The state of Texas was part of Mexico in the mid 1820s. To settle the territory the Mexican government enticed people from the United States to settle in colonies. These early settlers brought with them the Anglo-Saxon mythology and soon began to believe they could better utilize the land than the Mexicans. In 1835, under the leadership of Sam Houston, they revolted against the Mexican government. Houston was a firm supporter of the Anglo-Saxon myth and believed in the inferiority of the Mexican people. To him the revolution was part of the inevitable expansion of the white, Anglo-Saxon race across the continent. Stating that the Texans were fighting against what he called oppression and tyranny in the name of liberty “borne by the Anglo-Saxon race”, Houston’s beliefs serve as a representation of the racial worldview held by white America at the time.
As had happened with Texas, Mexico’s territory from New Mexico to California, from Western Colorado to Oregon, was viewed by Americans as their birthright. During the debate over annexing Texas into the United States in early 1840s politician John L. Sullivan gave a name to this belief: Manifest Destiny. This was the notion that the United States, the true home of the Anglo Saxon race, had a God given right to all of the land from the east to the west coast.
At this time there was a national debate going on in Congress over going to war with Mexico in order to claim more western lands. The Americans had no doubt they would win a war. Horsman tells us, “The general assumption in the cabinet that Mexico would not fight the United States, or at worst could easily be defeated, was reflected in public opinion throughout the country.” Added to this was the belief that “the Mexicans lacked the innate ability to benefit from the opportunity to be given them by liberating American armies.” This racist ideology was evident on both sides of the war debate. Mississippi Senator Robert Walker saw taking Mexico as a way to purge the northern states of both free blacks and slaves, arguing that the inferior blacks would be happier with the Mexicans who were more like them. Another argument made, as recorded in the Democratic Review, was that the invading soldiers would stay in occupied Mexico and breed with the Mexican women, “gradually infusing vigor into the race, regenerating the whole nation.”
Representing the views of the anti-war side of the debate, Senator John C. Calhoun argued, “We do not want the people of Mexico, either as citizens or subjects. All we want is a portion of territory…with a population the would soon recede, or identify with ours.” Neither the option of statehood, making the Mexican population citizens, nor governing Mexico as a colony - that reminded many of England and the American Revolution - was considered acceptable. Eventually a compromise was reached: the U.S. would take all of Mexico’s territory north of the Rio Grande River. In doing so America would acquire the most area of land with the least amount of Mexicans on it. The US won the war in 1848, and this victory reinforced the perception of Mexicans as inferior.
There was very little immigration from Mexico northward for the next thirty years due mainly to lack of transportation options available for crossing the Sonoran Desert of northern Mexico. Railroads built in the 1880s connected Mexico to US cities from Texas to California, allowing for quicker and safer travel between the two countries. At the same time the railroad companies began to employ Mexicans to build railroads in the U.S. According to research by historian Abraham Hoffman, the employment of Mexican labor by western railroad companies grew from 1.1 percent in 1909 to over 59 percent in 1929. Mexico’s economy was stagnant in the early 1900s and Hoffman states that many Mexicans fled north to escape the “the hacendado control of lands and the chronic poverty of Mexican rural life.” In addition the agricultural development in California, Arizona, and other states created a tremendous demand for cheap Mexican immigrant labor.
During the industrial and agricultural expansion of the mid 19th to early 20th centuries many immigrant groups were competing for work in the US. Tens of thousands of Chinese immigrated between 1850 and 1882 to build railroads and work on farms. After a depression in the 1870s led to legislation barring Chinese immigrants, Japanese laborers came to dominate the work force. The Japanese were followed by immigrant laborers from Korea and India until the Immigration Act of 1917 heavily restricted the immigration of people considered non-white. However, Mexicans were classified as white by the federal government and therefore exempt from the quota system the act established. This exemption had been negotiated by representatives of the growers associations and industrial companies with the Department of Labor to ensure a steady supply of cheap labor.
This development happened for several reasons. Geographically, Mexico is literally next-door to America; immigrant laborers only had to travel by land, which compared to the long sea voyage Asian and European immigrants had to endure was cheaper and faster. Economically, life in Mexico was very hard; wages were low and the people and land were being exploited by one regime after another. To draw these workers north companies in the US employed firms to hire people in Mexico and ship them by train to California, Florida, and Texas; anywhere field workers or tracklayers were needed. The Mexicans for their part accepted the hard work and low pay because they could still earn more than they could in Mexico. Their dream was not to become American citizens. Most planned to return home some day and buy land to start their own farms.
At that time in America Mexicans were seen as inferior, meant only for the hardest labor, and for work that no white man would do. They could not get better jobs no matter what skills they had. Some did manage to prosper but they were the minority. Most of the Mexicans in the US lived in ghettos and barrios in the cities or they traveled the country as migrant labor, planting and harvesting crops with the seasons.
The passage of the Immigration Act of 1917 slowed the immigration boom from Eastern Europe and Asia but it did not place quotas on any countries in North America. And with the outbreak of World War I the U.S. turned to Mexico to fill its war time labor needs as immigration from Europe almost completely stopped.
After the war the labor unions started to push harder for Mexican immigration laws to be passed. They saw the cheap labor as a major threat to their members. Mexicans would work for much lower wages and in far worse conditions than the unions would accept and so the Chamber of Commerce worked to block immigration reform. To the Chamber and farm owners the Mexicans were essential to progress; they didn’t complain, they worked for next to nothing, and it was argued they would return home to Mexico every winter instead of settling in towns and cities.
When the US won the Mexican-American war a political line was drawn across land that had been occupied for millennia, first by the Native Americans and more recently by the Mexican people. Even after the war people that had ties to either side of the border traveled freely back and forth to visit family and work. To them there was no border, just the land their families had lived and worked on for generations. Neither government did much to enforce the border. The US government passed some restrictions, but with little money for enforcement there was not much they could do to stop the movement across the border. Since Mexicans were seen as inferior, almost no effort had been made at the state of federal level to incorporate the Mexicans that had become Americans after the war into the culture. With people moving so freely back and forth the government found it extremely difficult to identify who was an American citizen and who was not.
This was of little consequence because most Americans never accepted the Mexican Americans as citizens to begin with. Even though children born in the US have birthright citizenship, they were still seen as lesser people. Mexican-Americans were grouped together with blacks and Indians; all were seen as inferior and not able to be assimilated into society. In states like Texas and California Mexican and Mexican-Americans were segregated from white children in school. Even though whites generally received higher pay and held the better jobs, they still resented and looked down upon the Mexican people.
In the 1920s politicians began to push harder to stop illegal immigrants from coming north for work. Several bills were submitted in Congress to create a North American quota system. Racism was evident in this too as Canadians, who were white and of the same lineage as Americans, were not to be included in this system. And while many said there should be a quota system for all immigrants, others countered that the Latin American countries south of Mexico should not be included so as to not interfere with commerce with those countries.
Illegal immigrants were beginning to be seen as a real threat to the nation’s well being. The Border Patrol was established in 1925 to slow illegal immigrants from Mexico, though at first they had little funding or personnel to patrol the thousands of miles of territory along the U.S.-Mexico border. Illegal immigrants were often blamed for high crime rates in America. This view was factually contradicted by a study ordered by President Herbert Hoover in 1931 - the Wickersham Commission - which proved that there was no truth to these claims. This led Dr. Edith Abbot, who conducted the factual survey for the report, to state that, “It is easier to charge our crime record against immigrants than against an inefficient and corrupt system of police and an outworn system of criminal justice.”
Throughout the 1920s the Mexican government began offering incentives to lure its people home with land offers and employment in public works programs. Then in 1929 the Great Depression started. Mexicans had always been the first fired and this time was no different. Many Mexican and Mexican-Americans quickly found themselves without work; because of this many headed back to Mexico.
Those that left returned home for two primary reasons. First, there was no work in the US and the Mexican government was offering land. Without work many people found themselves in need of financial support from the government and welfare organizations. Returning south meant a chance to start again in Mexico.
The second was an active drive to force them to leave the country. The first successful policy adopted to stop the flow of immigrants was a ban on all visas for Mexicans wishing to work in the U.S. This had a drastic effect on the immigration flow, reducing immigration from Mexico dramatically from 1929 to 1931. The given reason for this policy change was that most immigrants would end up public charges. In addition many Mexicans were heading south, repatriating on their own. By 1930-31 the flow was actually negative, with more people heading south than north.
Meanwhile, President Hoover found himself on the defensive from labor unions. To appease them, he told Secretary of State William Doak to figure out a way to rid the country of its immigrant population with the belief that this would open jobs for unemployed Americans. Secretary Doak stated that there were 400K illegal immigrants in the country. If they were gone, he said, then the employment problem would end.
Some took his words at their face value. In Los Angeles the Chamber of Commerce and city officials set up a relief committee - the Los Angeles Citizens Committee on Coordination of Unemployment Relief - to assist people with job searches. Its mission was to connect workers with employers. The man put in charge of this organization, Charles P. Visel, read Doak’s words and decided that there must be at least twenty thousand illegal immigrants in Los Angeles alone. He set out to do something about it. Visel wrote letters to the President’s Emergency Committee for employment, stating that there was local law enforcement support for federal help in removing the illegal Mexicans from Los Angeles. Visel also devised a plan that would have the feds announce raids in the paper and on the radio to create fear and drive people to flee back across the boarder. He even went so far as to release his own statement to the press claiming that law enforcement was ready to start a major deportation campaign in the city.
Thanks to Visel’s efforts federal and local law enforcement met in Los Angeles in January 1931. Once they realized the full extent of Visel’s plan the local police were reluctant to take part in the plot. But the federal official in charge, Supervisor William F. Watkins of the Bureau of Immigration, decided to investigate Visel’s claims. At first the raids did little more than create panic; few actual illegal immigrants were caught. The Spanish press and the Mexican government were infuriated. But the majority of Americans, who had bought in on the notion that deporting all of the illegal Mexican immigrants would free up jobs and lower the welfare burden, supported the raids.
From LA the raids and ensuing deportations diffused across the country; along with them the repatriation movement spread. These two actions had the same goal: to rid the country of unwanted Mexicans regardless of their actual citizenship status. The repatriation process was viewed as a way to move people back to Mexico legally as quickly as possible. Many state governments even paid for trains to move Mexicans south, with fifteen such trains leaving from California between 1931 and 1933. The justification was that it would save the government money in the long run to ship all of the Mexicans home, essentially removing them from welfare rolls. The Mexican government supported this but the promises of land and opportunity back in Mexico rarely panned out. Returning people found they had few friends or family back home that could take them in due to difficult economic times. And many people in Mexico actually resented the returning people, partly because of the differences in culture that had developed and partly because they didn’t want the employment competition any more than the Americans did.
The deportation campaign meant physically catching illegal immigrants, trying them in court, and then deporting them. Those that repatriated had the chance of one day returning while those deported were barred from ever coming back. Figuring out who was illegal turned out to be challenging. Due to years of changing laws and an essentially open border, many Mexican people had been in the country for years, in some cases their whole lives. Furthermore, many of them had had children who were legal residents.
The raids were chaotic. Anyone who looked Mexican was rounded up. They were taken from factories, from fields, or off the streets. Many families simply did not have fathers or brothers return home from work, leaving women and children to fend for themselves. Since little distinction was made between Mexicans and Mexican- Americans, legal citizens who could not produce the correct paperwork and who could not afford a lawyer were deported. In addition families had to make the choice of either splitting up or taking children who were legally Americans back to a country they did not know. Since they were not welcomed in Mexico either they became without a country. They were looked down upon in Mexico because they didn’t want to be there and this offended the Mexicans.
During the height of the deportations politicians and commentators gave speeches and wrote articles blaming all that ailed the country on illegal immigrants. In 1935 Congressman Martin Dies from Texas in wrote a piece for the Saturday Evening Post in which he stated, “There are 3,500,000 foreigners who came to this country illegally and with utter disregard for our laws… Among this number are hundreds of gangsters, murderers and thieves, who are unfit to live in this country and, God knows, unfit to die in any country.” To Dies “relentless war without quarter and without cessation must be waged upon them until the last one is driven from our shores.” Due to widespread instances of inflammatory rhetoric such as this many people left the country, even if they were legal citizens, out of fear and intimidation.
Deportations decreased with the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, partially due to a decline in immigration northward and less desire on the government’s part to split up families. The exact numbers of how many people fled the U.S. from 1929 to 1939 are not known but estimates range from one to two million with tens of thousands more deported. And after all of this when World War II began demand again increased for cheap Mexican labor to support the war effort.
A cycle had been started, one that continues to this day. The Mexican people are wanted when business is good but are expected to go back to Mexico the second the economy dips. Little distinction was made then, or is made now, between Mexicans and Mexican- Americans. Just as in the 1930s, during the current global recession we see illegal immigrants being blamed for increases in the costs of education, welfare and health care. And many in society continue to blame them for high crime rates and lowering education standards. The historian Camille Guerin-Gonzales said that in the early 20th century migrant workers from Mexico found “that if they were willing to work harder than Anglo-Americans, to have a standard of living lower than Anglo-Americans, and to not challenge the political, social, or economic standing of Anglo-Americans, they could survive in the U.S.” Those words ring just as true about the status of the Mexican in America today.
Balderrama, Francisco E. and Raymond Rodriguez. Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.
Guerin-Gonzales, Camille. Mexican Workers and American Dreams: Immigration, Repatriation, and California Farm Labor, 1900-1939. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994.
Hoffman, Abraham. Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression: Repatriation Pressures 1929-1939. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1974.
Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Livingstone, David N. Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2008.
Smedley, Audrey. Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. 2nd ed. Boulder: Westview Press, 1999.
“Confusing Immigration Restrictions.” New York Times 19 Apr 1930: 15.
“Defends Alien Ban as Aid to Jobless.” New York Times. 7 Dec 1930: 47.
Dies, Martin. “The Immigration Crises.” Saturday Evening Post 20 Apr 1935: 27+.
“Flow of Aliens Turned Outward.” New York Times 16 May 1931: 38.
“35,000 Mexicans Leave California.” New York Times 12 Apr 1931: 5.
“Wickersham Board Frees Foreign-Born if Big Crime Blame.” New York Times 24 Apr 1931: 1+.
If you made it this far thanks for reading and please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments.