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The great wave of Mexican immigration

No other nation has more citizens living in the United State than Mexico. Their continuing migration, greatest across a land border in history, is part of a global flow from developing countries to industrialized nations and is a controversial issue, cutting across party lines and ideologies. As Congress again tackles immigration “reform” in a national debate, a review of Mexican migration and policy responses could help avoid repeating previous mistakes in legislation and enforcement.

Mexican immigration began as a trickle after the United States-Mexican War (1847-48) when the Southwestern states were ceded in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. There was little immigration until railroads came in the 1890s, linking Mexico City with El Paso and other border towns, giving labor contractors access to Mexican cities to recruit workers for development of the American Southwest.

The Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) ended the dictatorial Diaz regime and tore the country apart, sending thousands or refugees northward. Demand for labor during World War I swelled the stream of immigrants, who kept coming during the “Roaring Twenties.” Border security became an issue, and the U.S. Border Patrol was formed in 1924. Its first mission: curbing Chinese immigrant smuggling from Mexico and bootleg Canadian liquor.

The Great Depression hit like a sledgehammer in 1929-30. Financial markets collapsed, unemployment skyrocketed and demand for labor disappeared like rich Plains topsoil in a dust storm. Under pressure from labor unions, the Roosevelt administration conducted massive sweeps and forcible deportations that reduced the Mexican population in the U.S. by 41 percent by 1937.

World War II ended the Depression as orders for war materiel triggered a massive industrial buildup. Suddenly, growers needed more workers than they could hire; the hostility toward Mexicans of the Depression years was lost in the exigency of the war effort. Congress responded by creating the Bracero Program, and thousands of hastily recruited Braceros arrived in time for the fall harvest in 1942. In Washington County, hundreds of Mexican farmhands harvested crops in fields around Hillsboro and Forest Grove and toiled in the Cornelius flax plants.

The wartime program employed about 168,000 agricultural workers and 75,000 railroad workers. A larger number of undocumented workers came too, hired by unscrupulous growers happy to pay below-legal wages. It was the first large-scale guest worker program — and controversial. It institutionalized illegal immigration by establishing a relationship between growers and undocumented workers that was interdependent and, increasingly, independent of both governments.

Illegal hiring escalated after the war, depressing wages, displacing Mexican-American citizens and triggering complaints by Latino rights groups about the “avalanche of illegal Mexican labor.” Public perception grew that the government had lost control of the border. In 1954, the INS and Border Patrol initiated “Operation Wetback” — the largest deportation in history. More than 1 million arrests were made. Public perception of a “secure” border was restored, beginning an era in which this perception — real or not — would drive immigration policymaking and enforcement.

The Bracero Program continued into the 1960s, when a coalition of labor unions and civil rights groups — concerned about corruption and abuse in the program and the appalling conditions in migrant labor camps — pressured the Johnson administration to kill it. But the demise of the program did not end the corruption and exploitation that characterized it.

By the mid-1970s, a long expansion of Mexico’s economy faltered: currency devaluation, capital flight and political unrest triggered mass unemployment. When world oil prices tanked, the economy collapsed. The result was a massive migration of displaced farmworkers from rural provinces to Mexican cities, and when those became saturated, to the United States.

The effect of this exodus was a dramatic increase in illegal immigration. As large numbers of immigrants competed with Americans for low-wage jobs in the midst of a recession, their presence became an issue. Undocumented workers now were a visible presence in cities, consuming social services and straining local government resources. As public tolerance deteriorated, pressure mounted on Congress for a “secure border” and “immigration reform.” The result was comprehensive legislation designed to end illegal immigration and bring 3 million “out of the shadows” by granting amnesty. That legislation was dubbed IRCA — the Immigration Reform and Control Act.

(Editor’s note: Part two will appear next week.)

Sig Unander, a former city councilor and small business owner, has degrees in political science from Pacific University and Latin-American studies from Portland State University. He lives in Cornelius.




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