A Reexamination of America’s Mexican Immigration Policy

By Juan Mora
Associate Editor, Vol. 26

After another United States presidential election, the resounding clash over the problem of Mexican immigration continues. President Trump won the 2016 presidential election largely centered on his hard stance on immigration, an anchoring issue that was vital to his agenda. No one could possibly forget those troubling three words that echoed throughout his 2016 presidential campaign: “Build that Wall.” While immigration policy took a back seat this time around due to the Coronavirus pandemic and recent Supreme Court vacancy, Trump’s anti-immigrant message did not change.

In a recent ad that aired in some of the battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Wisconsin leading up to election day, the Trump campaign resolidified its tough stance on immigration.[i] The ad warned that Biden’s plan to legalize millions of “illegal immigrants” living in the country would result in more competition for Americans in a dismal job market.[ii] According to Trump, the issue of immigration, particularly related to undocumented Mexicans, is not only an economic one but also a national security concern. This view attempts to conflate undocumented Mexicans with vicious criminals and accuses the Democrats of wanting to infest our country with illegals, evoking Nazi-like rhetoric employed against Jews to frighten America.[iii] This rhetoric is not only divisive but, more importantly, steers the conversation away from the real issues of U.S. immigration policy.

Notably, a brief analysis of history dating back to the early twentieth century shows that immigration policy concerning the U.S.-Mexican border has primarily centered on America’s need for cheap labor from Mexican laborers, a problem America created. The solution to this problem should be focused on this fact. 

Throughout the history of the United States, Mexican Americans’ stories are connected with back-breaking farm labor. Through the natural ebbs and flows of the U.S. economy, there have been periods of labor shortages and labor surpluses that have informed immigration policy. When labor is needed, America is happy to seek that labor out in Mexico but discard it when the need is over, with little regard for Mexican Americans’ rights.[iv]

During periods of labor surpluses, for example, the United States enthusiastically opens its gates to Mexican migration to fill the enormous amounts of physical labor needed, often in harsh working conditions for low wages. For instance, before the Great Depression, even though the U.S. immigration policy aimed to keep out Asian and southern and eastern Europeans, Mexican laborers were allowed to immigrate. Indeed, the first foreign labor program including Mexican laborers was initiated within a year of the most restrictive immigration legislation in U.S. History­–the Immigration Act of 1917.[v] This temporary labor program was enacted for the duration of World War I and was passed by Congress in response to pressure from agricultural employers in the Southwest.

Conversely, during periods of labor shortage or economic distress, Mexican migrants are subjected to unwarranted cruelty and found unwanted. After the Great Depression began, Latinos were no longer needed, partly because their jobs were now performed by Anglos forced to resort to the physical labor Mexicans had been performing. No longer welcomed, many Mexicans returned to Mexico with no way to support themselves. Tragically, the U.S. government began to employ methods to unjustly repatriate Mexicans, even those who were lawful permanent residents. For decades, Mexican Americans had lived in the U.S., establishing their homes and family in this country only to be discarded because of a sudden change in American self-interest. Families were separated as a result since children, born and raised in the United States, were American citizens and remained in the United States. It is estimated that by the end of the Great Depression, over 400,000 Latinos were repatriated to Mexico without any formal deportation proceedings, including thousands of American Citizens forced to leave.[vi]

In the modern era, we see similar immigration policy changes as Mexican Immigrants are subjected to seesaw trends.[vii] The Trump administration has attempted to make passing through the border impossible by diverting billions in military funds to beefing up border security and employing a dehumanizing detention and deportation program. The administration has tried to deter illegal border crossings by separating children from their parents, traumatizing the kids involved without a process for tracking or reunification.[viii] The “zero-tolerance” policy implemented under the Trump administration also refers undocumented asylum seekers detained at the border to the DOJ for prosecution. Before the current administration, families were paroled in the United States while they processed through the immigration system or were detained together.[ix] The Trump administration has even sought to strip naturalized Americans of their citizenship and terminate the DACA program, putting more than 500 thousand Mexicans at risk for deportation.[x]

These policy changes occurred immediately after Trump took office, following a campaign in which he called migrant Mexicans rapists and criminals. Some might say this is business as usual. As the economy recovers post-Coronavirus, the Republican party will likely backpedal and go back to looking the other way as the need for Amearican companies to exploit Mexican labor reemerges. The future of immigration policy is anyone’s guess, as it remains a system unremedied of its longstanding defects. Acknowledging the reality of the reoccurring pattern of intense exploitation of migrant workers would be a significant step in living up to the nation’s founding principles.

Despite the United States’ need for Mexican labor, migrant laborers continue to face racism, xenophobia, and discrimination when they arrive. The immigration system is broken and calls for change that incorporates human dignity and fundamental human rights for those that have helped the country prosper despite the seemingly continuous cycle of invitation and removal. Enough is enough with hate speech targeting Mexican immigrants when the problem circles back to an immigration policy of historical exploitation by the United States. Both parties must develop an approach to immigration policy more humane than merely acting out of American self-interest for cheap human capital. The problem is self-created, and the solution lies within. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

[i] Ted Hesson & Chris Kahn, Trump Pushes Anti-Immigrant Message Even as Coronavirus Dominates Campaign, Reuters (Aug. 14, 2020, 3:03 AM), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-immigration-insight/trump-pushes-anti-immigrant-message-even-as-coronavirus-dominates-campaign-idUSKCN25A18W.

[ii] Id.

[iii] Editorial Board, In A New Term, Trump Would Further Seal the Gates of a Fortress America, Wash Post (Sep. 11, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/09/11/trump-immigration-policies-rooted-fear/?arc404=true.

[iv] See Juan F. Perea, Richard Delgado, Angela P. Harris, Jean Stefancic & Stephanie M. Wildman, Race and Races, Cases and Resources For A Diverse America 331–339 (American Casebook Series, 3rd ed. 2014) (surveying the story of Mexican labor and the Bracero Programs in the United States).

[v] Id. at 333.

[vi] Id. at 334.

[vii] See Gerald P. López, Don’t We Like Them Illegal?, 45 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 1711, 1773 (2012) (analyzing legislation and immigration policy changes by differing administrations in the modern era).

[viii] See Family separation under the Trump administration – a timeline, Southern Poverty Law Center (Jun. 17, 2020), https://www.splcenter.org/news/2020/06/17/family-separation-under-trump-administration-timeline (examining a timeline of family separation under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy).

[ix] Id.

[x] Gustavo Lopez & Jens Manuel Krogstad, Key facts about unauthorized immigrants enrolled in DACA, Pew Research Ctr. (Sep. 25, 2017),https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/25/key-facts-about-unauthorized-immigrants-enrolled-in-daca/.