Immigration Policy >> Mexicans

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Here | There 


Over the course of American history, the United States government has swung back and forth on its immigration policies, at times being very welcoming at other times being very hostile to incoming immigrants. These shifts in policy have closely reflected shifts in public opinion, which in turn have reflected shifts in the American economy and the political landscape. A brief review of US immigration policies towards Mexicans is a case in point: The Bracero Program of 1942, The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965, The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 and The Secure Fence Act of 2006.

For much of the last 50 years, the Mexican government has let the United States developed a "hands off" policy with the hope that the matter of emigration to the United States over the Mexican border -- of Mexicans and peoples from other Latin American countries -- would resolve itself. Since 1994, however, with the implementation of NAFTA, the Mexican goverment has cooperated somewhat in the U.S. efforts to strengthen border controls, both on the U.S./American border and the Mexican/Guatemalan border and by  improving economic performance in Mexico (Castañeda 2007: 174). Despite recent crackdowns, the U.S. has needed and continues to need Mexican labor. As a result, Washington will never really close the border, or take any serious measures to harm the flow of trade. Becuase of this, there is no downside for Mexico in sustaining the status quo. Fox administration, 2000-2006; Calderón administration, 2006-; North American Free Trade Agreement; Matrícular Consular ID Card.





Bracero Program of 1942

  With the United States participation in World War II, the country witnessed a drastic decline in the supply of workers in multiple job markets. To compensate for this lack of workers, the United States government joined with the Mexican government to develop the Bracero program.

The Bracero Program began in 1942 and continued until the end of WWII in 1947. From 1947 to 1951 the Bracero Program became and unofficial work program that continued to provide U.S. growers with Bracero workers. In 1951 the program was officially reinstated, but would only last until 1965 when accusations of violations of the Bracero's human rights brought an end to the program (Garcia 2002:30-32). As part of the Bracero Agreement, United States growers in the agricultural industry employed temporary Mexican immigrant workers and in return paid them a set minimum wage and provided them with adequate housing and the ability to end their participation in the program at their own discretion. Because braceros and Mexican immigrants in general worked for cheap wages, employers, even outside the agriculture field, preferred Mexican immigrants to other immigrant groups and Americans.
1954, Mexican Bracero workers receiving health checks before entering the United States.
      Eventually, many American union workers especially outside the agricultural sector complained about the Bracero program, citing that it "kept wages down and took jobs away from [Americans]" (Garcia 2002:32). These complaints added with protests, by groups such as the California Migrant Ministry and the National Catholic Welfare Council and National Council of Churches of Christ's in America, against the ill treatment, inadequate food and poor housing of the Braceros in the time of political and social sensitivity of the Civil Rights Era invited the end of the Bracero program, and gave rise to the implementation of the Immigration Act of 1965 (Garcia 2002:33).



Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 / McCarran-Walter Act

Nation-Origins quotas established by the Immigration Act of 1924

     During the Period of the Bracero program, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1952, also known as the McCarran Walter Act of 1952, to combine the major aspects of past immigration laws. One stipulation of the Act reinforced the national-origin quotas that had been implemented into U.S. law by the Immigration Act of 1924. The national-origin quotas continued to favor immigrants of North and Western European countries whose numbers made up 85% of the total quota. Additionally, the INA stipulated that countries in the Western hemisphere were exempt from quota ceilings (Garcia 2002:39), theoretically meaning Mexican immigrants were not limited in the number that could immigrate per year.



Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 / Hart-Cellar Act

     The Hart-Cellar Act, also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, was an amendment of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. Due to the rise of the era's Civil Rights Movement, national-origins quotas previously reinforced by the McCarran-Walters Act became synonymous with "race-quotas" (Garcia 2002:44). During this time, labor unions supported immigration reform that would limit immigrants to occupations with an insufficient number of American workers. By doing so the U.S. labor unions changed their historically anti-immigrant attitude and become supporters of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (Garcia 2002:45-46). This act eliminated the country-based quotas and in their place implemented quotas on the number of visas available to people of different geographic groups. Initially, the Eastern hemisphere received 170,000 visas and the Western hemisphere was allotted 120,000 visas (Martinez 2001:39). Although not all legislations and factions of the American public supported the INA of 1965, those that did not support increased immigration still saw a bonus of INA: it increased the opportunities for immigrants to enter the United States legally and therefore decrease illegal immigration.
     However, the reality in the years after the passage of the INA of 1965 saw an increased flow of undocumented Mexican immigrants. This increase occurred because even though more visas became available, the process of filing forms and obtaining the proper documents proved too time consuming for the majority of Mexican immigrants facing increasing economic distress (Garcia 2002:47). The continued influx of immigrants created resentment for undocumented and legal Mexican immigrants alike within the American public. The rise of anti-Mexican-immigration sentiments in the wake of increased illegal immigration would later lead to the passage of new restrictive immigrant laws.




Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 / Simpson-Mazzoli Act

     The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 was implemented with the intention of curbing undocumented immigration but resulted ironically in the increased influx of illegal immigrants. The act attempted to deal with the "problem" of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. by granting them amnesty, and the IRCA aimed to curb the illegal immigration across the border by penalizing employers who employed undocumented workers and by implementing stricter US-Mexico border security policies (Garcia 2002:47).
     At the time, undocumented immigrants usually made illegal trips back and forth between Mexico and the United States and were therefore not eligible for amnesty and remained undocumented immigrants (Garcia 2002:47-48). 
Despite the attempts to restrict entrance to undocumented immigrants and penalize employers for hiring said immigrants, undocumented immigrants continued to flock to the U.S. because of ongoing economic difficulties in Mexico and the continued demand for cheap unskilled labor in the United States.
    Some opponents of IRCA argued that immigrant workers depressed wages for America workers while others believed that legislation that facilitated the influx of immigrants, even legal immigrants, would serve to undermine the “national character” of the United States (Garcia 2002:48). Many Mexican American organizations also opposed the IRCA because they believed it would prevent undocumented workers who were ineligible for amnesty from finding work and that the bill's four years of residence clause would work against the reuniting of families whose members did not immigrate to the U.S at the same time.


1983, more than 3,000 people marching in California against Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill.

Supporters of IRCA, including many Mexican Americans, viewed the act as a sign of a new era in immigration. Said supporters argued that the sponsors of IRCA advocated a pro-immigration ideology that rested on the idea that immigrants contributed to the overall betterment of the United States (Garcia 2002:48). According to Alma M. Garcia “the pro-immigration climate of the IRCA period persisted in the years following its passage” (2002:49).




Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996

     The pro-immigration climate described by Alma Garcia would openly last for about a decade. The failure of the IRCA of 1986 to stop illegal immigration greatly frustrated lawmakers and led to the creation of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996. Through this act, the United States government aimed to disable illegal immigration by taking away the incentives such as welfare and healthcare benefits that they believed drew immigrants to the U.S. This new legislation increased penalties for smugglers and producers of fraudulent documents, mandated immediate deportation of immigrants with criminal records and granted states the r to deny undocumented people services such as welfare and Medicaid. The passing of the IIRIRA signified a rise in U.S. hostility at a federal level towards illegal Mexican immigration. In response, some state governments tried to neutralize some of the harshness of the IIRIRA. In particular, the state court of New York State ruled that it was illegal to deny a person Medicare (healthcare) based on status of residency.



Secure Fence Act of 2006

      The Secure Fence Act of 2006 was passed under the George W. Bush administration and authorized the construction of 700 miles of fencing along the United States-Mexico border. The Act also funded the construction of more vehicle barriers, checkpoints, light systems and the development of "virtual" fences to prevent unauthorized crossing of the border. The Bush administration defended the Act by arguing that securing the border was the only way to achieve comprehensive reform of both the illegal drug trade and the illegal immigration occurring at the border (Castaneda 2007:165). As of May 2009, the fence has yet to be completed, but construction continues. Consequently the success and effects of the fence is yet to be determine, but some such and Olga Rodriguez seem to think that the new 700 miles of fence will only succeed in changing immigration patterns (

President Bush signing the Secure Fence Act and assuring the U.S. public that he does not believe in amnesty.



Mexicans: There

Fox administration, 2000-2006

 The election of Vicente Fox was a milestone for Mexican democracy; the first time in 70 years that an oppisition party won the presidency. Because of shifting views on migrants in Mexican society, President Fox put Mexican migrants at the top of his agenda with the U.S., which broke with Mexico's traditional foreign policy relationship with Washington, such as drug trafficing, trade questions, border issues, organized crime, etc. In the summer of 2001, Fox ordered armed forces to patrol routes across the Sonora Desert and impede the flow of people on the worst days (Castañeda 2007: 177). He placed the immigration issue front and center on the bilateral agenda and called for a major overhaul of Mexico's immigration aproach, often in undiplomatic or politically incorrect terms, but always forcefully, eloquently, and explicitly (Castañeda 2007: 69).

An ad of Vicente Fox congratulating the Mexican people for ending 70 years of one party rule

     In his interview with ABC's This Week, the new Mexican President began to discuss his views on Mexico-U.S. relations which recieved a strong backlash and hurt his image in the U.S. Fox referred to "open borders"; he spoke about "full mobility" of labor between the two neighbors; he talked about the freedom of movement for people across the border and included comments that were interpreted as a call for a common currency for the three members of NAFTA, U.S., Mexico, and Canada. Immediatly afterwords, he stated that these ideas were part of his longterm vision; he explicitly stated that his shortterm vision and priority was to push for a better life for Mexicans in the U.S.(Castañeda 2007: 71). While Fox was confident of his new found "democractic bonus" (Mexico's democratic milestone), and its ability to sway U.S. officials into agreeing with his immigration policy, he was inexperienced in foreign affairs as he had neither governmental nor diplomatic experience.

This is an interview with Larry King inwhich Vicente Fox discusses his views regarding trade.

     In mid-2000, in the pre-9/11 era, the Fox administration presented the Bush administration with a report titled "Mexico-U.S. Migration: A Shared Responsibility" which outlined the principle that two nations could not continue simultaneously to be partners on economic issues if they were antagonists on immigrant issues (Castañeda 2007: 72). However, by 9/11, the Mexican administration's only way to salvage what had been achieved in the migration talks with the U.S. was to push the idea that there was a correlation with immigration and security; security in terms of U.S. security, North American security, International security, etc. In fact, the only way Mexico would agree with a U.S. security plan that was pushed by Washington was if it included an explicit section that proposed that security cooperation was justified because it was part of a migration solution. This view was, however, purely political. In the end, Mexico was unwilling to sustain the view of immigration-security because of U.S. unresponsivness.


President Fox, Prime Minister Martin, and President Bush



Calderón administration, 2006-

     President Fox's sucessor, Felipe Calderón, could not walk away from the issue of immigration. The fate of the now nearly 12 million Mexican citizens in the U.S. and of the 350,000 to 400,000 that continue to leave every year is Mexico's most important foreign policy item, whether its leaders like it or not (Castañeda 2007: 93). However, unlike his predecessor, President Calderón sees that migrants are not "heroes" but rather a net loss for Mexico and that the solution lies in creating jobs in Mexico. Calderón's view to solve the out-migration problem is to attract investment in Mexico and to create jobs locally. However, this view is too idealistic. For one, while sustained growth is the best long-term solution for Mexico's economy and immigration issue, continuous growth is not sufficient nor sustainable (Castañeda 2007: 171). Also, even if more jobs were available, the fact remains that, in Mexico, the minimun wage is approximately $300 per month and the average wage is $500 per month. In contrast, in the U.S., 63 percent of remittance senders make more than $1,500 per month, 36 percent earn more than $2,000 per month, and 1/4th of workers make more than $2,500 per month, out of which they send home more than $400 per month. Furthermore, almost everything families back home receive is dedicated to consumption, which props up the Mexican economy (Castañeda 2007: 192).


     In terms of the Mexicans already in the U.S., the Mexican government supports allowing them to stay and be assimilated over time. This policy allows Mexico to avoid making bilateral agreements that would tax the government's beauracracy. It also allows the government to sidestep on the issue of remittances, which represents 2.5 percent of Mexico's GDP. To suggest that the reason Mexico has been able to support this position so long is because of economic forces is correct.



North American Free Trade Agreement:


Exacerbated Americans demand for low cost and cheap labor, but NAFTA was just a component of the mass immigration, it did not cause it. Most of the features included in NAFTA with regards to rural areas were postponed until '08. Since 1985, the Mexican countryside remained overpopulated in relation to agriculture's contribution to GDP. Mexican farming began to change. Some became modern and highly competitive agribusinesses, whereas smaller, family farms began to go under. In 1993, one year before the agreement, it was argued that NAFTA would diminish or possibly eliminate immigration, legal or illegal. In reality, NAFTA did not reduce, deter or eliminate legal or illegal immigration.




Matrícula Consular ID cards:


     In late 2001, in response to the September 11 attacks, the Mexican government began a program of issuing Mexican Consular ID cards to any Mexican national residing in the US. In its early years, these ID cards were largely worthless, as there were no requirements for obtaining the IDs. The reason the Mexican consulates did not impose any requirements on obtaining one was because the nationals residing in the US, the primary target of the ID cards, did not have any documents with them. One of the reasons migrants did not have documents with them was because being caught with documents while crossing the border allowed Border Patrol to enter the migrant's name into Homeland Security database.


     However, by 2002, the need for photo IDs was growing after U.S. identification policies were becoming more stringent. It is estimated that 1 million matrìculas (ID cards) were handed out. By the end of 2006, nearly 6 million consular IDs were placed in the hands of Mexican nationals (Castañeda 2007: 145). Part of the Mexican goverment's policy goal with the consular IDs, which the Mexican government does not deny, was to assist Mexicans in the U.S. in assimilating into the population. Every Mexican consul was instructed to negotiate with local banks, city officials, police departments, lawyers, etc., to persuade them to accept the IDs as an official document (Castañeda 2007: 146). By late 2005, more than 400 financial institutions had recognized them, allowing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of undocumented migrants to open bank accounts with consualr IDs and obtain tax-identification numbers (TINs), without having to supply Social-Security numbers. This enabled migrants to send home their remittances through the banking system, instead of having to rely on wire companies that have been known to abuse exchange rates. Similarly, by June 2006, more than 1,200 police departments, 390 city governments, and 170 counties across the U.S. had accepted the consular ID (Castañeda 2007: 147).


     With these IDs, migrants are able to get legal documents, such as bank accounts, library cards, tax records, rent contracts, electricity contracts, etc. Many migrants could begin to erase the abstract line of illegality. By building a history, with legal documents as proof, migrants are now able to get credit cards, mortgages, cell phones, to set up small businesses, etc. As of Feburary 2007, Bank of American offers credit cards to undocumented workers. Because of the Mexican consulates negotiating with American banks, migrants with a bank account, credit cards, and a credit history have lead directly to mortgages, car loans, consumer loans, etc.