In this chapter of No One Is Illegal, Justin Akers-Chacon and Mike Davis examine the history of US policy regarding immigrants from Mexico, detailing both the horrifically racist policies that have been imposed by the US government and the ulterior business motives behind the policies. While the chapter focuses on the treatment of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, its insights are largely applicable to immigration from Latin America to the US more generally, and has many parallels with discriminatory policies leveraged against other immigrant groups in US history.
Chapter 22: Constructing the “Illegal” Mexican Worker: Racism and Mexican Labor
For Mexican workers, the history of separation and segregation began with the Mexican-American War, a war of conquest by which the United States acquired half of Mexico’s territory. Since the war, Mexico has continuously subsidized the growth of the US economy by exporting whole generations of workers to the north, providing much of the labor that built the industrial and agricultural infrastructure of the nation, as well as much of its cultural foundation. Nevertheless, the legacy of the Mexican contribution is both ignored and distorted in order to deny Mexican immigrants’ historic connection to the land and their right to legitimately participate in the US political system as citizens.
Although favored as laborers, Mexicans have never been fully welcomed as citizens or good candidates for social integration. For instance, California’s first constitution restricted the right to vote to “every white male citizen of the United States and every white male citizen of Mexico”. The exclusions of “non-white Mexicans” ensured that Jim Crow-like segregation was sanctioned for the majority. Similar segregation statutes were codified in Texas and throughout the Southwest, laying the basis for a sweeping set of exclusionary laws that made Mexican natives into “foreigners” in one generation’s time. Mexican immigration, encouraged because of the explosive growth of US industrial capacity, was funneled into the chiseled confines of a racially segregated society.
Laws that excluded most immigration after 1924 exempted “those from the western hemisphere” so that Mexican migration could continue unabated, as Mexican laborers were considered the optimal workforce by Southwestern capital. Despite the historic bigotry against them, they were largely isolated from the anti-immigrant hysteria directed at Asians, as well as eastern and southern Europeans. They were also isolated from large population centers, congregating predominantly in agricultural regions.
However, this period of relative grace was short-lived. In 1928, both the House and the Senate conducted hearings on Mexican immigration in which an assembly of restrictionists held court. The opponents of Mexican immigration––from Texas congressman John C. Box and the Carnegie Institution’s Eugenics Office to various “Patriotic Societies” and “Restriction Leagues”––cawed in unison for the Hoover administration to exclude Mexicans from the US because their “inferior racial biology” outweighed the temporary benefits of cheap labor.The chairman of the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee, Albert Johnson, sanctified the chorus and concluded, “the task of our committee is to prepare proposed statutes that will develop the American people along the racial and institutional lines laid down by the founders of the country, so far as the control of immigration can do it”.
Ultimately Mexicans were drawn into the eugenicists’ crosshairs, creating a “Brown Scare” among those obsessed with racial purity. Aside form advocating closure of the border, eugenicists argued that Mexican migrants in the United States should undergo sterilization, be excluded from public services, and ultimately, be subjected to forced deportation. Shortly thereafter, Mexicans (and Mexican-Americans) fell victim to the country’s first mass deportation campaign. Subsequent immigration was criminalized, segregated, and dehumanized through the emergent status of the “illegal”.
At the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization hearings in 1930, a narrow debate pitted agricultural interests against angst-ridden nativists over the question of the Mexican population with the United States.Testifying on behalf of agricultural interests for the toleration of Mexican immigrants, a doctor reassured the congressmen: “The Mexican is a quiet, inoffensive necessity in that he performs the big majority of our rough work, agriculture, building and street labor. They have no effect on the American standard of living because they are not much more than a group of fairly intelligent collie dogs.”
Calls for exclusion and deportation, drawing on the language of the new “racial science”, became a cacophony with the outbreak of the Great Depression. Speaking form the floor of the House of Representatives, Texas congressman John Box introduced legislation to deport the Mexican population, arguing that “every reason which calls for the exclusion of the most wretched, ignorant, dirty, diseased, and degraded people of Europe or Asia demands that the illiterate, unclean, peonized masses moving this way from Mexico be stopped at the border…”
After this sentiment was roundly approved by Congress, Mexicans (and Mexican-Americans) across the country were rounded up and deported, or left voluntarily out of fear. Between 1929 and 1935, it is estimated that more than half a million people returned or were returned to Mexico. If one considers that the children of the deportees were likely US-born, and therefore US citizens, it is easy to conclude that over half of those deported were citizens.
It is also easy to see how the social instability and working class militancy precipitated by the Great Depression contributed to the about-face in attitudes toward Mexican labor. Amid the economic meltdown of the late twenties, the capitalist class and their spokespeople in the Hoover administration grasped for the buoy of racial scapegoating to keep afloat. By attacking the growing population of Mexican workers (the 1930 census counted over 1.4 million Mexicans residing in the United States) the country’s elite hoped to direct the anger of the white working class away from itself.
Deportation, the state-orchestrated export of undesired workers, affords the capitalist class complete control over worker mobility. By singling out and ejecting a section of the working class, the ruling class also saves itself the trouble of having to ameliorate unemployment, impoverishment, and other consequences of economic contraction by creating social welfare programs. Deportation, because it is carried out by the state, even pushes the cost of removal onto other sections of the working class. When capitalism stabilizes, the state can move to reimport workers (through guest-worker programs or liberal immigration policy), once again passing the costs along by using taxpayer money to implement its policies.
Deportation can be used selectively to police the behavior of undocumented workers and other immigrants in the United States. According to immigration historians Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez, selected deportation has been used historically by “unscrupulous employers” in league with local immigration agents:
[Immigration and deportation] was done in order to serve the needs of influential growers and industrialists. Regulations were loosely enforced when Mexican workers were needed harvest crops or increase production in the mines or on the assembly lines. Conversely, the strict letter of the law was applied when Mexican labor exceeded the seasonal demand. Then deportation raids at the work sites, usually before payday, became common occurrences. The raids were sometimes conducted at the request of unscrupulous employers
A closed border and selective deportation also serve foreign policy objectives during times of war by acting as devices to fan the politically useful flames of fear and anxiety. In 1952, during the ascension of McCarthyism, a reactionary backlash was directed toward immigrants in the form of the Walter-McCarran Act. The act reinforced a racist national quota system, and was aimed at countering what conservatives called a lax attitude by the government toward “illegal immigration” and the threat of “Communist infiltration” of the borders. The Walter-McCarran Act made it a felony to import or harbor––but not to employ–– an undocumented worker. The right to employ without punishment, a brazen concession to growers, shifted the locus of persecution to low-level contractors, smugglers, and workers themselves. It also forbade the admission or presence of “Communist” or other “subversive” immigrants. This became a handy tool in the hands of growers and immigration officials, who could simply apply the label of communist to intransigent labor organizers and have them removed.
The confluence of racism, McCarthyism (amplified by the United States invasion of Korea) and the economic recession of 1954 influenced the mass paramilitary round-up and deportation conducted as part of Operation Wetback in 1954: “INS officials, the Border Patrol, the FBI, other federal agent,s the army, the navy, and local sheriffs and police swung into action in a veritable militarized dragnet operation that sent 1 to 2 million Mexicans to the nearest jailhouse, detention center, or border crossing.
Deportation proved an effective tool for preventing the formation of unions among Mexican workers. In 1936, miner and union organizer Jesus Pallares was deported as an “undesirable alien” despite the fact that he had lived int he United States for twenty-three years. New Mexico mine operators and local sheriffs petitioned immigration officials to bring Jesus in on charges that he was a “troublemaker” and sympathizer with “communistic organizations”. As the local sheriff put it, “[We’re] having trouble with Jesus Pallares on strike in this county…he is an alien from Old Mexico. We must act at once to save trouble and maybe lives in this county.”
During the agricultural organizing campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s, the Border Patrol was frequently called in to break strikes. As one striker explained, “as long as we were quiet and worked for nothing, the Border Patrol did nothing. Now that we are on strike they show up at picket lines and threaten us…”
More than sixty-four years after Jesus Pallares was kicked out of the UUnited States, deporting immigrant workers to prevent unionization has become routine. For instance, in 2000, the manager of a Minneapolis Holiday Inn reported eight of his own undocumented employees to the INS while they were involved in a union drive. All eight maids were members of the union negotiating team, and they were arrested four days after a majority of workers voted to join the union. Six of the eight were jailed and all were brought up on deportation charges.
Immigration policy, influenced by issues of race, class, and proximity to Mexico, ultimately reflects a two-track system by which Mexican workers become segregated and separated from the rest of the working class through the designation of some Mexicans as “illegal”. This pejorative is loaded with the anti-Mexican bias of the past, now encoded in “acceptable” discourse. Couched in the language of legality, it remains a means of division and exclusion to better sustain the hegemony of capital over labor.
Reproduced with permission from Justin Akers-Chacon. No One Is Illegal is available from Haymarket Books.
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