Ramón A. Gutiérrez
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
Mexican immigration to the United States is a topic of particular interest at this moment for a number of political reasons. First, and probably foremost, Mexicans are currently the single largest group of foreign-born residents in the country. In 2013, the United States counted 41.3 million individuals of foreign birth; 28 percent, or 11.6 million, were Mexican. If census data are aggregated more broadly, adding together the foreign-born and persons of Mexican ancestry who are citizens, the number totals 31.8 million in 2010, or roughly 10 percent of the country’s total population of 308.7 million. What has nativists and those eager to restrict immigration particularly concerned is that the Mexican origin population has been growing rapidly, by 54 percent between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, or from 11.2 million to 31.8 million persons. This pace of growth has slowed, but not enough to calm racial and xenophobic fears of the citizenry fearful of foreigners and terrorists.
Mexican immigration to the United States officially began in 1846 and has continued into the present without any significant period of interruption, also making it quite distinct. The immigration histories of national groups that originated in Asia, Africa, and Europe are much more varied in trajectory and timing. They usually began with massive movements, driven by famine, political strife or burgeoning economic opportunities in the United States, and then slowed, tapered off, or ended abruptly, as was the case with Chinese immigration from 1850 to 2015. This fact helps explain why Mexico has been the single largest source of immigrants in the United States for the longest period of time.
The geographic proximity between the two countries, compounded by profound economic disparities, has continuously attracted Mexican immigrants, facilitated by a border that is rather porous and that has been poorly patrolled for much of the 20th century. The United States and Mexico are divided by a border that begins at the Pacific Ocean, at the twin cities of San Diego, California and Tijuana, Baja California. The border moves eastward until it reaches the Rio Grande at El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Júarez, Chihuahua. From there the border follows the river’s flow in a southeastern direction, until its mouth empties into the Gulf of Mexico where Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Tamaulipas sit. This expanse of over 1,945 miles is poorly marked. In many places, only old concrete markers, sagging, dry-rotted fence posts with rusted barbed wire, and a river that has continually changed its course, mark the separation between these two sovereign national spaces.
Since 1924, when the U.S. Border Patrol was created mainly to prohibit the unauthorized entry of Chinese immigrants, not Mexicans, American attempts to effectively regulate entries and exits has been concentrated only along known, highly trafficked routes that lead north. The inability of the United States to patrol the entire length of its border with Mexico has meant that any Mexican eager to work or live in the United States has rarely found the border an insurmountable obstacle, and if they have encountered it temporarily so, they have simply hired expensive professional smugglers (known as coyotes) to maximize safe passage into the United States without border inspection or official authorization. In 2014, there were approximately 11.3 million such unauthorized immigrants in the United States; 49 percent, or 5.6 million of them were Mexican.
Over the long course of history Mexican immigration is best characterized as the movement of unskilled workers toiling in agriculture, railroad construction, and mineral extraction; for the last two decades, they have worked in construction and service industries as well. This labor migration has evolved through five distinct phases, each marked by its own logic, demands, and governance.
Puerto Rican migrants have resided in the United States since before the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898, when the United States took possession of the island of Puerto Rico as part of the Treaty of Paris. After the war, groups of Puerto Ricans began migrating to the United States as contract laborers, first to sugarcane plantations in Hawaii, and then to other destinations on the mainland. After the Jones Act of 1917 extended U.S. citizenship to islanders, Puerto Ricans migrated to the United States in larger numbers, establishing their largest base in New York City. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, a vibrant and heterogeneous colonia developed there, and Puerto Ricans participated actively both in local politics and in the increasingly contentious politics of their homeland, whose status was indeterminate until it became a commonwealth in 1952. The Puerto Rican community in New York changed dramatically after World War II, accommodating up to fifty thousand new migrants per year during the peak of the “great migration” from the island. Newcomers faced intense discrimination and marginalization in this era, defined by both a Cold War ethos and liberal social scientists’ interest in the “Puerto Rican problem.”
Puerto Rican migrant communities in the 1950s and 1960s—now rapidly expanding into the Midwest, especially Chicago, and into New Jersey, Connecticut, and Philadelphia—struggled with inadequate housing and discrimination in the job market. In local schools, Puerto Rican children often faced a lack of accommodation of their need for English language instruction. Most catastrophic for Puerto Rican communities, on the East Coast particularly, was the deindustrialization of the labor market over the course of the 1960s. By the late 1960s, in response to these conditions and spurred by the civil rights, Black Power, and other social movements, young Puerto Ricans began organizing and protesting in large numbers. Their activism combined a radical approach to community organizing with Puerto Rican nationalism and international anti-imperialism. The youth were not the only activists in this era. Parents in New York had initiated, together with their African American neighbors, a “community control” movement that spanned the late 1960s and early 1970s; and many other adult activists pushed the politics of the urban social service sector—the primary institutions in many impoverished Puerto Rican communities—further to the left.
By the mid-1970s, urban fiscal crises and the rising conservative backlash in national politics dealt another blow to many Puerto Rican communities in the United States. The Puerto Rican population as a whole was now widely considered part of a national “underclass,” and much of the political energy of Puerto Rican leaders focused on addressing the paucity of both basic material stability and social equality in their communities. Since the 1980s, however, Puerto Ricans have achieved some economic gains, and a growing college-educated middle class has managed to gain more control over the cultural representations of their communities. More recently, the political salience of Puerto Ricans as a group has begun to shift. For the better part of the 20th century, Puerto Ricans in the United States were considered numerically insignificant or politically impotent (or both); but in the last two presidential elections (2008 and 2012), their growing populations in the South, especially in Florida, have drawn attention to their demographic significance and their political sensibilities.
C. J. Alvarez
The region that today constitutes the United States–Mexico borderland has evolved through various systems of occupation over thousands of years. Beginning in time immemorial, the land was used and inhabited by ancient peoples whose cultures we can only understand through the archeological record and the beliefs of their living descendants. Spain, then Mexico and the United States after it, attempted to control the borderlands but failed when confronted with indigenous power, at least until the late 19th century when American capital and police established firm dominance. Since then, borderland residents have often fiercely contested this supremacy at the local level, but the borderland has also, due to the primacy of business, expressed deep harmonies and cooperation between the U.S. and Mexican federal governments. It is a majority minority zone in the United States, populated largely by Mexican Americans. The border is both a porous membrane across which tremendous wealth passes and a territory of interdiction in which noncitizens and smugglers are subject to unusually concentrated police attention. All of this exists within a particularly harsh ecosystem characterized by extreme heat and scarce water.
Relations between the United States and Mexico have rarely been easy. Ever since the United States invaded its southern neighbor and seized half of its national territory in the 19th century, the two countries have struggled to establish a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. Over the two centuries since Mexico’s independence, the governments and citizens of both countries have played central roles in shaping each other’s political, economic, social, and cultural development. Although this process has involved—even required—a great deal of cooperation, relations between the United States and Mexico have more often been characterized by antagonism, exploitation, and unilateralism. This long history of tensions has contributed to the three greatest challenges that these countries face together today: economic development, immigration, and drug-related violence.
The United States–Mexico War was the first war in which the United States engaged in a conflict with a foreign nation for the purpose of conquest. It was also the first conflict in which trained soldiers (from West Point) played a large role. The war’s end transformed the United States into a continental nation as it acquired a vast portion of Mexico’s northern territories. In addition to shaping U.S.–Mexico relations into the present, the conflict also led to the forcible incorporation of Mexicans (who became Mexican Americans) as the nation’s first Latinos. Yet, the war has been identified as the nation’s “forgotten war” because few Americans know the causes and consequences of this conflict. Within fifteen years of the war’s end, the conflict faded from popular memory, but it did not disappear, due to the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. By contrast, the U.S.–Mexico War is prominently remembered in Mexico as having caused the loss of half of the nation’s territory, and as an event that continues to shape Mexico’s relationship with the United States. Official memories (or national histories) of war affect international relations, and also shape how each nation’s population views citizens of other countries. Not surprisingly, there is a stark difference in the ways that American citizens and Mexican citizens remember and forget the war (e.g., Americans refer to the “Mexican American War” or the “U.S.–Mexican War,” for example, while Mexicans identify the conflict as the “War of North American Intervention”).