Repatriados mexicanos durante la década de 1930.
We are living in a time of “build the wall” chants and inflammatory xenophobia against Mexicans and immigrants. As a rule, nativists are not interested in learning, especially about history. They are driven by rhetoric rather than learning. They are convinced that Mexicans and Latinos are “illegals” and “criminals” that need to be removed from the country, and kept out with a high wall covering the 2,000-long border. The most frightening aspect about contemporary nativism is the near impossibility of using knowledge and reason as tools for convincing them of changing their misguided understanding of the world. The battle of ideas does not work with them. As Martin Luther King said, “nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” We are living in dangerous times.
It would be nearly impossible to convince nativists that Mexico and the U.S. have historically been bonded in a myriad of ways, primarily by the northward movement of millions of Mexicans, the southward movement of billions of dollars in American capital, and the flow of cultures on a two-way stream. It would be nearly impossible to convince them that on the issue of immigration, the Mexican immigrant has been a permanent feature of U.S. history since the creation of the boundary in 1848 (with the exception of the 1930s, the decade of mass evictions). That the history of the Mexican immigrant began in 1848 when thousands of Sonoran miners, the “48ers,” arrived in California during the Gold Rush, a year before the better-known “49ers.” This migration coincided with the beginnings of the great Irish and German immigration. In terms of immigrant seniority in this country, only the British migration came earlier than the Mexican. One could even play with history and make the strong case, that “Mexicans did not cross the border, the border crossed them.” In this case, their roots could be traced to 1598 when the Spaniards colonized New Mexico, years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
Today there are eleven million Mexican immigrants in the U.S. and they are not strangers to this country. For the past century, they have been the main labor reserve fueling the U.S. economy. The “making of the Mexican immigrant” has been shaped by the “big” forces of four major immigration acts (1924, 1952, 1965, and 1986) and the transformation of the boundary line from “open” to “close” regarding the movement of people and vice versa for the movement of goods. It has also been shaped by “smaller” forces such as the expansion of the border patrol (1924) from a small band (that was more interested in deporting Chinese immigrants and liquor smugglers) to the largest federal policing force in the nation. It also includes the invention of the “illegal alien invasion” that the media, politicians, and governments have used since the 1950s to haunt public opinion. Their history includes mass evictions as in the 1930s when 500,000 were “repatriated” to Mexico, including U.S. citizens. The repatriations were followed by a guest-worker program, the Bracero Program (1942), that granted 4.6 million contracts to Mexican workers.
This type of history does not penetrate the minds of nativists. The rise of modern nativism is not a product coming from below. It is the result of many forces, including the failure of public education to teach history and to encourage tolerance for other cultures. Nativism is informed by the media, sustained by politicians’ anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the government’s law and order policies that have labeled the undocumented as criminals. The rise of modern nativism begins in the 1990s. Let us go into that history.
“The number of migrant deaths increased six hundred times from 1994 to 2000; a number that could be attributed to Operation Gatekeeper.” Photo: ourfunnyfarm / Flickr
Congress has not passed a “comprehensive immigration reform act” since the last immigration overhaul in 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). While it called for employer sanctions and greater immigration law enforcement, three million undocumented immigrants received “amnesty.” They became permanent residents.
After a quiet few years that followed IRCA, the mass media began reporting that large numbers of foreigners, meaning Mexicans and other Latin Americans, were illegally settling in the country. This type of reporting awoke marginal nativist groups, mainly on the “lunatic fringe,” into “patriotic” action and, at the same time, served as the rallying banner for the political careers of opportunist politicians for whom anti-immigrant rhetoric were vote-getters. To instill fear and win votes, these politicians, mainly Republicans, declared that the growing presence of undocumented workers constituted a national “problem.” Accordingly, the federal government had lost control of the border to the “illegal aliens invasion” of the nation. This was the case of Pete Wilson, the Republican governor of California, who used the “immigrant invasion” peril to elevate his declining voter approval ratings and push Proposition 187, the first anti-immigration legislative action of the post-IRCA era. Proposition 187 had the aim of denying public services to undocumented immigrants, including education.
The age of “Law and Order” policies began in the mid-1960s as a result of the urban uprisings. The “war on crime” became a Republican issue under the Nixon and Reagan administration. The Democrats sought to cleanse themselves from the Republican charge that they were “soft” on crime. Seeking to carve the new political image that Democrats were tougher on “crime” than the Republicans, President Bill Clinton passed the 1994 Crime Bill that included the “three strikes and you’re out,” adding almost 60 new capital punishments, opening more prisons, and increasing the size of the police. The Crime Bill expedited the creation of what is today the largest prison population in the world, with African Americans and Latinos being the majority. Along with this line of reasoning, the Democrats did not want to forfeit the anti-immigration banner to the Republicans, especially after the passage of Proposition 187 in California. To “out-Republican” the Republicans on the “illegal alien invasion,” Clinton mobilized the full force of the Border Patrol in the highly publicized Operation Hold-the-Line (Texas, 1993), Safeguard (Arizona), and Gatekeeper (California, 1994). The building of the “wall” at major crossing points was a component of this mobilization of manpower and resources.
Within a few years, undocumented immigrants experienced the benefits of the “velvet glove” of IRCA to the “iron fist” of the Law and Order regimes of both the Democratic and Republican parties. Their presence in this country became increasingly criminalized. Bill Clinton’s famous “New Covenant” State of the Union address of 1995 represented a forceful step in that direction. He declared to the country that “All Americans . . . are rightly disturbed by the large number of illegal aliens entering our country. The jobs they hold might otherwise be held by citizens or legal immigrants. The public services they use impose burdens on our taxpayers.” He called for more “secure borders,” increasing the size of the Border Patrol, deporting more “criminal aliens than ever before, cracking down on illegal hiring” and “barring welfare benefits to illegals.” The goal of his administration was “to speed the deportations of illegal aliens who are arrested for crimes, and better identify illegal aliens in the workplace.” Clinton chained the “illegal alien problem” to an issue of Law and Order, an association that has yet to be broken.
During Clinton’s reelection presidential campaign of 1996, he signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), ushering our contemporary era of criminalizing undocumented immigrants and their mass evictions from this country. Clinton’s IIRIRA included increased internal enforcement of immigration laws (including deputizing law enforcement authorities to target immigrants), criminalizing undocumented immigrants for minor infractions, punishing permanent residents for minor crimes with deportations, among other draconian measures. Overall it has had the consequences of arbitrary detentions, fast-tracked deportations, and separation of families. Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago and then a senior advisor to Clinton, wrote a memo advising Clinton to take full political advantage of IIRIRA, including making the “claim” that his administration had achieved “record deportations of criminal aliens.” Clinton became the architect of the deportation apparatus. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama fine-tuned the machine to achieve greater efficiency. Close to 4.5 million undocumented immigrants have been evicted from this country since 2000.
This modern xenophobia originated in western states and rapidly expanded to the rest of the country after 9/11. Photo: Reuters/Sam Hodgson
In the months leading to September 11, 2001, not a day went by when Mexico was not in the U.S. news. Public opinion shapers and policy makers recognized that because of increasing United States-Mexican interdependence on a variety of issues, Mexico had lately emerged as a major force shaping the U.S., perhaps more so than any other country. During their first months of their presidencies, George W. Bush and Vicente Fox met three times. When Fox made his first official state visit to the U.S. on September 6, Bush introduced him as his “amigo” and declared, “that the United States has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico . . . We understand that the border we share is a vibrant region that unites us.” Given the excellent relations that Fox and Bush were forming, there was the growing sense that both countries could diplomatically work together on key binational issues, including a labor component within NAFTA and a possibility of “legalizing” undocumented Mexicans residing in the U.S.
The events of 9/11 moved Mexico to the back burner of U.S. political concerns. Any discussion of comprehensive immigration reform rapidly faded away as 9/11 generated a new xenophobia against immigrants, a fear of foreigners, mainly Mexicans, Latinos, and Muslims.
This modern xenophobia originated in western states and rapidly expanded to the rest of the country after 9/11. To a large extent, the growth of the Latino population inflamed the expansion of xenophobia throughout the country. The increased Latino presence was found in all 50 states as their numbers increased from 22 to 35 million during the 1990s and then to 50 million by 2010. Their transformation as the face of this country caused much fear with a large sector of the U.S. population. The fear of the “browning” of the country was spread by the media, mainly television and talk-radio pundits, the anti-immigrant rhetoric of politicians, and government actions, from the federal to the local.
Samuel Huntington, a Harvard professor, provided the clearest of the nativist discourse regarding the “browning” of the U.S. in his much discussed 2004 article, “The Hispanic Challenge.” The first sentence of the article states “(the persistent inflow of Hispanics threatens to divide the United States into two people, two cultures, and two languages.” In a nutshell, Huntington argued that the growing Latino population, mainly Mexican, was threatening the fabric of this country’s national identity. Unlike all other immigrants of past and present, Latinos refused to assimilate into the “Anglo-Protestant culture” that had formed the tenets of the nation’s core values since its founding. “In the not too distant future,” Huntington envisioned a country divided between a “Spanish-speaking U.S. and an English-speaking U.S.” Huntington provided the authoritative and academic cover that made nativist discourse respectable within the political arena of national politics. Albeit in a less crude argument and more polite language, Huntington pointed out what nativists had been propagating since the early 1990s: we have an internal enemy and it has the name of Mexican, the “brown peril.” Unlike the previous anti-Mexican discourse of the second half of the 20th century that emphasized immigrants taking jobs from citizens, lowering wages, consuming valuable resources, avoiding paying taxes, and receiving welfare, Huntington’s brand of nationalism focused on culture. The logic of Huntington’s cultural argument is quite simple: Latinos are intruders, they are rapidly growing, they refuse to assimilate into American culture, and they are imposing their culture in every part of “our” country. He warned that in the near future the U.S. was going to be one country divided by two irreconcilable cultures. Stated another way, troubled times lay ahead if measures were not taken to prevent this future.
This brand of nationalism that Huntington and others advocate is nothing more than disguised cultural racism that refuses to tolerate cultural diversity. This form of cultural racism entered the bloodline of national politics, especially within the Republican Party. It strongly appeals to millions of insecure people — mainly white and from the middle and working classes — whose standard of living had been falling for decades due to deindustrialization, the widening income gap, the high cost of college education, high unemployment, lowering wages, and home foreclosures. They are frustrated by their economic decline, angry at politicians and the government, and feel under siege by enemies, from “terrorists (Muslims)” to “criminals (Mexicans, Latinos, and African Americans).” Many joined the Tea Party movement and today form the core of Donald Trump’s electoral base.
Politicians played a major role in the expansion of xenophobia as they made it respectable in Congress when they moved the “immigration problem” to the national mainstream when the House of Representatives passed HB 4437 in 2005, the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Immigration Act. Also known as the Sensenbrenner Bill, this legislative piece intended to be the “final solution” to the “immigration problem.” This legislation was the sum of over a decade of anti-immigrant discourses, actions, proposals and policies that began in California with Proposition 187 in 1994, followed by Clinton’s IIRIRA, and spread to the rest of the country after 9/11. The Sensenbrenner Bill declared all undocumented workers criminals, called for their eviction, and to permanently keep them out with the expansion of the border wall.
The Sensenbrenner Bill intended to be the last nail on the “illegal alien problem.” Instead, it generated a political blowback: declaring 10 million immigrants as “criminals” provoked the protest of millions of people during the “Immigrants’ Spring” of 2006. The defense of immigrants also moved from an issue belonging to groups of small pro-immigration activists, social service agencies, and a handful of Latino national organizations to the political mainstream in 2006. Business associations, religious groups, Civil Rights’ organizations, and organized labor (it favored immigration restrictions until the 1980s) rallied around opposition to the Sensenbrenner Bill. Beaten in the streets, the Sensenbrenner Bill did not go beyond the House of Representatives. Later that year the Senate presented a “kinder” version of a comprehensive immigration legislation, the McCain-Kennedy Bill (SB 2611) which contain provisions for a long and painful path to citizenship, a guest-worker program, and expansion of the border wall. Attacked by the Republican Party as an “amnesty” bill, it failed to go beyond the Senate, a sort of payback from nativist politicians for the immigrant mobilizations that ended with the Sensenbrenner Bill. The year ended with President Bush signing the Secured Border Fence Act. Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton voted for it.
After the defeat of Sensenbrenner in 2006, nativists licked their wounds, regrouped, and waged new assaults on undocumented immigrants. By then the “Huntington disease,” the infection of cultural racism, spread deeper into the body of the Republican Party as the “illegal alien problem” moved to the top spots of its political program. “Illegal Aliens” became associated with Mexicans, and Mexicans included all Latinos because cultural racism ignores the distinctions among the Latino populations, All the main presidential contenders of 2008 Republican primary — Huckabee, Giuliani, Romney, and John McCain — courted the nativists voters by outdoing each other on who was going to be toughest on undocumented immigrants. It should be noted that the Huntington disease infected McCain, who eventually became the Republican nominee. He confessed that his McCain-Kennedy Senate Bill of 2006 was a mistake, emphasizing that “border control” came “first” before anything else. The expansion of the border wall and the removal of the undocumented became centerpieces of the Republican platform during their 2008 National Convention (however, denying citizenship to U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants did not pass). At their 2012 National Convention, they added more layers to their anti-immigrant agenda by opposing any type of DREAM act and endorsing the policies of “self-deportation,” such as Arizona’s SB 1070.
It should also be noted that their anti-immigrant platform eroded many of the electoral gains that Republicans had made with the Latino electorate in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, Ronald Reagan captured 30% of the Latino vote in 1984 and George W. Bush 40% in 2004. (I have heard many Mexicans say that “thanks to Reagan, I have my papers.”). The Reagan and Bush strategy of making the Republican Party more attractive to Latinos came to an end with the Sensenbrenner Bill and this was manifested in the 2008 presidential election between Barack Obama and John McCain.
Following the political strategy pushed by immigrant rights’ activist loyal to the Democratic Party during the Immigrant Spring of “hoy marchamos (2006), mañana votamos (2008),” permanent residents became citizens and millions of other registered to vote. Consequently, Latinos have become a growing reservoir of voters for the Democratic Party. This has to do with the Republican Party’s anti-immigrant agenda and rhetoric and the Democratic Party’s promises of “comprehensive immigration reform.” During the 2008 elections, for example, Obama promised Latinos “comprehensive immigration reform” while McCain appealed to nativists by promising the expansion of the border wall and the mass eviction of the undocumented immigrants. The political immigration divide — comprehensive immigration reform, on one side, and deportation of the undocumented immigrants and the border wall, on the other — have come into play in the 2008, 2012, and 2016 elections.
Deporter in Chief. Photo: Truth Revolt
The Democrats won the Presidency, Senate, and House of Representatives in 2008. No political party had achieved this political dominance since 1977. Latinos played a major role in this historic electoral event, giving Obama more than 70% of their vote. Political experts pointed out that Latino voters were crucial in Obama’s victory, especially in the key swing states of New Mexico, Colorado, Florida, and Nevada.
This was the most opportune moment for President Obama to pass a comprehensive immigration reform act, a promise he made to Latinos and immigrants during the 2008 electoral campaign. Needless to say, he failed to keep his promise and, in 2010, the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives and held a slim majority in the Senate. Instead of immigration reform, Obama fine-tuned the deportation machine that Bill Clinton designed and George Bush improved in the aftermaths of 9/11 with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Two new agencies that replaced the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the U.S. Immigration and Customs Engagement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). In the division of policing and security, ICE was responsible for internal immigration compliance and CBP for border enforcement. In view of the removals and failure to keep his promise on immigration reform, over 70% of the Latinos voted for Obama in 2012 for fear of a Republican administration,
Many of evictions have come from the Secure Communities Program that turned police officers into immigration officials. Most of the evictees have been low-level offenders arrested for such “crimes” as driving without a license. In light of waves of raids and deportations that ICE has been carrying out, the conditions of the undocumented workers have deteriorated since 2008. In light of the wave of raids and evictions ICE has carried out. So far, over 2.5 million people have been removed under Obama and he still has a few months left in his presidency. Regarding Obama’s legacy on immigration, he will be remembered for the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA)” executive order that allowed 600,000 young undocumented immigrants get work permits and temporary relief from deportation (perhaps many more failed to meet the DACA requirements). He will also be remembered as the “Deporter in Chief” for evicting more people than the sum of all presidents from 1892 to 2000, according to government data.
Juan Mora-Torres. Associate Professor of Latin American History at DePaul University. A former Teamster, he has worked in the agricultural fields, canneries, and as an adult education instructor. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago and has taught at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Wayne State University (Detroit). His research and writings focus on the history of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands, Mexican migration, popular culture, working class formations, and Mexicans in Chicago. He is the author of The Making of the Mexican Border (University of Texas Press, 2001), and he’s currently working on Me voy pa’l norte (I’ m Going North): The First Great Mexican Migration, 1890-1940. The Making of the Mexican Border won the Jim Parish Book Award. Mora-Torres is the Board President of El BeiSMan.