A Skeptical View of Mexican Immigrants in the United States Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the early twentieth century, the increasing number of Mexican immigrants entering the United States became a major political issue. In this editorial, economist Samuel Bryan wrote that increased Mexican immigration was to be expected, since the country’s growing railway industry was enabling Mexicans to easily cross the border into and out of the United States. Bryan also suggested that Mexicans were, as a race, illiterate and predisposed to living in poverty. Such qualities, said Bryan, made Mexican immigrants undesirable and likely to engage in criminal activity that would undermine American society.

Summary Overview

During the early twentieth century, the increasing number of Mexican immigrants entering the United States became a major political issue. In this editorial, economist Samuel Bryan wrote that increased Mexican immigration was to be expected, since the country’s growing railway industry was enabling Mexicans to easily cross the border into and out of the United States. Bryan also suggested that Mexicans were, as a race, illiterate and predisposed to living in poverty. Such qualities, said Bryan, made Mexican immigrants undesirable and likely to engage in criminal activity that would undermine American society.

Defining Moment

Starting in the early nineteenth century, waves of immigrants came from all over the world to be a part of the new and independent United States. Europeans of all classes came across the Atlantic, while East Asians (most of whom were Chinese and Japanese) came across the Pacific. The discovery of gold in California in the middle of the nineteenth century hastened arrivals from the latter regions, however, as Chinese laborers were brought to the American West to support gold excavation operations. Anglo-American (white) prejudices, however, resulted in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, effectively putting an end to Chinese immigration to the United States for decades.

Meanwhile, however, another major group was continuing to pour into the United States. By the late nineteenth century, large waves of Mexican immigrants were leaving their homes and crossing the border into the United States in search of jobs. However, unlike Chinese laborers (the largest concentration of whom were found in California and other western regions), by the end of the nineteenth century, Mexican immigrants were found in Chicago and Wyoming, as well as other areas of the country far from the Mexican border, working in a wide range of industries, including mining, farming, and ranching.

One such industry was the same sector that helped these immigrants move about the country rapidly. In the early twentieth century, the US transportation infrastructure continued to expand. As railways spread to virtually every corner of the nation, Mexican laborers played a major role in their construction. The US-Mexican border was largely unprotected–people could cross with relative ease. Therefore, American employers saw in Mexico an opportunity to aggressively recruit laborers and, using the rails, transport these workers across the border.

American attitudes about Mexican immigrants were relatively neutral (at least when compared to sentiments about Chinese immigrants). To be sure, white Americans largely saw Mexicans as an “inferior” race. However, they also valued the presence of Mexican immigrants in the country’s agricultural, mining, and transportation sectors. As a result, there was not as much of a backlash against Mexican workers as there was with other immigrant groups.

Still, there was a noticeable growth in the number of Mexican immigrants throughout the country. They were working and living as far north as Chicago in addition to the American Southwest. According to Bryan, wherever these immigrants settled, they did so in closely knit communities that were, in the eyes of other Americans, segregated from the rest of the community. Because of the unique and widespread presence of Mexicans, conversations arose during the early twentieth century about the influences and impacts of Mexican immigrants on American society. In September 1912, Bryan penned this article, which was published in the progressive periodical The Survey. In the article, Bryan offered his opinions of Mexican immigrants, how they compared to other immigrants, and how their lifestyle impacted American society at large.

Document Analysis

In his article, Bryan attempts to present to the readers an educated perspective on the growing issue of Mexican immigration to the United States in the early 1900s. Bryan argues that the rate of Mexican immigrants entering and dispersing throughout the United States increased markedly in the late 1800s and early 1900s, an upward trend that could be easily explained. He attributes the increase to the railway industry, which either gave employment to these immigrants or transported them to work opportunities in other industries. Finally, Bryan, reflecting the everyday racism of the time, states that the social characteristics of Mexicans limits these workers to unskilled labor and fosters their willingness to live in makeshift “colonies” that breed disease and crime.

Bryan begins his commentary by stating that Mexican immigration in the United States–which, prior to the 1900s, grew at a sustainable rate and was limited to Texas, California, and the southwestern states–was increasing considerably both in terms of numbers and prevalence. In 1908, for example, Bryan says that as many as one hundred thousand Mexicans entered the country. In fact, he says, since the first census was taken in 1900, the Mexican population in the US appears to have tripled (though, he notes, this might not be entirely accurate, because it does not account for Mexicans returning to Mexico after finishing stints of employment). Furthermore, immigrants were appearing in not only the usual states but also in states far to the North and East.

Bryan attributes this growth and spread to the growing American rail industry. Mexicans were used in a wide range of capacities, including in construction gangs and as powerhouse workers and section hands. The railroads commonly paid for these immigrants’ transportation to and from Mexico, a practice that facilitated an increase in cross-border traffic. While the railroad industry was one of the main foci of Mexican workers, Bryan says, it was not the only one: by 1912, Mexicans were working in mines, on farms and ranches, and in smelting facilities. These immigrants were willing to work for even less than other immigrant workers, such as Europeans and East Asians, Bryan argues. The pay imbalance had a “retarding effect” on the wage scale for all racial and ethnic labor groups.

Although Mexican workers presented a viable and less expensive labor pool that benefited the US economy, Bryan’s article claims a sociopolitical downside. He says that, in areas close to the US–Mexican border, Mexicans had little competition from other racial and ethnic groups, creating few disruptions to the area. However, in more populated and diverse areas, Mexicans’ preference for living together in “colonies” was creating an issue. In Los Angeles, for example, Mexican immigrants were forming “house courts,” which were essentially Mexican communes. Crime was a major issue in these courts, as was the spread of disease. Furthermore, the combination of Mexican illiteracy and lack of “political interest” made these immigrants a major target for recruitment by local party bosses and other corrupt officials. For example, Mexicans had been used to break strikes in Colorado and New Mexico mines, Bryan states.

In his conclusion, Bryan weighs the positives and negatives of increased Mexican immigration. He argues that Mexicans present an inexpensive and reliable labor pool to a number of key industries. On the other hand, Mexicans’ low standard of living, illiteracy, supposed lack of morals and political interest, and their insistence on living outside American society made this group an “undesirable class,” Bryan states.

Essential Themes

Bryan’s article on Mexican immigration in the early twentieth-century United States demonstrates two major characteristics of this period in modern American history. First, the increasing volume of immigrants entering the United States reflected the tremendous development the nation was undergoing. Second, despite the value placed on immigrant laborers in some of the nation’s most expansive industries, prejudice among Anglo-Americans against immigrant (particularly nonwhite) laborers contributed to a lack of economic success among these ethnic groups.

Bryan begins by acknowledging that Mexican immigration was increasing significantly. This growth was attributable to the wide range of unskilled and/or manual job opportunities available in the United States. The railroad industry was largely responsible for this growth, as the industry was one of the country’s leading employers of Mexican immigrants. This industry even made it possible for Mexicans to cross the US border without issue. The rise in Mexican populations in areas far from the border was also attributable to the rails. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Mexicans had access to myriad opportunities: if they were not transported via train to a job within the railroad industry, Bryan writes, Mexicans could easily travel to mines, smelting facilities, and farms throughout the United States.

Mexicans, however, were different from other immigrant groups, Bryan argues. They were apparently willing to accept lower wages than other laborers, for example. This characteristic made Mexicans an attractive pool from which to recruit laborers, Bryan says. However, he adds that Mexicans seemingly lacked certain motivations (including political interest) and were more interested in living a nomadic, communal lifestyle that fostered crime and racial segregation in the areas where they worked. Mexicans, he concluded, presented the US economy with opportunities for inexpensive labor. However, he stated, they offered American society little else of value.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Garcia, Mario T. Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880–1920. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981. Print.
  • Link, William A., and Susannah J. Link. The Gilded Age and Progressive Era: A Documentary Reader. Malden: Wiley, 2012. Print.
  • Lorey, David E. The U.S.–Mexican Border in the Twentieth Century: A History of Economic and Social Transformation. Lanham: Rowman, 1999. Print.
  • Mintz, Steven, ed. Mexican American Voices: A Documentary Reader. Malden: Wiley, 2009. Print.
  • Weber, David J., ed. Foreigners in Their Native Land: Historical Roots of the Mexican Americans. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 2003. Print.
  • Zolberg, Aristide R. A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009. Print.
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