Mexican immigrants

Mexican immigrants represent the largest minority ethnic group in the United States and differ from other immigrant groups in the nearness of their home country, which makes movement back and forth easier and makes their culture more visible within American society.

Mexico was originally inhabited by Native American peoples who originated in Asia many millennia before the first European explorers and settlers arrived in the Western Hemisphere. The Native American peoples developed advanced cultures that gave rise to civilizations such as those of the Aztecs and Mayas in what are now Mexico and Central America that were responsible for impressive achievements in technology and mathematics. These civilizations were eventually conquered by Spain during the early sixteenth century. The Spanish introduced their language and the Roman Catholic religion to the original inhabitants of Mexico. Over time, the newcomers mixed with the Native peoples and created the mestizo, or mixed-race, peoples who would become known as modern Mexicans.Mexican immigrantsMexican immigrants[cat]MEXICAN IMMIGRANTS;Mexican immigrants[03470][cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;Mexican immigrants[03470][cat]AGRICULTURAL WORKERS;Mexican immigrants[03470]

Spanish Mexico, or New Spain, extended well into the southwestern parts of what is now the United States, and those regions became part of Mexico when that country won its independence in 1821. However, American settlers wrested Texas from Mexico during the 1830’s, and the American victory in the Mexican War of 1846-1848 cost Mexico California, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of what would become other U.S. states. In one stroke, the [a]Guadalupe Hidalgo, Treaty ofTreaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that settled the war transformed about 85,000 Mexican citizens into the largest minority ethnic group in U.S. territory.

Push-Pull Factors

Beginning Push-pull factors[push pull factors];and Mexican immigrants[Mexican immigrants]in 1910 with the building of the railroad across the Sonoran Desert, the first wave of Mexican migration was ushered in with the flow of Mexicans “pushed” by the lack of jobs in Mexico under the president-dictator Díaz, PorfirioPorfirio Díaz. Moreover, with the large-scale irrigation project of the Colorado Desert in California, agriculture became a lucrative business in the Southwest. Many Mexicans were enticed to the area for jobs in agribusiness, where fruit and vegetable pickers were required in the San Joaquin Valley of California, the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, and the Salt River Valley of Arizona;Mexican immigrantsArizona. In addition, similar agribusinesses created jobs for picking sugar beets in Minnesota, Colorado, and Michigan. Besides the sugar beet, Michigan’s car industry drew Mexican workers toward the assembly lines of Detroit, where in 1914 Henry Ford paid a daily wage of five dollars.

Another factor pushing Mexicans to go north was the Mexican RevolutionMexican Revolution that began in 1910 and kept Mexico in a state of virtual civil war into the late 1920’s and devastated the country. In the face of violent upheavals, unemployment, and hunger, as many as 2 million Mexicans may have immigrated to the United States by the late 1920’s. During the year 1923 alone, an average of 1,000 people crossed the border every day.

World War I<index-term><primary>World War I[World War 01];and Mexico[Mexico]</primary></index-term>

In August, 1914, World War I began in Europe, pitting Germany against Great Britain and France and other nations. The United States remained neutral, but in early 1917, an incident involving Mexico occurred that helped to draw the United States into the war. Germany’s foreign secretary, Zimmerman, ArthurArthur Zimmerman, sent a telegram to Mexico’s President Carranza, VenustianoVenustiano Carranza in which he offered Germany’s pledge to restore to Mexico the U.S. states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in return for Mexico’s cooperation with Germany in the event that the United States entered the war. The telegram was intercepted by the British, who passed it along to the U.S. government. The government had the contents of the telegram published in newspapers across the United States. In addition to helping President Woodrow Wilson take the United States into the war, the telegram helped launch a new era of American distrust of Mexicans.

Later that same year, the U.S. Congress passed the [a]Immigration Act of 1917;head taxImmigration Act of 1917, which imposed an eight-dollar head tax on each immigrant–a hefty impost on Mexican immigrants. The new law also added a Literacy tests;and Immigration Act of 1917[Immigration Act of 1917]literacy test, which made it even more difficult for many Mexicans to enter the United States legally. However, although American suspicions of Mexicans were high, the U.S. entry into World War I created a worker shortage in the United States that forced American employers to look to Mexico for labor. After relaxing the literacy requirement and the head tax, the U.S. Department of Labor set up a system with the agribusiness companies, in which each company could apply for the number of Mexican laborers it required, thereby creating a government-controlled guest-worker program. This arrangement differed from later Bracero programbracero programs in that it did not guarantee worker protections or wage increases. To ensure that Mexican workers returned to Mexico, the Labor Department held part of their pay until they were back in Mexico.


The 1920’s saw the first major wave of Mexican immigration, but after the stock market crash of 1929 started the Great Depression, those numbers began reversing. Mexicans became the scapegoats for job losses in the United States, and impoverished American farmers in the Midwest, which was devastated by dust bowl conditions, began migrating west in search of seasonal agricultural work that had previously been done mostly by immigrants. By 1934, more than half of California’s crop pickers were white American migrant workers.

Meanwhile, additional resentment fell on American citizens of Mexican descent who were receiving federal benefits in New Deal programs during the Depression, and Great Depression;and Mexican immigrants[Mexican immigrants]Mexican Americans were blamed for using taxpayer money. The federal government came under pressure to send Mexicans back to Mexico. Deportation required time-consuming legal proceedings, so the government engaged in tactics designed to intimidate Mexicans into leaving the country voluntarily. However, in 1931, the government began instituting legal proceedings to deport Mexicans who were found to have violated the conditions of their visas.

In February, 1931, agents of the U.S. Department of Labor began staging public raids across California’s Los Angeles County, using local police to help identify Mexicans. Persons who could not produce documentation of their American citizenship or valid passports were bused to the Mexican border. In their haste to round up suspected Mexican nationals, government agents sent some American citizens and persons of Asian ancestry to Mexico.

Mexican immigrants passing through the border station at El Paso, Texas, in 1938.

(Library of Congress)

The mass deportations had the desired effect of creating the fear of expulsion in the minds of Mexican immigrants, many of whom began accepting offers of free passage to Mexico. Eventually, Los Angeles set up county-sponsored trains that provided free transportation to all the Mexicans who wished to leave the country voluntarily. Many of those sent to Mexico were later unable to prove their American citizenship, which they consequently lost.

Bracero Program

After the United States entered Bracero programWorld War II at the end of 1941, Mexican workers were again persuaded to migrate north to fill jobs left by American workers who had entered the armed forces or gone to work in the expanding defense industry. Since 1917, the Mexican government had tried, with little success, to ensure that Mexicans working in the United States would receive better treatment. By 1942, however, the U.S. government was finally ready to pay attention to the Mexican demands. In July, 1942, the U.S. and Mexican governments signed an accord in Mexico City to create the bracero program, in which the U.S. government would take responsibility for overseeing and protecting Mexicans working in the United States under the program. Between 1942 and 1947, more than 200,000 bracero workers were employed across the United States; more than half of them worked in California’s agricultural fields.

Criticisms of the bracero program soon emerged. Most of the conditions for workers that Mexico had set were not met. Substandard housing of the workers was a particular problem, but this was remedied in 1943 when new housing units were built by the federal government. Another criticism was the failure of wage rates to increase along with those in areas where braceros were not working, such as Texas. Another criticism of the program was that it encouraged illegal immigration by workers who did not return to Mexico when they completed their contracts. When the program was finally ended by the U.S. government in 1964, Mexico was left with the problem of having large numbers of workers who needed employment.

Operation Wetback<index-term><primary>Operation Wetback</primary></index-term>

During the early 1950’s, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was urged by President Eisenhower, Dwight D.Dwight D. Eisenhower to begin deporting illegal immigrants. In June, 1953, the INS began a series of surprise raids in the program dubbed“Operation Wetback.” The program continued into the following year and was publicized. In contrast to the mass repatriations of the early 1930’s, the INS made sure that the people sent back to Mexico were released at points five hundred to one thousand miles south of the border to discourage them from returning to the United States. Once again, many of the people who were deported were American citizens, and again families were torn apart by the deportations. At least 300,000 people were returned to Mexico, and as many as 1 million more were stopped from entering the United States at the border.

Anti-Mexican Sentiments

Stereotypes Stereotyping, ethnic;Mexicanabout “wetbacks”–a derogatory term for illegal Mexican immigrants–stealing American jobs are perpetuated in political circles, and they increase in frequency during economic recessions. Like members of other immigrant groups, Mexicans are often stereotyped as scofflaws and miscreants. At ports of entry along the border, Mexicans were historically forced to undergo humiliating body searches. Moreover, Mexican border posts were the only ports of entry into the United States that forced new arrivals to undergo delousing. During the swine flu outbreak in 2009, fears of Mexicans bringing the disease over the border were common throughout the United States, with many Americans renewing calls for the erection of a border wall.Mexican immigrants

Further Reading

  • Andreas, Peter. Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001. Scholarly study of issues surrounding the policing of the U.S.-Mexican border.
  • Gutierrez, David G. Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Discusses the issue of race in Mexican and Mexican American identities.
  • Hoffman, Abraham. Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression: Repatriation Pressures, 1929-1939. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1974. Comprehensive study of the massive repatriation of Mexicans during the Great Depression, with detailed data from each state that was involved
  • Jones, Maldwyn A. American Immigration. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. Objective historical summary of immigration in the United States, providing general information about Mexican immigration.
  • Meier, Matt S., and Feliciano Ribera. Mexican Americans/American Mexicans: From Conquistadors to Chicanos. 2d ed. Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, 1993. Thorough summary of Mexican immigration, from the earliest Spanish conquests to the modern Chicano movement. Includes concise accounts of the Depression-era repatriation and the bracero program.
  • Moquin, Wayne, and Charles Van Doren, eds. A Documentary History of the Mexican Americans. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971. Detailed history of Mexican ties to the United States, with full histories of Mexicans in New Mexico, California, and Texas.
  • Rodriguez, Gregory. Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America. New York: Pantheon Books, 2007. Broad overview of immigration law and Mexican identity in United States history.
  • Telles, Edward, and Vilma Ortiz. Generations of Exclusion: Mexican Americans, Assimilation and Race. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008. Good investigation of four decades of the Mexican American experience.

Border fence

Bracero program

Chicano movement

Farm and migrant workers

Latin American immigrants

Latinos and immigrants

Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

Mexican deportations of 1931

Mexican Revolution

Operation Wetback

Sociedad Progresista Mexicana

Spanish-language press