"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, June 2, 2017

Why Did So Many Hispanics Come to the U.S. Illegally Since 1965?

It’s time to update things.  I have focused so far on the Italian end of the “Hispanics are the new Italians” theme that I have been pursuing.  I have hardly mentioned Hispanics yet, for the good and sufficient reason that they just didn’t figure into the national discourse about immigration until rather recently.  But they certainly do now, so here’s a brief summary of when and why things started to change.

The 1920s immigration laws that I discussed in an earlier post placed quotas on how many from where could legally enter the U.S., while effectively barring Asians and Africans outright.  As evidence of just how little Hispanics figured in the picture, the new laws placed no numerical limits at all on immigration from Latin America or the Caribbean.  Hispanics still weren’t of major concern when the next major alteration to the U.S. immigration laws took place during the 1960s, but things would change in the decades that followed.  Consider:

In 1965, the estimated number of people from Latin America residing illegally in the U.S. was near zero.  Today there are an estimated 11 million of them.  Together with the legal immigrants and the children of both, Latin Americans now constitute almost 10% of the U.S. population.

So what happened to bring so many here?  It’s not that complicated a story, but there have been many twists and turns along the way.  It’s also been over fifty years now, and other factors have contributed during that period.  I’m only going to write about how it all began, and zero is a good place to start. 

To begin, we have to expose the reality behind the numbers in the highlighted paragraph above, particularly that first “near zero.” Then we need to discuss a classic example of what happens when Congress, despite all the good intentions in the world, doesn’t do its homework.  Together, these two stories reveal the beginning of the process that led to our current national fixation with “the immigration problem.”

The statistical zero for illegal immigrants in 1965 is deceptive.  There were actually a great many Mexicans living in the U.S. before that date, depending on where in the country we are looking, but most important on the time of year.  They were encouraged to work in the U.S., but not allowed to stay permanently.  They were migrant laborers, here legally courtesy of the Bracero Program. 

The Bracero Program had originated during World War II in answer to the agricultural labor shortage that military service had caused.  We grew a lot of food to feed our troops overseas, and we needed people to grow and harvest these crops.  Mexico, just south of us, had a large number of unemployed or underemployed people.  It was a natural fit.

It also wasn’t new.  The Bracero Program basically just legalized a migrant labor practice that had been in place long before, if officially unacknowledged.  The program helped to provide the badly needed agriculture labor, while ostensibly guaranteeing better working conditions for the migrant laborers (plus pay of $.30 an hour!).  The Bracero Program began in August 1942, when our government and that of Mexico signed the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement.  The first braceros entered the country in September, just in time for the sugar beet harvest season.  During the war itself, not that many braceros actually participated in the program, but the labor market was so tight that they were important, often important enough to require the payment of bribes to get a labor contract.*

As with many “wartime expedients,” the program not only survived, it was greatly expanded after the war.  It was highly profitable for growers, of course, ridding them of any real responsibility for their workforce, as well as any number of people who carved out a profitable niche in this mass circular movement.  However, even if we assume that the Program delivered on its promise of better living conditions, the life of a migrant worker was hard and degrading.  It was also a dead end, condemning these men and their families to a lifetime of transient peonage.

By the 1960s, blatant prejudice had gone out of fashion in most of America.  This was the age of the Civil Rights Movement and a host of other efforts aimed at ameliorating some of the worst components of the American national psyche.  Rather overlooked amidst its more publicized activities, the U.S. Congress, for the very best of motives, took two actions, one in 1964 and one the following year.  These two would interact to form a vise of most peculiar shape and function, one that slowly forced increasing numbers of Mexicans—and others from Latin America—into the U.S. illegally.  This phraseology means that, in the early decades at least, those entering illegally did not so much make the choice as be forced into making it.

The first of these actions was the 1964 termination of the Bracero Program (over vociferous objections from Mexico, it should be noted).  Congress phased out the entire program by 1968.  The long-established legal infrastructure that had provided the labor for our “economic miracle” of cultivating the Southwest ceased to exist.  The laborers were still needed, but now legal immigrant worker status was required.  Each had to enter legally, then stay and work under existing programs for resident aliens.  There were several problems with that right away, but one the biggest one didn’t appear until the following year.  That was the 1965 passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

The Immigration and Nationality Act is a lesser-known component of LBJ’s “Great Society.”  It replaced the obviously racist 1920s quotas, and attempted to establish a neutral immigration system that focused on family reunification and labor needs. During the negotiations that led to this Act, our border with Mexico was not a major focus of attention. Hispanic immigration—legal or illegal—was a minor issue in 1965.  The Act did, however, impose the first numerical restrictions, capping the total immigrants allowed from the Western Hemisphere at 120,000.  Subsequent amendments between 1978 and 1980 further lowered the allowed numbers.

Thus, to glowing reviews, the trap was set, and what should have been foreseen took place.  A large number of Mexicans, whose life had been tending crops in the U.S., while technically living in Mexico, faced a cruel dilemma.  Their migratory living had been eliminated, but Mexico had no work for them (which was largely why they became migrant workers in the first place).  They could not legally immigrate to the U.S, where there was work to sustain their families, as the 1965 Act and subsequent restrictions had capped the legal residence options at much too low a number.  The result was obvious, at least in retrospect: a migration that had been circular and legal became one-way and illegal.  The 1965 Act increased legal immigration from Latin America—up to the max, in fact—but in combination with the end of the Bracero Program, the two managed to create an entirely new problem, that of illegal immigration.   

In the decades after the 1965 Act, illegal immigration mushroomed, particularly from Latin America. Mexico was by far the most frequent country of origin.  By not paying attention to how capping the number of legal immigrants allowed in the U.S. impacted their previous decision to terminate the Bracero Program, the U.S. government laid the groundwork for the illegal entry of millions of Latin Americans, with the resulting upsurge of nativism and xenophobia in response.  Illegal immigration continued—and increased—in later decades, and the reasons for that lie in the comparison of international economies.  Still, everything needs a creator, and for the problem of illegal immigration from Mexico, that was clearly the U.S. government. 

*Thank you, Wikipedia!