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Fluctuating Immigration Policy And The Economy Essay, Research Paper
During the various decades of 1920 to 1960, immigration policy toward Mexicans was influenced by America’s economic status at each decade. During this period there was much fluctuation in attitudes and policies toward immigration. America saw immigration policy go from an almost invisible border in the 1920’s to massive military-like roundups of immigrants in the 1950’s. During the 1920’s while the Immigration act of 1924 was all but halting European and Asian immigration, thousands of Mexicans were allowed to cross the border without any trouble from the new anti-immigration legislation so that Mexicans could work seasonally in the fields. When Depression hit in the thirties, anti-Mexican sentiments ran high and the “Federal Government helped where it could to rid the country of Mexicans.”(Cardoso 46). With the involvement of the United States in World War II, the demand for manpower in agriculture and war production industries increased immensely. Therefore, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were given the opportunity not only to work but to work in higher-paying occupations as well. After World War II the American public became aware of the numbers of Mexicans crossing the border and again supported measures to stifle immigration. “Operation Wetback” which was a campaign to deport masses of Mexicans back into the interior of Mexico took effect during the postwar period.
In 1924 the Federal Government sought to put a strangle hold on immigration and this was accomplished by passing the Immigration Act of 1924. This act put many Jim Crow-like restrictions on immigrants like literacy tests, and physical exams. The act also barred those who were more than half Indian to enter the United States. This piece of legislation was a result of a high sense of nativism in America at this time period. Although the majority of the public supported these restrictionist measures, they were not applied to Mexican immigrants. If the Immigration Act of 1924 was applied to Mexicans, there would have been practically no Mexicans allowed into the United States due to fact that the vast majority of Mexicans are of the “Mestizo” type, that is half Indian and half Spanish. Why then, would a measure like this be passed but not implemented on the Southern border? The answer is quite simple; farmers and factory owners relied heavily on Mexican workers for their respective businesses and politicians also sided with pro-immigration groups regarding the new legislation but due to diplomatic reasons.
During the 1920’s, employers of Mexican workers pleaded for an open-door policy due to the fact that Mexican labor was responsible for much productivity in Southwestern agriculture. Businesses that relied on Mexicans also put up much effort to promote a favorable image of Mexican immigrants by arguing that Mexicans were docile and of no threat to the American way of life (Cardoso 124). Railroads also claimed that they would be forced to shut down if they did not have Mexican workers. In another instance the Arizona Cotton Growers Association asked for the Government’s assistance in acquiring Mexican laborers because they argued that without them, cotton production would falter. The Federal Government agreed and allowed the association to send a recruiter to Mexico and the cotton growers even volunteered to pay the head tax of $8.00(Cardoso 130).
Even politicians sought to gain much out of not enforcing the Immigration Act of 1924 on Mexicans. Republicans led by Herbert Hoover were looking at the larger picture when deciding not to apply the laws on Mexicans. This larger picture was expanding trade and other economic relations with all of Latin America by using an open-door policy as an example of goodwill. As the twenties came to a close, so did the open door at the border as recession drew near.
The Great Depression brought much hardship to Mexicans as well as Americans. Eventhough Mexicans were also hard hit by the depression, they still “…seemed to bear the brunt of Americans’ resentment about the economic catastrophe.”(Gutierrez 73). As unemployment numbers continued to climb, the Government took action to rid America of Mexican immigrants. During this time period both the public and the Government were in favor of repatriation. In addition to the repatriation campaigns, employers were laying off Mexican workers in order to give some of those jobs to Americans.
For the most part, the American public believed that Mexican migratory workers were one of the causes of the depression. The common argument was that Mexican immigrants take jobs for lower wages and not only take them from Americans but depress wages also. With this in mind the public and the Government took part in repatriation projects. The largest of such repatriation projects went down in Los Angeles. Taking part in this major effort to help eliminate the immigrant problem were the U.S. Department of Labor and Los Angeles City and County officials. This project that took place in 1930 and 1931 pressured tens of thousands Mexicans out of the country along with their American-born children (Gutierrez 72). In some cases the Government, acting through consulates, would finance a Mexican family’s exodus of America. Criminals and Mexicans who were receiving welfare were practically hunted down for deportation. Local Governments found it cheaper to deport Mexicans all the way into Central Mexico rather than provide them with social services. Los Angeles County estimated that a trainload of 6,024 Mexicans would cost an upward of $77,000 and if this group were to stay, they would cost about $425,000 to maintain them for a year (Cardoso 147).
In some areas of the country during the depression, Mexican workers were laid off so that Americans could be hired in those positions. An example of this can be seen in the Automobile Industry in Detroit which responded with “wholesale layoffs of Mexicans”(Cardoso 145). Many local Governments refused to give assistance to Mexicans in favor of helping whites. In Chicago and other places of the iron and steel industry ten percent of Mexicans losed their jobs and fifteen percent were laid off in the Construction industry (Hoffman 120). This period of resentment toward the Mexican immigrant was not to last much longer however; with the outbreak of World War Mexicans would be welcomed once again.
In 1942 the “Bracero” program was launched to help Mexican workers get jobs in certain agricultural areas. The United States started this program in conjunction with the Mexican Government also. Why was America all of a sudden interested in collaborating with the Mexican Government to allow massive amounts of Braceros into the Country? The reason for this was that World War II created great demands for labor in not only agriculture but in the shipbuilding and aircraft industries as well. Demand for labor was so high in fact that the Government did not crack down on those employers who used illegals to work.
The United States’ demand for labor was so exorbitant that the Federal Government agreed that employers would pay for the transportation expenses of the workers and gaurunteed that there would be no discriminatory practices toward the Braceros (Brown 60). The Bracero program forced the U.S. to concede to many demands made by the Mexican Government and the U.S. willingly accepted and allowed a massive influx of Mexican workers across the border. The Bracero program kicked off with 500 contract workers and the numbers grew steadily over time. By 1947 220,000 Braceros had worked under contract in the United States (Copp 59). During this period of demand for labor, Mexicans and other minority groups were not just held to the agricultural industry, but more of the higher- skill industries were crying out for immigrant workers as well.
Before World War II, areas like aircraft manufacturing, shipbuilding and other higher-paying occupations were limited to American men only. During the war many Mexicans were hired by these industries. World War II can even be seen as a pivotal point in the history of the Mexican immigrant. With the Bracero program and the ending of discrimination in certain industries America again saw a change in attitude and policy toward Mexican immigrants due to economic factors. The U.S. changed its immigration policy in order to help its own economy by allowing Mexicans to work legally when only a decade before, Mexicans were being deported. The Bracero Program was just another example of the economy influencing U.S. policy and like before the trend of passive immigration was no to last.
As the war came to an end, so did the demand for high numbers of workers. Also, the soldiers returning from over seas would need jobs therefore the need for the Bracero program was over. Once again the public’s eye was on the number of immigrants that were present in the U.S. at the time. The Government again took actions to help curtail immigration. “Arguments set forth by anti-wetback groups in support of penalty legislation were given added credence by the economic slump the United States experienced in 1953” (Garcia 158). One measure that was attempted was S.3360 which penalized employers of illegal aliens. Another idea that was actually carried out was “Operation Wetback”.
In 1954 measure S.3360 was introduced to the senate. It was a measure that would penalize those who used undocumented immigrant workers. This law would discourage business men from hiring illegal labor. The hope of this measure would be that it would discourage illegal aliens from applying for jobs and would therefore reduce the numbers of illegals coming to America. Although this measure did not pass, it adequately represented the attitude of Americans toward Mexican immigration because of the conception that immigrants are stealing from them and lowering wages.
Nothing shows how severe anti-immigration sentiment was, quite like “Operation Wetback”. It was a plan to use military personnel and equipment to round up wetbacks and send them back into Mexico. “Operation Wetback set up raids in military fashion with intelligence units and task forces, and air squadrons. “Operation Wetback” took place in California, Arizona, and Texas and according to INS statistics some 1,300,000 illegals were either deported or influenced into leaving America (Garcia 228). “Operation Wetback” was strongly advocated by the American people despite its harshness. Mexico tried to persuade the United
States to have some of the illegals contracted as Braceros but the U.S. refused due to the fact that there was enough local labor already.
Like many other trends in history, immigration policy seems to follow a sine curve in that it fluctuates up and down repeatedly. As was seen by many examples, immigration policy is directly related to the economics and the well being of the American people. As was seen in the 1920’s when Mexicans were welcomed and then during the Great Depression in the 1930’s they were rejected, blamed, and sent back to Mexico. The cycle begins again with the outbreak of World War II in the Forties where the U.S. bargained with Mexico personally to allow massive amounts of Mexicans to work due to labor shortage. After the war, when there was no longer a shortage in labor, the Mexicans were again shipped back. This type of exploitation of a people has shades of imperialism which was the direct opposite of the principles this country was founded on.
1. Brown, Peter. The Border that Joins: Mexican Migration and U.S.
Responsibility. Towtowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1983.
2. Cardoso, Lawrence A. Mexican Emigration to the United States 1897-1931.
Tuscon: University of Arizona press, 1980.
3. Copp, Nelson Gage. “wetbacks” and Braceros: Mexican Migrant Laborers
And American Immigration Policy 1930-1960. San Francisco: R and E
Research Associates, 1971.
4. Garcia, Juan Ramon. Operation Wetback: The Mass Deportation of Mexican
Undocumented workers in 1954. Westport: Greenwood press, 1980.
5. Gutierrez, David G. Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican
Immigrants and the Politics of Ethnicity. Berkeley: University of
California press, 1995.
5. Hoffman, Abraham. Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression:
Repatriation Pressures 1929-1939. Tuscon: University of Arizona press,
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