Mexicans hold a unique position in the cultural history of the United States. In 1848, without moving, 75,000– 100,000 Mexicans became U.S. citizens when the region of modern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas was transferred from Mexico to the United States following the U.S.-Mexican War. According to the 2000 U.S. census, 20,640,711 Americans claimed Mexican descent, accounting for almost 60 percent of the Hispanic population in the country (see Hispanic and related terms). Of these, more than 9 million were born in Mexico. According to Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) estimates, almost 5 million were in the United States illegally, accounting for almost 70 percent of all unauthorized residents. Mexicans were also the largest Hispanic group in Canada, with 36,575 Canadians claiming Mexican descent in 2001. Mexican Americans are spread widely throughout California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Illinois and form the majority populations in a number of Texas and Arizona towns and cities, including El Paso, Laredo, Brownsville, and McAllen. About half of Mexican Canadians live in Ontario.
Mexico occupies 741,600 square miles in southern North America. It is bordered by the United States on the north, and Guatemala and Belize on the south. In 2002, the population was estimated at 101,879,171. Ethnic divisions include mestizos (60 percent), Amerindians (30 percent), and Mexicans of European descent (9 percent). About 89 percent are Roman Catholic and 6 percent Protestant. The Olmec civilization flourished from about 800 B.C., laying a cultural foundation for the later Maya, Toltec, and Aztec states. In 1521, the Aztecs of the central valley of Mexico were brought under Spanish rule, and most of modern Mexico was brought under Spanish control by the 1530s. During 300 years of Spanish rule, Amerindian cultures were largely destroyed, replaced by the prevailing language, architecture, and learning of Spain. Mexico gained its independence in 1821 but was often ruled by political strongmen and remained relatively weak in relation to its giant neighbor to the north. Following U.S. acquisition of the Southwest in the U.S.-Mexican War, the rights of the almost 100,000 former Mexican citizens were formally guaranteed. Vestiges of their culture remained prominent in the Southwest, but the rapid influx of Anglo settlers in the wake of the gold rush of 1848 and the building of transcontinental railways from the 1860s ensured that Mexican Americans would lose almost all political influence until the latter part of the 20th century. The Mexican Revolution (1910–17) laid the foundation for political reform, though little was done to help the masses until the 1930s. Between 1940 and 1980, the Mexican economy prospered, largely on the basis of petroleum revenues. During the 1980s, however, rapid population increase and a drop in petroleum prices led to high rates of unemployment and inflation, which in turn produced a massive wave of emigration, both legal and illegal.
Mexicans first immigrated to the United States in significant numbers in the first decade of the 20th century, replacing excluded Chinese and Japanese laborers. Wartime demands for labor during World War I (1914–18), World War II (1939–45), and the Korean War (1950–53) coupled with a rapidly developing agricultural industry in the southwestern United States, led Congress to exempt Mexicans as temporary workers from otherwise restrictive immigrant legislation. As a result, almost 80,000 Mexicans were admitted between creation of a temporary farmworkers’ program in 1917 and its termination in 1922. Less than half of the workers returned to Mexico. Linking with networks that organized and transported Mexican laborers, workers continued to enter the United States throughout the 1920s, with 459,000 officially recorded. Although there were no official limits on immigration from the Western Hemisphere, many Mexicans chose to bypass the official process, which since 1917 had included a literacy test, making the actual number of Mexican immigrants much higher. Most worked in agriculture in either Texas or California, but there were significant numbers in Kansas and Colorado, and migrants began to take more industrial jobs in the upper Midwest and Great Lakes region, leading to a general dispersal throughout the country. Between 1900 and the onset of the Great Depression in 1930, the number of foreign-born Mexicans in the United States rose from 100,000 to 639,000. With so many American citizens out of work, more than 500,000 Mexicans were repatriated during the 1930s.
The urgent demand for labor during World War II led to creation of the Bracero Program in August 1942. Its main impact was to provide a large, dependent agricultural labor force, working for 30–50 cents per day under the most spartan conditions. In the long term, it led to a massive influx of Mexicans, both legal and illegal, who became magnets for further family migration under the provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Between 1942 and the ending of the Bracero Program in 1964, almost 5 million Mexican laborers legally entered the country, with several million more entering illegally to work for even lower wages. Mexican immigration rose significantly in each decade following World War II. In the 1950s, almost 300,000 came; in the 1960s, 454,000; in the 1970s, 640,000; in the 1980s, 1.6 million; and in the 1990s, 2.2 million. Between 2000 and 2002, legal immigration averaged almost 200,000 per year. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (1986) attempted to regularize the agricultural labor issue, granting citizenship to undocumented Mexicans who could demonstrate a 10-year period of continuous residence.
Two events in the mid-1990s had significant implications for Mexican immigration, especially to the United States. On January 1, 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, gradually reducing tariffs on trade between the United States, Canada, and Mexico and guaranteeing investors equal business rights in all three countries. Although thousands of jobs moved from the United States to Mexico, NAFTA did little to stem the tide of illegal immigration. Later that year, a financial crisis in Mexico led to the devaluation of the peso in December 1994–February 1995 and a potential defaulting on international obligations. International loans of more than $50 billion staved off bankruptcy, but the accompanying austerity plan in Mexico led to higher interest rates and dramatically higher consumer prices. Growing concern over the cost of providing assistance to illegal immigrants and fear of an increased flow from Mexico as a result of the economic crisis, led Californians to approve (59 percent to 41 percent) Proposition 187, which denied education, welfare benefits, and nonemergency health care to illegal immigrants. Anticipating legal challenges, proponents of Proposition 187 included language to safeguard all provisions not specifically deemed invalid by the courts. Decisions by federal judges in both 1995 and 1998, however, upheld previous decisions regarding the unconstitutionality of the proposition’s provisions, based on Fourteenth Amendment protections against discriminating against one class of people (in this case, immigrants). The exact status of “unauthorized immigrants” from Mexico—the euphemism for illegal aliens—continued to be hotly debated into the first decade of the 21st century.
Another response to the rapid growth of illegal Mexican immigrants was a dramatic increase in the strength and technological sophistication of the Border Patrol, a move reinforced in the wake of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. In September 2003, the California legislature passed legislation allowing illegal immigrants to receive a California driver’s license. With the October recall of Governor Gray Davis, new governor Arnold Schwarzenegger rescinded the measure in December, adding fuel to the debate over United States obligations to Mexicans residing in the country illegally.
Mexicans enter the United States at the U.S. immigration station at El Paso,Texas, 1938.The terminal point for the Mexican Central Railroad, El Paso became the national center for recruitment of Mexican labor in the 1930s. (Photo by Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)
On January 7, 2004, President George W. Bush proposed the Temporary Worker Program, which would “match willing foreign workers with willing American employers, when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs.” More controversially, it would provide legal status to temporary workers, even if they were undocumented. Though not specifically mentioning Mexico, the announcement was clearly aimed to tackle “the Mexican problem,” a point highlighted by the presence at the ceremony of the chairman of the Hispanic Alliance for Progress, the president of the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans, the president of the Latin Coalition, and the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. To be granted temporary worker status, the immigrant would be required to have a job and would have to apply for renewal after the initial three-year period was up. Undocumented workers would be required to pay a one-time fee to register, whereas those abroad who applied for legal entry would not be required to pay the fee. Bush also proposed an increase in the annual number of green cards issued by the government. Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox, called the proposal an “important step forward” for Mexican workers.
Mexican immigration to Canada was different from the American experience in both scale and type. Not only were numbers small—there were only 36,225 Mexican immigrants in Canada in 2001—but most Mexican immigrants were from the middle and upper-middle classes and a variety of backgrounds. One group included professionals who generally immigrated for economic improvement and often intended to stay in Canada. Another immigrant group was Mexican Mennonites who had emigrated from Canada to northern Mexico in the 1920s but returned to Canada during the 1980s economic crisis. Some Mexicans, including students, also marry Canadian citizens. Almost all Mexican immigrants are in the country legally. Although up to 5,000 contract workers were admitted each year in the 1990s, they were not formally immigrants and rarely were allowed to overstay their visas. More than half of Mexican immigrants came between 1991 and 2001. Almost one-third of them came between 1996 and 2001.