Mexican Immigration 101

Workers have been crossing north to the U.S. for more than a century. It wasn't always so controversial

Editor's Rating:

The Good: A useful guide to the history of labor exchange between the U.S. and Mexico.

The Bad: Clearly, the former Foreign Minister is looking for a measure of personal vindication.

The Bottom Line: A straightforward, sometimes surprising history.

Ex-Mex: From Migrants to Immigrantsby Jorge G. CastañedaNew Press; 222pp; $25.95

Just four days before jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center, President George W. Bush donned cowboy boots and a tux to welcome new Mexican President Vicente Fox to a lavish White House dinner featuring gourmet Tex-Mex food. A joint session of Congress gave a standing ovation to Fox, the victor in Mexico's first truly democratic elections after seven decades of one-party rule. A gentleman rancher like Bush, Fox seemed to be a leader with whom Washington could finally do business. And he had a big proposition the Bush Administration seemed remarkably willing to consider: comprehensive immigration reform that would give legal status to millions of Mexicans laboring illegally in the U.S. while creating a temporary worker's visa for hundreds of thousands more. It was nearly everything Mexico wanted, and Fox's Foreign Minister, Jorge Castañeda, a left-leaning New York University professor of political science, cockily described the deal as "the whole enchilada."

Within days of September 11, Mexico was back to rice and beans. Although Fox staked the rest of his six-year presidency on winning an immigration deal, it never happened. Castañeda left the government in 2003 and returned to NYU, where he continued to follow U.S. debate over what to do about the millions of undocumented migrants. Fence off the border? Issue driver's licenses? Allow migrant children to pay in-state tuition—or deport them?

In Castañeda's view, Americans are confused, often misled, and in need of a primer on Mexican migration. So he wrote Ex Mex: From Migrants to Immigrants, a straightforward, useful guide to the two countries' complex and sometimes surprising history of labor exchange. While Castañeda, who ran unsuccessfully for President in 2006, clearly wants to set the record straight on his role in pushing for the "whole enchilada," the book is remarkably free of the often abrasive rhetoric in which he engages elsewhere.

Castañeda notes that Mexicans have been crossing the border for more than a century, often legally. Under the World War II-era bracero program, the U.S. relied on Mexicans as temporary workers to fill in for G.I.s fighting abroad. From 1942 through 1964, some 4.2 million Mexicans routinely worked for six months in the U.S., then returned to their families. In 1986 immigration reform under Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to some 3 million undocumented Mexicans. And during periods of economic crisis in Mexico and economic expansion in the U.S. in the '90s, immigration rose steadily until the Clinton Administration cracked down on illegal border crossings, even as fast-growing U.S. businesses demanded more labor. Immigration circularity, as the back-and-forth pattern became known, ground to a halt. Instead of going home, many migrants paid smugglers to sneak in their families. In 1998, Mexico made dual citizenship legal, paving the way for migrants to become U.S. citizens. Today around 11 million Mexicans live in the U.S.—11% of Mexico's population. Last year they sent home $23 billion, the country's second-largest source of foreign revenue after oil exports.

Castañeda notes U.S. sentiment on migration from Mexico tends to turn negative during economic slowdowns, as is the case now. Immigrants may provide vital low-cost labor, but anti-immigration movements and employment clampdowns are back. Politicians whose positions change with the political winds shouldn't be surprised, Castañeda says, when Mexicans don't take seriously "repeated U.S. professions of faith in the sacred inviolability of the law."

Clearly, immigration has polarized the U.S. Both parties' Presidential candidates are struggling to stake out positions on border control even as they worry about alienating Hispanic voters, the nation's largest minority. It's no wonder that legislators failed to reach agreement this year on a bipartisan immigration-reform proposal and that reform faces an uncertain future even under a new U.S. Administration. Yet as Castañeda observes: "If over a century of experience means anything, it shows that Mexicans will continue to go north, legally or not, safely or not, with circularity or without it, almost regardless of what the United States does."

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