Deporting Mexicans

Gary Gerstle explores the forgotten history of Mexican deportations from the southern United States in the 1930's and asks how it fits into the longer story of US immigration policy up until today. From open borders to 'Build That Wall': what's next?


Talking Points: 


Immigrant labour has always been vital to U.S. economic development.

  • The United States presented itself as being a different kind of society. This was partially ideological, and partially a labour imperative.


In the early 20th century, the labour imperative became less acute. 

  • America still thought of itself as a Protestant society.
  • In this period, the United States implemented draconian immigration restrictions, including racialized quotas.
  • The fear of revolutionary organized labour also affected quotas. The Jews and the Italians were targeted due to anxiety over communism and anarchism.


Immigration from Mexico has always been a slightly different story.

  • The restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s excluded the western hemisphere. Mexicans were still coming in large numbers because agricultural corporate interests needed Mexican migrant labour. 
  • But because this was land-based immigration, there was more flow back and forth. Much of this migration was temporary, or at least the powers that be thought that it could be.


In the 1930s, over 500,000 Mexicans were deported, mostly by state and local governments.

  • This was mass expulsion with little due process.
  • The idea was that Meixcan labour was driving down wages; but the forces at work were much greater than immigration, and deportation didn’t solve the agricultural crisis.


The ongoing need for labour led to the creation of the first guest workers’ program in the 1940s (the Bracero Program). 

  • The United States was still treating Mexico as a controllable surplus labour pool, but there has always been seepage.
  • In the 1960s, the immigration system was overhauled again to make things more egalitarian: but this disadvantaged Mexicans.
  • There’s another key overhaul in the 1980s to allow for the right to asylum. If Trumpism continues, these laws will likely be reversed.


Further Learning: 


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