A Flood of Mexicans
A "Flood" of Mexicans, Chapter 6 of Neighbors—Mexico and the United States (1981)
The hope of an oil flood from Mexico came to the United States at a time of fear that
America was "drowning" in a "flood" of Mexican immigrants. Emotional
cries arose on both sides of the border. A Mexican population expert said in 1977 that
President Carter's ideas on curbing immigration were "unfriendly,"
"unilateral," and insensitive to Mexico's economic situation, which required
emigration as a safety valve. That statement made some Americans gasp. The New York
Times retorted that "obviously" the United States could not be a safety
valve "forever." The recorded history of the heavy legal and illegal movement of
Mexicans into the U.S. from World War II to the 1970s was ransacked by each side, which
hoped to prove the other's broken commitments, ingratitude, inhumanity, greed"
irresponsibility, social and cultural prejudice, and failure to act like a good neighbor.
The issue threatened to become an unmanageable monster.
Numbers and Categories
So, by an irony of history, what once in the nineteenth century seemed an irreversible
tide of Anglos into Mexico, in the twentieth became a great flow in the opposite
How great was the flow? No one knew. There were estimates and guesses, based on
fragmentary, ambiguous, and invented statistics. Those who came with "green
cards," giving them permanent residence with the option of naturalization, were a
minority of the migrants. From 1950 to 1970, some 750,000 Mexicans obtained that visa, an
average of about 37,000 per year. In the 1970s a new law limited that group to a maximum
of 20,000 annually. By the end of the 1970s nearly a million Mexicans had such cards.(1)
Mexicans let in as temporary labor comprised a much bigger group: more than 3 million
from 1942 to 1964. Many "temporary" contract laborers from Mexico stayed
illegally in the States. Some brought families from Mexico. Others married in the United
States. Regardless of the citizenship of the parents, children born in America were
Other Mexicans had tourist or student passes. Hundreds of thousands of others had
"white cards" as "legal visitors," permitting a stay of three days
within twenty-five miles of the border. Others were simply allowed to cross for the day,
shopping or pleasure-bound from one border town to its American sister. But a trip from
Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, across the bridge to Laredo, Texas, often turned into a trip to
find a job in Chicago or Milwaukee. Daily border crossings by Mexicans and Americans
constantly rose. By the late 1960s they averaged more than 300,000 (well over 100 million
a year); in 1975 they averaged 868,000 a day!
Even legal aliens in the U.S. lived under a bewildering variety of statutes. In 1977
the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) stated that there were seventeen types of
alien registration cards held by more than 4.5 million persons. There is no restriction on
non-immigrant visas in nearly thirty categories of visitors, which last from several weeks
to a year. Competition for such visas is swamping American consular offices in many
In the United States, illegal Mexican aliens far outnumbered legal ones. Sometimes they
arrived surreptitiously, often with aid from smugglers. A border of 1,945 miles made it
difficult to control illegal crossings.
How to estimate the Mexicans illegally in the United States? One way was by INS reports
of Mexicans caught illegally here. In the 1950s more than 3 million Mexican aliens were
deported because they were illegally in the United States. INS declared that 1.017 million
were detected in the year ending September 1977 and that that was the highest since 1954,
when 1.092 million were apprehended.
Most of those apprehended were deported. Did that mean that the total pool of illegals
from Mexico was being reduced? Few believed that. Deportees slipped back easily.
Then how many entered illegally each year from Mexico? No one knew. The INS guessed
that 5.6 million Mexicans entered illegally between 1942 and 1967. In 1978 it guessed that
there were "only" one-half million to 800,000 illegal entries a year from
Mexico. Furthermore, on a number of occasions in recent years the INS had declared that it
rounded up a high proportion of illegal entrants from Mexico at the time of crossing or
within three days thereafter. More than a million illegal aliens were apprehended in 1979
by the INS, continuing the steady rise in such arrests. The proportion, alas, was
specified in 1974 by the INS as 20 percent of the illegal Mexican entries it estimated for
that year, and for 1977 the estimate rose only to 25 percent.
Illegal aliens from Mexico sometimes were discussed as part of a general problem, and
then the figures were even scarier. In the 1970s the INS estimated as many as 12 million
and as few as 4 million illegal aliens were in the country. In 1977 its estimate was 8.2
million. But no one really knew.
Census figures were not very helpful. The 1970 enumeration reported 4.5 million
Mexican-Americans, compared with about 1.5 million at the end of the 1930s, when the big
migration was thought to be finished. Even the Census Bureau decided that the 1970 figure
was too low. Other estimates in the 1970s put the Mexican-American population at between
6-5 million and 9.6 million, some portion residing illegally in the country.
The illegal alien issue heated up in 1980 in connection with the decennial census.
States with many undocumented aliens wanted them counted; others did not. At issue was
apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives and the size of federal aid to
states and localities, based on population.
The statistical fog was made denser by figures on Spanish speakers and on persons with
Hispanic surnames, neither group exclusively of Mexican origin. A census estimate in 1978
put "Hispanics" (persons of Hispanic origins, regardless of name) at 12 million,
but some people insisted that if all illegal aliens of Hispanic origins were counted that
the figure would be 19 million. That would put Hispanics within striking distance of the
black minority, because of continuing immigration of Hispanics and because the natural
increase of Hispanics was three times that of blacks. In any event, large numbers were
involved and it made some people queasy to talk about "control" when the
dimensions of the problem were fuzzy.
Not so much law and treaty as economic need propelled and molded the great movement of
Mexicans into the United States in recent decades. That is, Mexican laborers and American
employers showed scant respect for law, treaty, and regulation. They were encouraged by
the feebleness of legislation and enforcement.
Braceros and Wetbacks, 1942-1964
The "temporary" measure for Mexican labor in the United States that went into
effect in 1942 lasted until 1964.(2) That was the bracero
(arms or labor) program, responding to demands of the farm bloc for ample cheap labor
in wartime, when many Americans were in the armed forces.
More than 300,000 agricultural workers, including 219,546 Mexicans, were legally
imported between 1943 and 1947 to work in twenty-four states. California got the bulk of
the alien workers. Texas was not allowed Mexicans under the agrcements because the history
of their treatment in that state offended Mexico. Still, Texas received thousands of
illegal Mexican workers, some brought in with the connivance of U.S. officials.
The braceros, supposedly confined to agricultural jobs, willingly worked long, hard
hours. They caused employers few social or disciplinary problems because their chief
interest was in earning money to improve their lives, preferably in the native village in
Mexico. Employers thought their lack of interest in unions to be healthy and possibly even
Christian. Finally, Mexicans often would leave the vicinity when their job was done,
neither causing police problems nor becoming charges on welfare or charity.
Farmers naturally demanded that the bracero program be extended beyond 1947. Washington
was willing to extend; there was more vehement support for it than opposition. The Mexican
government was willing, also, though it found it politically expedient not to express this
willingness too openly. Bracero remittances helped the balance of payments problem, for
Mexico bought more from the United States than it sold there. The program also gave income
to Mexicans who, at home, lived at the margin of subsistence. Finally, technical skills
some braceros acquired in the U.S. were useful to Mexico.
The braceros affected the population structure of the United States by sometimes hiding
in the big, loosely policed society, becoming permanent rather than temporary labor, and
by having children. In addition, during those years, some 54,000 Mexicans were granted
entry visas to settle in the United States. But the big change in numbers was in the group
of illegal entries: wetbacks (mojados). The always understaffed INS caught 6,189
in 1943, and the number went up each year, to 182,986 in 1947. The total of 372,902
between 1943 and 1947 no doubt was more than matched by undetected wetbacks.
The illegal migrants found jobs in the United States faster than the U.S. Border Patrol
could catch them, while agricultural interests lobbied in Washington for legalization of
what was occurring. After negotiations with Mexico, the agreement of 1942 was extended in
1947 to cover the first half of 1948 and that proved to be but the first of many
extensions. The maximum number of braceros was reached in 1956, when nearly half a million
worked in the United States. The two countries kept making extension agreements, and
deploring abuses while doing little about them.
In 1949 the Border Patrol caught 278,538 illegal entrants and 865,318 in 1953. The
figures did not show repeaters, some of whom went through the revolving door often enough
to be on a first-name basis with the Patrol.
News of the apprehensions put pressure on Washington. The result was Operation Wetback,
created in 1954 and conducted by a new commissioner of the INS, retired General Joseph
Swing. He coordinated the Border Patrol, state and local officials, and the police. The
declared target was all illegal aliens, but operations concentrated on Mexicans, sweeping
through Mexican-American barrios in southwestern cities. Some frightened Mexicans fled
south across the border. In 1954 the agents found 1.075 million Illegal aliens.
Some Mexicans illegally living in the United States were deported together with their
American-born children, who were citizens! The agents increased their practice of stopping
individuals on the streets if they thought they looked "Mexican," asking
identification. That was infuriating for citizens of Mexican-American origin, and some
resisted the officers. Although the INS claimed that it now had the illegal alien problem
under control, the public was not impressed. Critics in both the United States and Mexico
complained of "police-state" methods, and Operation Wetback was abandoned.
Apprehension of aliens was down to 252,605 in 1955.
But the bracero program went on. So did wetback movement, nicely helped by the
continued refusal of Congress to punish employers for hiring aliens illegally in the
country. The general Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 had "dealt with"
the Mexican question by declaring it against the law to help aliens enter or remain
illegally, yet it failed to specify that hiring such illegal aliens was improper! It was
the old story of vigorous special interest groups impressing congressmen more than their
poorly organized and only tepidly concerned critics.
Criticism of the bracero program did increase. The civil rights movement contributed by
focusing on the treatment both of illegal aliens and of Mexican-Americans generally. The
Chicano movement developed objections to the bracero program. Intellectual and church
groups chimed in. Some business groups favored an end to the bracero connection. Some
people claimed that bracero laborers recruited people from their Mexican villages to enter
as wetbacks. So the program was abandoned in 1964. Some small-scale contract labor was
permitted, however, from time to time thereafter.
Changes in immigration law in 1965 and 1968 put the Western Hemisphere into a revised
quota system, with a limit of 120,000. A Dew law, effective January 1, 1977, retained the
total of 120,000 for the Western Hemisphere, with the Mexican share set at 20,000 per
The arguments in recent years over admittance of Mexicans were rendered somewhat
dubious by the fact that cheap labor was provided beyond the national quotas by admitting
refugees, usually to escape war, revolution, and political or religious persecution. This
was in accordance with American tradition, but it also served employers who wanted cheap
labor. There were such acts to admit refugees in 1945, 1948, 1950, and 1953. An act of
1959 to admit refugees from Castro's Cuba resulted ultimately in admission of some
600,000. And in the 1970s refugees were admitted from Vietnam. The U.S. attorney general
was given discretionary authority to grant (in consultation with Congress) immigration
rights to refugees. In June 1978 he authorized issuance to 12,000 East Europeans (mostly
Soviet Jews) and 25,000 Indochinese; in December 1978 another 21,875 Indochinese; and in
early 1979 some 60,000 more Soviet and Indochinese refugees. The policy was a matter of
some dispute, but there were both liberal and conservative groups that wanted to continue
it, in some form, for different reasons.
As the new Western Hemisphere law went into effect in January 1977, there were some
300,000 visa applications on file for Western Hemisphere countries and 60 percent of them
were for Mexicans. Restrictive legislation obviously had its largest impact on Mexico, but
the real result was not restriction of Mexican immigration but its continuation on an
"Chickens" and the Border Patrol
The immigration tide was set in motion in Mexico mostly by word of mouth. Returning
braceros and wetbacks said the patrols were not too serious, entonces vale la pena ("thus,
it is worth the trouble"). Furthermore, they said, a man living in the U.S. for only
one year could, with luck, save more than someone could save in a lifetime in Mexico-even
$1,000 or $2,000. Although not all migrants were lucky or provident, the appeal of America
was as great today as it was for Irish and German immigrants a century earlier. Americans
scarcely realized that the Mexican migrants were moved by that holy "American"
thing, the lust for opportunity. Nor did they realize that nowhere in the world was there
so great a disparity between the average incomes of the populations of neighboring
Returnees to the Mexican villages mostly spoke well of the U.S. In this they were
unlike critics within the permanent Mexican-American community. And the more rabid Mexican
and American critics of United States society simply believed that the villagers could
only view their experience north of the border with disgust.
Remittances of money by workers in the States spoke nearly as loudly in Mexico as the
tales of returnees. Some villages had a tradition of decades of labor across the border
and were periodically half-emptied of working-age men.
Migrants generally went from their villages to the border area and either tried their
luck alone, or found help. Border towns burst their seams with people waiting to cross
into the visible promised land. It was easy to locate, or be located by, a
"coyote"--an agent who directed the would-be migrant "chicken"
("pollo") to a "chicken handler" ("pollero"), who took him
or her across the border.(3)
Prices for the trip into the United States long ran from $200 to $400 a head, but in
the later 1970s rose as high as $600, partly due to general price inflation. It also was
due to improved surveillance in some areas, including the use of searchlights during the
critical hours of darkness and helicopters in daytime to ferret out those who made it
across. Although the price might be high, it was possible to borrow money for a crossing
or to use a more cut-rate, inefficient, and dangerous pollero.
The smugglers generally led their "chickens" across a rough and poorly
patrolled place on the border at night, to trucks hidden on side roads. The problem then
was to quickly hide the chickens in a city barrio or with a conniving farmer. Sometimes
smugglers sold false U.S. documents to the migrants.
Some poor "chickens" were killed by the smugglers out of greed or fright.
Some died of suffocation in car trunks, or succumbed in closed trucks used to obscure the
ravages of hunger, thirst, overcrowding-the ancient weaknesses of a poor population.
Still, illegal entry continued to appeal to indigent Mexicans. Of course, it was the only
chance they had.
Long standing complaints about the INS were emphasized in January 1980 by a series of
newspaper articles in the New York Times on "The Tarnished
Door." Many types of misdeeds were spelled out, committed not only by INS personnel
but by lawyers and others who sell services, sometimes worthless, to foreigners wishing to
enter or legalize their status in the United States.
While these massive and sometimes ugly events were occurring, many Americans continued
to believe that such phenomena only existed in places like Bangladesh and Viet Nam.
During all this, the border watch in the United States remained feeble, as it had been
since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848. In 1964, with legal crossings in the tens
of millions, and under various rules there were 1,790 immigration personnel on the border.
In May 1973, the load of legal crossings having greatly increased and the number of
wetbacks at a high level, immigration personnel totaled a mere 2,155.
Although there were periodic probes of alleged corruption among immigration personnel,
little was found. The problem was that generally the American government, reflecting
public opinion, did not much care. There was little public pressure for stronger laws.
Budgets for patrol and safeguard measures were small. The border was a sieve and a joke.
It was known that some Mexicans illegally residing in the United States went to Mexico for
the holidays, knowing they could return north much as they pleased.
The Border Patrol was generally not popular in the border area because it interfered
with an illegal labor system that workers and employers generally supported. The Patrol
was accused of harshness and suffered the common lower-class fear and distaste for
INS personnel along the Mexican border have achieved among Mexicans an evil reputation
for brutality, corruption, and the sexual abuse of women. But some groups approved of the
patrol, at times-for example, labor organizers when wetbacks served commercial farmers as
strike-breakers. Still, INS personnel claimed they were not properly supported. When an
injunction in 1973 in Los Angeles stopped an INS roundup of illegal aliens, an angry INS
employee said that the United States should either get tough or admit it wanted Mexicans
as "slave labor."
Rise of American Fears
The question of illegal aliens--especially from Mexico--caused more unease as the
estimated numbers mounted. Then in the mid-1970s economic recessions in Mexico and the
United States heightened fears--in the United States of immigration, in Mexico of harsh
U.S. measures to cut it down. Bad U.S. relations with Mexico in the later years of the
term (1970-76) of President Echeverría made discussion of any matters difficult. He had
made himself a spokesman for the Third World and was vociferously critical of the United
States. President José López Portillo (inaugurated December 1976) wanted better
relations but could not afford to appear to surrender to the United States, especially on
immigration or the petroleum issue.
In the 1970s an increased stridence entered discussions in government, the media, and
intellectual and reform groups. Gigantic statistics floated about like bogeymen, altering
their shapes to suit the fancies of partisans. Some voices were raised to turn back the
"invasion" from Mexico. One writer said the country was "chaotically
In 1976 and 1977 some Americans mounted an anti-alien crusade, partly as a backlash
against domestic economic, political, and social conditions that they could not control.
It was a time of disenchantment with government due to high taxes, recollections of the
Vietnam War and Watergate, and the continuing observation of government troubles in New
York City and Cleveland. It always was easy to blame foreigners for problems.
The debate was not stilled by the news in 1976 and thereafter of the great new oil
discoveries in Mexico. Although there was hope that these discoveries would give relief
from the OPEC oil cartel, there was public awareness that concessions to Mexico on
immigration and other issues might be the price.
The debate in the U.S. and in Mexico reached new peaks of emotion after President
Carter on August 4, 1977, delivered to Congress proposals for a new Immigration law. He
called for full amnesty for aliens who had been in the country at least seven years,
giving them permanent resident status and allowing them to bring their families to the
United States. That certainly would reduce the number of illegal aliens, but its other
effects might be equally important.
Carter also proposed that aliens living here illegally before January 1, 1977, but for
less than seven years, be permitted to remain and allowed to work. They could not,
however, bring their families or receive most social services. Whether this would be a
contribution to either immigration control or to justice was not clear.
Carter certainly sounded willing to try to make future control stricter. He asked for
260 more INS inspectors to detect aliens working illegally. He also proposed two thousand
more enforcement officers on the border. Those would be steps in the direction of better
control, although the numbers seemed inadequate.
The most courageous, and potentially effective, measure Carter proposed was penalties
for employers of illegal aliens: fines of $1,000 per alien working illegally and criminal
penalties for employers repeatedly violating the law. Carter also suggested a more
forge-proof Social Security card as a prerequisite for employment. Such measures suggested
In the past had failed in Congress, one identification of tepid public support for control
of illegal immigration.
Carter's proposal brought on a storm of criticism. It was immoral to legalize illegal
activity by granting the amnesties. Such a program would encourage more illegal
immigration from Mexico. It would lead to more forging of rent receipts, Social Security
documents, and other papers to prove past residence in the United States. It was claimed
that 50 million Mexicans would eventually come because amnestied aliens could bring in
their families. The Ku Klux Klan threatened violence to preserve a "white man's
The New York Times (August 8, 1977), editorializing under the title
"Sweeping Back the Illegal Tide," began by finding the Carter proposals a
"creditable" effort and ended by finding them sadly defective. It deplored
"solutions" that concentrated on the largely agricultural areas of the
Southwest. Amnesties might make city problems worse by increasing the demand for social
services to serve the entering families of fully amnestied aliens, about a third of which
cost would come from city and state funds. It might be even worse in the case of the
partially amnestied, because they were ineligible for Medicaid, food stamps, or welfare
but would have to be looked after, possibly at local expense.
Debate of the 1970s
The debate was both economic and political or "spiritual." Of course, in both
countries the two categories overlapped and interacted. Reasonable people favored an
agreement helpful to both countries. But they knew that it had to appear helpful
to simple and sometimes passionate citizens in Mexico and the United States. That might
not be easy to arrange. Possibly, political factors--often emotion-laden--would long
postpone a reasonable economic settlement that included a "solution" to the
Many points of view flourished on both sides of the border. In the U.S., clashes of
opinion on all subjects were so uproarious and incessant that foreigners long had wondered
how the republic endured. And in Mexico, for all the semidictatorship of one party, much
discussion was allowed within and without party and government. The lush variety in both
countries of plausible and exotic opinion, often flowering into incidents of declamation,
defamation, march and countermarch, and petition and prayer seemed limited only by the
passion, knowledge, political ambition, and intellectual and moral zeal of the
participants. It made politicians--mostly a phlegmatic lot--uneasy.
Many economic, semeconomic, pseudoeconomic claims were made. Some were poorly based on
data; some were sheer fantasy.
The basic Mexican view was that the key to migration was the state of the economy in
Mexico. Mexicans would stay home if there were decent jobs for them. Thus, all economic
arguments were peripheral to the need for economic development in Mexico. If the United
States wanted fewer Mexican migrants t would have to help develop the Mexican economy.
That Mexican opinion, became stronger in the 1970s. President López Portillo late in the
decade reiterated the view that Mexico wanted to export goods rather than men. He declared
that more trade with, and more investment from, the United States would benefit both
countries, including private enterprise.
That was a rational position for Mexico to take and probably the best
"answer" to the problem of illegal migration. It was, however, a potentially
risky and expensive prescription that the United States resisted taking. Who could measure
the cost? A few Americans said that admitting Mexican labor was the cheapest form of aid
and that no more should be offered. Some Americans did not even want to offer that.
An issue that long had troubled Americans was that illegal Mexican aliens deprived U.S.
citizens of jobs. That plausible fear was not reduced by the absence of much evidence to
support it. There were not enough data on illegal aliens in jobs, or whether they
displaced citizens; but there was much evidence of Americans refusing the sort of tasks
that illegal aliens did. Responses to job ads in New York City, for example, showed that,
and in 1977 a Virginia apple grower claimed he hired U.S. hands to pick fruit but that
they left during the first day because the work was too hard. Probably it was partly
because of low wages. No doubt citizens would take some of those jobs at higher wages. But
how much higher? And how many of them would pick lettuce or wash dishes at any wage?
It was argued that stiff control of U.S. employers would solve the problem. But would
public opinion support the cost of enforcement? And would employers then move to foreign
countries to find cheap labor?
Some people simply argued that with 6 million Americans unemployed and with 6 million
Mexicans illegally here, just oust the latter and employ the former. As far back as 1959
the New York Times portrayed an Alice-in-the-Wonderland-of-the-Southwest,
wondering how Mexican far-in hands could be imported on the grounds of a "labor
shortage," when 5 million Americans were unemployed. The Red Queen retorted that
Alice did not understand the American agricultural system. Neither did many Americans.
In April 1979 a New York Times editorial said the city had between .5 million
and 1.5 million illegal aliens and that small businesses "relished" the cheap
labor, while City Hall deplored the cost of providing the aliens with services. The paper
found that the cheap labor kept marginal enterprises in operation but probably deprived
some citizens of jobs. It thought "rooting out" aliens might be prohibitively
expensive, but that amnesty for them had "drawbacks." As this mishmash suggests,
they decided that there was "no perfect answer" to the problem. That, the Times
intoned, permitted "forgiveness" of the federal government's slowness to
act, but it was "inexcusable" that it did not aid states and cities
"saddled with illegals." If anything could be made of this whirlpool, it was
that taxpayers in general should pay for the insistence of certain localities on using
large numbers of illegal alien workers. A year later, the New York Times editorialized
in an especially graphic fashion that the United States has a clear immigration policy:
"The Wink." It has restrictive legislation, and deliberately winks at massive
violations. Cheap labor is wanted by many American citizens.
The low wages of illegal aliens caused hot complaint and some debate because the
statistics were imperfect. An INS survey in 1975 found that two-thirds of the illegal
workers interviewed made less than $2.50 an hour, while only 5 percent made more than
$4.50 an hour, then the average hourly wage of U.S. workers. Critics said it was a small
sample and that in any event even at $2.50 an hour Mexicans would be middle class in their
own country, even though they fell below the poverty line in the United States.
Labor spokespeople, on the other hand, said that such wages were so low that they
forced American citizens to use welfare, unwilling to accept such a low standard of
living. Some legal Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the U.S. echoed that argument, being
among those most damaged by illegal alien labor.
A Mexican scholar in 1977 said that Mexicans seldom made much in the United States. It
was partly because they did not stay long--85 percent less than a year, and only 2.7
percent longer than 16 months. He claimed it also was due to the fact that expenses were
much higher in the United States. Other investigators found that Mexicans spent little in
this country. The Mexican further argued that a Mexican rarely made more than $800 during
his stay in the United States. That figure certainly was low, even though many illegal
Mexican aliens suffered income tax and Social Security deductions and their language
difficulty and fear of arrest made it relatively easy for them to be cheated by employers,
stores, banks, and money lenders.
Social service costs for illegal Mexican workers also sparked debate. There was wide
belief in the United States that they constituted a huge charge on the public, forcing up
taxes. One report put the charge at $13 billion a year for the education and welfare of
aliens. One reason California voters in 1977 and 1978 demanded controls on property taxes
was their belief that Mexican aliens received services they did not pay for. In 1976 the
INS estimated that there were more than 8 million foreigners illegally living in the U.S.
and that they were being subsidized to the amount of $200 million. That guess was at least
much less than the frequent vague claims of "enormous" costs.
Serious studies, in fact, indicated that probably no huge charge occurred. Illegal
aliens seldom used social services, especially in the Southwest, where Mexicans were most
numerous. Many illegals are not in United States long enough to qualify for benefits. Many
illegal Mexican aliens were afraid to apply for Social Security benefits or welfare lest
their illegal status be detected. Some were unfamiliar with such systems. Many were
diffident about using English or anything that, brought them in touch with officialdom.
The fact was that by federal, and often state, law illegal aliens were ineligible for
Social Security, food stamps, and unemployment insurance. The sample studies that were
made nearly all showed that few illegal Mexicans got social services. Even more, there was
reason to believe that they paid in more than they got back, and thus subsidized the
social services of others.
Usage of social services may change, however. Suits are being brought before federal
courts in Texas to compel the public schools to accept the children of illegal aliens
without special tuition fees. Recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal
Justice Department support these demands.
On the other hand, whatever the aliens thought about services, they could not avoid
paying income and Social Security taxes, because they were withheld from their wages. Nor
could they escape sales taxes. That made unsurprising the finding of a sample study in
1976 that 77 percent of illegals paid Social Security taxes and 73 percent paid federal
income tax, but that only 4 percent had children in school, and one half of one percent
received welfare, The young and predominantly male illegal aliens would receive little
from the major types of social service since they did not qualify for old age assistance,
disability payments, being female heads of households, or dependent, poor children.
Mexican alien wages remitted to Mexico irritated some Americans who were weak in
economics but knew what they disliked. It seemed likely that by the late 1950s such
remittances were possibly $100 million a year and comprised Mexico's third largest source
of foreign exchange. By the 1970s remittances were often stated at well over $200 million
annually. Mexican nationalists disputed the estimates as too high. In any event, there was
all-too-little discussion of whether or not this represented "loss" to the
United States, or a bargain price for useful labor.
The economic argument over Mexican immigrants (legal or illegal) seldom was attacked in
toto. One problem was that the data were poor, so that it was difficult to know how much
the cheap labor lowered prices. It was also hard to set that off against welfare costs for
legal labor that was driven (if it was) into unemployment. The largest deficiency in the
discussion was, perhaps, the unwillingness to admit that the highly educated American
population resisted taking menial jobs. Thus, the country "needed"--certainly
insisted on--immigrants to wash dishes, shine shoes, and pick lettuce. Although there was
some recognition of that, it was not a subject that was likely to become popular.
A major Mexican argument was that if many of its migrant citizens were dumped back
across the border there would be massive social disorders and an economic collapse, which
would affect the United States. Some Mexican employers also thought, erroneously, that
their payroll was raised by emigration. Americans who said that an effective border
control would be too costly did not bother to balance cost against benefits. In the late
1970s some demographic groups in the United States developed the line that big illegal
immigration might cancel the benefits of declining fertility and zero population growth.
Their simplistic arguments for the economic benefits of such zero growth were not
convincing. Neither was much of the rest of the debate on the economic effects of illegal
The immigration issue stimulated statements directed to political, emotional, even
spiritual, needs or problems. Some were vague, others vituperative. A Mexican in May 1977,
objecting to Carter's plans on immigration, said the president was "myopic" and
making "unilateral decisions on our economy." In August 1977 the U.S. secretary
of labor told the New York Times that while illegal aliens worked
cheaply, their children might agitate for better living conditions and become the
"civil rights problem of the 1980s." One wondered whether he objected equally to
better living conditions and to civil rights.
Much comment was nationalistic or xenophobic or both. There were objections by Mexicans
when their border officials increased cooperation with their U.S. counterparts. Mexicans
sometimes claimed that dependence on the earnings of migrants promoted economic dependence
on the United States. Statements as innocent of economic knowledge as that could only be
labeled "political." Mexicans objected to Mexican performance of
"demeaning" jobs in the United States as being a violation of Mexican
"dignity." The implication that being unemployed in Mexico was more dignified
was sheer romantic nationalism. There was Mexican objection to migration to live amid U.S.
racial and cultural discrimination. It was said that there was no welcome wagon (as used
in middle class districts of the United States) for Mexicans. That was true.
United States nationalism on the issue often was warm, too, with a revival of nativist
emotion. There were fears of "cultural degeneration" and racial mixture. Were
Mexicans assimilable? Vague flapdoodle said aliens sapped the national strength. Why
didn't Mexican migrants learn English as earlier stocks did? Much of it was like the
litany recited against immigrants in the 1840s and '50s and after World War I.
There also were Mexican objections to migration as contaminating. The immoral life of
the United States would corrupt Mexicans. Good Catholics would become Protestants. (In
fact, neither outcome was widely observed among Mexican-Americans.) lt was claimed that
the absence of the father when he went north disrupted family life. That rather
underplayed the family deprivations of ordinary Mexican village life. A few Mexicans
complained that returned migrants were "restless"--that is, harder to control.
George Meany, former chief of the AFL-CIO, in 1977 accused a senator of trying to
reestablish a bracero program for his own personal gain. That was a sample of the heat the
issue aroused. Even in the absence of a new bracero program, what existed promoted
frequent rows. If a farmer tried "properly" and failed to find U.S. citizens to
work his fields, the Labor Department could certify the use of foreigners. With that, the
INS could issue visas for temporary work. Such action, following suggested approval by
President Carter, brought 809 Mexicans in 1977 to work farms near Presidio, Texas.
Protests came at once from the Labor Department and organized labor, with claims that
American workers were available and doubts that the farmers would treat the Mexicans
Law Enforcement Agencies and Mexican-Americans
So how to stop illegal immigration? The obvious methods were not to let people in or to
deny them jobs. The latter meant penalizing employers who used aliens illegally in the
country. For years, that met effective opposition. Bills introduced to that end failed in
the Congress in 1973. President Carter's proposal in 1977 to punish employers on those
lines did find some support from labor unions. And late in the year, public opinion polls
showed that a majority of the population favored such a measure. When and if that could be
translated into a congressional majority was not certain.
A national identity card, it long had been realized, would be useful for alien control,
including application for jobs. But the idea always met the charge that identity cards
were unAmerican and a step toward a police state. There were, however, some congressmen in
the 1970s who favored the idea. Opponents claimed it would be difficult to make
forge-proof cards yet were not interested to know that France and Germany managed to do
so. They pointed, rather, at such indications as the seizure in Los Angeles in 1973 of
60,000 counterfeit alien registration cards of high quality.
In 1977 a cabinet committee refused to approve the idea of forge-proof Social Security
cards for national identity purposes. They claimed it would be expensive, at an estimated
$500 million, and that it might violate the civil liberties of both aliens and citizens.
President Carter did endorse the idea of such cards in 1977, but there were no signs that
Congress soon would agree with him. Nevertheless, the possibility of such cards being used
seemed greater than a few years earlier.
Some other control measures were suggested, and sometimes tried, that apparently would
get little support as panaceas:
Reliance on roundups to locate aliens illegally in the country was unlikely because
they had a bad press, often with good reason. That was the case in November 1976 when an
ill-advised search at a soccer game in Washington, D.C., led to panic as people fled, some
even jumping into the Tidal Basin. That was an unedifying sight in front of the statue of
In the late 1970s a vigilante group in Southern California tried to "aid" in
keeping out Mexicans. But the appeal of vigilante methods seemed to be confined to a
It was suggested that the Constitution be amended to discourage pregnant foreign women
from slipping across the border to have their children, which qualified the mother for
permanent residence in the U.S. One "reform" suggestion was that only when both
parents were U.S. citizens would a child receive citizenship at birth. Such ideas raised
There were suggestions (all unofficial) that the problem would be eased if Mexico
slowed its population growth. The number of enemies that notion could boast was so obvious
that it never rose above a murmur.
Firmer physical controls at the border always had some support. Congress had a long
record, however, of resisting the idea of a really large number of border guards. It did
permit a bit of fencing, searchlights, radar, infrared scopes, electronic ground sensors,
dogs, and dragstrips that airplanes overflew in the morning to spy the tracks of passers
in the night. Those things were never used enough to affect total illegal entry.
Furthermore, many actual or suggested increases of physical control measures brought
objections from Mexico that it was being singled out for insulting and sometimes inhuman
attentions. Sometimes such complaints in Mexico aroused considerable nationalist clamor.
Thus, a Mexico City leftist magazine in February 1978 thought it worthwhile to say that
the United States used on-the-border detection devices tried out in Vietnam, and efficient
arms for "the hunting of man."
There also were increasing objections from civil libertarians in the United States to
many of the methods tried or suggested for controlling illegal immigration from Mexico.
The American Civil Liberties Union in 1973 obtained an injunction to stop INS raids on
Mexican-American-area hotels, apartment buildings, and places of work, seizing aliens and
sending them to the border for deportation. The ACLU charged that among the deportees were
United States citizens. Objections to that sort of axe-work by public officials went back
to the 1930s and earlier. But now the civil rights movement was stronger than ever before.
A related incident in 1977 further indicated that government could not safely resort to
bludgeon methods. A court action brought government admission that it had improperly
subtracted from regular Western Hemisphere immigration quotas the 145,000 Cuban refugees
it gave priority for entry between 1969 and 1971. They should have been admitted under the
special legislation existing for Cuban refugees, and another 145,000 admitted from other
countries of the Western Hemisphere should have been admitted. Appointed officials had, in
effect, rewritten the immigration law. The "error" was what civil libertarians
considered an all-too typical arbitrary decision by bureaucrats--in this case, those in
the State Department and INS.
All this helped explain the violent opposition to fences and walls for the border. An
INS announcement in 1977 that the twenty-seven miles of fence in the San Diego and El Paso
areas would be extended six miles led to cries by nationalists in Mexico that the fence
would run from coast to coast. It touched off rumors-that is, inventions-that the U.S. Air
Force would be used against migrants. Predictably, Mexicans also said it constituted U.S.
pressure to get Mexican oil cheaply, thus was "diplomatic blackmail." Newspapers
talked about the "tortilla curtain" and a "Berlin Wall."
Any fence extension was likely to cause some grumbling, but the proposal of 1977
included sharp metal spikes at the top that were denounced as cruel. The INS, retreating
from this, did not abandon foolishness completely but substituted barbed wire. It later
fell from that position in the face of more blasts of criticism. A congressman called the
original fence proposal "bigoted" and "insane." Stupid,"
"inept," and "insensitive" would have been more accurate.
Even existing fences often don't help. The border section between San Diego and Tijuana
continues to be the target for the most massive and uncontrolled movement from Mexico to
the United States. INS personnel there call it the "combat zone." The
irresistible pressure of poor Mexicans wanting to enter the rich labor market of
California simply flattens chain link fences that pretend to interfere.
Over the years there were suggestions for a huge wall along the entire border, possibly
patrolled by the army, with orders to shoot illegal entrants. There was little support for
such drastic measures.
All this reflected the obvious fact that the United States could very severely restrict
crossings of the Mexican border if it took strong physical measures. But Americans were
not ready for a wall. Would some future crisis make a wall popular?
At the least, it could be hoped that Americans would realize that there was no cheap or
easy answer to the problem of illegal immigration from Mexico.
A wall, alas, not only would poison relations with Mexico but it might merely shift the
problem of illegal entry from the Mexican border to other areas. Mexicans would still come
in some numbers, by sea and air, over and around the wall. More importantly, perhaps,
immigrants would come in increasing numbers from other countries.
For some years it had been clear that the large majority of illegal aliens apprehended
in the United States were Mexican, mostly caught in the Southwest. Surveillance in the
cities of the East was less effective. The question was: Could it be made much more
effective in urban areas at an affordable price and with methods the American public would
A 1976 government report showed that most illegal aliens came from fifteen countries:
Mexico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, the
Philippines, Korea, Thailand, Greece, India, Iran, and Nigeria. The pressures to emigrate
from those poor countries would not soon disappear.
As with the illegal importing of drugs, if Americans did not want to stop using illegal
alien labor, a wall of brass enclosing the entire country would not keep out needy
There was a final irony. Many Americans thought that Mexicans lusted for the good life
in "God's Country." They imagined the migrants wanted to stay and would be
forever an unassimilable lump in the society.
Not so. The evidence indicated that most of the illegal entrants from Mexico preferred
to remain only temporarily in the United States. It seemed likely that if Mexico were
prosperous, few Mexicans would settle in the States, or even work there temporarily.
On the other hand, it appeared that most non-Mexican illegal aliens preferred to remain
in the United States, mostly in cities. Official and private surveys supported that
conclusion. Thus, although Mexican laborers often spoke well of the United States, they
thought of it as a good place to visit; but they did not want to live there. They did not
want to become "Chicanos."
1. About 3 million persons of other nationalities also had such
2. See chapter 4 for the original agreement.
3. Smugglers of people were called pasadores and enganchadores.
4. See chapters 8 and 9 for more comments on the problem of illegal Mexicans in the United States.