Migrations within the Americas
Immigration from its closest neighbors, the Americas and the Caribbean, was the last target for restriction by the United States. Because of national concern from the U.S. to maintain access to low-wage workers and the lived realities of shared political and economic spaces, transborder communities made legal immigration restrictions detrimental and unnecessary to enforce. Canadians circulated with the greatest frequency, and quite invisibly, as persons considered to be the most capable of becoming Americans. Through the 1950s, the majority of Americans who migrated to the United States hailed from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.
Despite the frequency of their border crossings, these migrants and immigrants were treated differently according to U.S. law. For example, because Puerto Ricans held, and continue to hold, U.S. passports they could travel freely to the U.S. through networks for work and family reunification. On the other hand, Mexicans were imagined to be nonimmigrants who would not settle permanently but were expected to be low-wage workers. Evidence of these ideologies are illustrated through large-scale removal campaigns (1929-1936) and Operation Wetback (1953-1954), which expelled Mexican immigrants and U.S. born citizens of Mexican descent, and the Bracero Program (1943-64) which encouraged Mexican workers to accept short-term labor-contracts as farmworkers. Cubans, following Castro’s Revolution, and Dominicans, after the rise of Trujillo, were understood as political refugees who sought asylum in the midst of the Cold War. As a result, immigration policy that benefitted paths to citizenship for these immigrants emerged during the 1960s.
It was not until the 1965 Immigration Act that countries in the western hemisphere, including the Caribbean, became subject to numeric immigration caps. [graph of immigration 1821-2000] However, because enforcement procedures and goals had developed to handle immigration from more distant countries in Europe or Asia, the goal of securing the U.S.’s borders from those who share them produced intractable enforcement problems and a burgeoning population of unauthorized immigrants. Apart from their unauthorized residence, this population is largely employed, in mixed-status families, and paying taxes.
Since the 1980s, intensifying imbalances in economic and political conditions, facilitated by improved access to information and transportation, have increased motives and ability to migrate to the United States from more Caribbean and Central and South American countries. The most pressing priorities for immigration reform are to resolve the contradictions between the economic needs of the U.S. economy for workers from neighboring countries, the difficulty of enforcing current immigration policies, and resolving the status of the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants who constitute a permanent class of persons with lesser rights and status.
Proximity complicates how we understand migration flows and international relations between the United States and its closest neighbors. Long, shared land borders, short ocean crossings, and accessibility by road and rail foster constant mobility and shared communities regardless of the imposition of national boundaries and construction of walls. For such transborder communities, crossings to and from the United States are often aspects of everyday life, not one-way immigration involving permanent resettlement and claiming a new national identity and belonging.
The earliest Americans—Native Americans and Mexicans—became part of the United States not by immigration but by incorporation as Europeans claimed the thirteen colonies and then conquered or purchased lands to the west and south. By the 1840s, the United States had physically expanded to reach the Pacific, bringing under its authority more diverse peoples in far greater numbers than the Europeans who had dominated the original thirteen colonies. These territorial and demographic changes challenged the Declaration of Independence’s assertion “that all men are created equal” in a democratic republic that had been established by European American men.
The 1790 Nationality Act set forth this conception of persons suitable for citizenship by limiting the kinds of immigrants who could gain citizenship through the legal process of naturalization to “free white persons,” or white, male property owners. This racial, gendered, and classist conception of fitness for U.S. citizenship shaped immigration restrictions and enforcement for the centuries following, provoking deeply divisive struggles over what kinds of persons should be admitted into the United States, in what numbers, and what rights should be accorded to persons targeted for legal exclusion from entry.
Among the earliest targets for immigration restriction were nonwhite neighbors. Congress passed a ban on immigration by “negroes” in 1803 in response to the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) which had ended slavery there, leading to fears in several southern states that free blacks might migrate to the United States. In contrast, the United States chose to absorb about 80,000 Mexicans when it fought the U.S.-Mexico War to acquire a vast expanse of formerly Spanish territory reaching from Texas to California. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) managed the resident population by conferring citizenship on Mexicans choosing to remain under U.S. authority but without defining them as “white.” Categorized as non-whites, Mexican claims to citizenship remained tenuous and often failed to secure their access to voting, protection from deportation, and rights to hold property. For example, within three decades of California gaining U.S. statehood, Mexican property ownership and population shrank with the growing presence of Euro Americans.
Despite proximity, Mexican migration to the United States remained at low levels until the economic development policies of the Porfirio Diaz regime (1876-1910) and the revolution that followed (1910-1920) led over a million Mexicans to migrate to the borderland states, tripling the size of cities such as San Antonio, Los Angeles, and El Paso. The extension of roads and railroads linking the United States and Mexico made travel easier even as employment in the U.S.’s expansive commercial agricultural and industrial complexes provided incentives to migrate northward. Many Mexicans expected to eventually return to Mexico but in the meanwhile established businesses, cultural organizations, and published newspapers in the United States. Despite initial intentions, some sank roots in the United States, producing a mixed population of Mexican Americans with some families extending back several generations mingling with newer influxes of immigrants.
Puerto Rico and Cuba came within the orbit of U.S. influence with its victory in the Spanish American War in 1898, along with the Philippines. All these territories became sources of circulating workers for the U.S. economy, particularly after the banning of Asian labor immigration. In the case of these new overseas territories, the Supreme Court ruled in the Insular Cases (1901) that the Constitution did not necessarily “follow the flag” and that the United States need not confer citizenship onto residents of its new territories. Cuba gained its independence but the United States reserved the right to intervene in Cuban affairs through the Platt amendment (1902-1934). Puerto Ricans gained formal U.S. citizenship with the 1917 Jones Act. They have rights to travel freely, are eligible to serve in the U.S. military, but only have nonvoting representation in Congress. Filipinos became U.S. nationals who could travel and serve in the U.S. military, but not hold citizenship.
The U.S. restructuring of the Puerto Rican economy to commercial agriculture resulted in large populations of workers who were in need of employment elsewhere for several months each year. Puerto Ricans, along with Cubans and Dominican Republicans, began circulating through the United States for seasonal work. By 1920, 45 U.S. states had Puerto Rican residents who worked in agriculture, garment and cigar factories, shipyards and docks, construction and maintenance crews. Cubans of all classes also circulated through the United States with and estimated 130,000 immigrating before 1959. By 1920, Mexico and the Philippines had become major suppliers of transient agricultural workers.
Proximity inevitably produced shared communities and collaborations despite the lines drawn by national borders, across which flourished activities requiring more forms of circular migration such as commerce, education, agriculture, tourism, access to a multitude of services and goods, contacts between family and friends, and options both for seeking employment and recruiting employees. Nonetheless, the United States sought to manage crossings administratively and established the Border Patrol in 1924. Both the northern and southern borders remained porous with uneven enforcement of policies concerning matters such as temporary worker programs, the rights of U.S.-born Mexican American citizens, and the steady flux of everyday activities circulating through shared spaces.
Regarded as transient laborers and residents, during the 1920s and 1930s Mexican Americans and other Latinos were the first to be let go from jobs and were not allowed access to social service programs, especially during the Great Depression. Over half a million Mexican ancestry persons are believed to have been repatriated or deported during this era, many of whom were U.S. citizens and U.S. born children and spouses of Mexican nationals.
World War II and military service transformed the possibilities of integration for Latinos. Labor shortages meant that high-paying, high prestige skilled jobs in factories and war industries became available to resident Latinos and Latinas who in turn could attain higher living standards through the purchase of homes, automobiles, and consumer goods while acquiring marketable skills for after the war. The Bracero Program (1943-1964) recruited Mexican male workers to work in U.S. agriculture on three-year contracts. About three quarters of a million Latinos, mostly of Mexican origin, enlisted or were drafted into the armed forces and thereby gained a vision of participation as full citizens while traveling abroad in unsegregated settings. Like African American military personnel, they returned to face former discriminatory conditions and also started waging civil rights campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s to combat segregation in schools, juries, residential neighborhoods, and employment, often through turn-out-the-vote mobilizations. Puerto Ricans also organized but around issues such as educational access, language and vocational training, and Puerto Rican independence. The Puerto Rican population boomed with the onset of cheap air travel, primarily to New York City. Over 1 million had moved to the United States by 1960, mostly to New York City, producing the name “Nuyoricans” and inspiring the Broadway musical and Hollywood movie, “West Side Story.”
Before 1965, migrations within the Americas were not subject to quantitative limits or bans, unlike immigration from all other parts of the world. Economic interdependence and proximity as neighbors and concerns for friendly relations mandated that immigration remain unrestricted even though Mexicans and other central and south Americans faced many barriers to integrating as equals and citizens, a quandary that remains at the heart of immigration struggles today.
In 1965, Congress legislated immigration restrictions that treated all peoples of the world with surface uniformity. Shedding prior emphasis on race and national origins, the 1965 Hart-Celler Act enacted a system of preferences for family reunification, employment, and refugees. [Pathways to legal citizenship since 1965] It designated equal 20,000 annual caps for eastern hemisphere countries but for the first time imposed numeric limits on immigration within the western hemisphere. These terms have facilitated migration from previously barred areas such as Asia and Africa, predominantly through the employment and refugee preferences. Such conditions permitted pioneering immigrants from countries such as Brazil, Venezuela, Paraguay, and Colombia to establish themselves and bring over family members.
Asians and Latin Americans immigrated at the highest levels but the national caps adversely affected the latter by making illegal what had been commonplace and circular migrations by millions of America’s neighbors. Abruptly Latin Americans and Canadians accustomed to routine border crossings for employment, visits to family and friends, business, and tourism, became subject to quantitative restrictions that compelled many to make choices about remaining permanently on one side of the border. Consequently, the problem of unauthorized immigration has ballooned, as the immigration quotas imposed on the U.S.’s immediate neighbors fall the farthest short of accommodating migrants whose everyday lives, business, and employment transect the long shared borders.
Immigration increased from countries further south under the political and economic instability fostered by the global cold war. Revolutions, insurgencies, counter insurgencies, and economic programs that benefited small elites propelled migration from countries, such as Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Guatemala, and Haiti. U.S. intervention into Latin American affairs, sometimes in support of abusive dictatorships, greatly complicated these situations and shaped its reception of refugees and asylum seekers. Migrants whose movements resonated with U.S. political agendas, especially those who were anti-communist, were far more likely to receive welcome and support from the United States.
Cubans received the best treatment as highly sympathetic refugees fleeing Castro’s revolution in 1959. The Cuban population in the United States grew almost six-fold within a decade, from 79,000 in 1960 to 439,000 in 1970 through parole and admission as refugees. The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act provided the the parolees citizenship and unprecedented levels of help with job training and other adjustment measures. It enacted the “wet foot, dry foot” policy whereby any Cuban who reached U.S. territorial waters would be admitted and given permanent residency rights. The first wave of Cuban refugee arrivals consisted of elites, contributing to the visibility of Cubans as having the highest income and educational levels among Latinos.
In contrast, Chileans fleeing an abusive dictatorship anti dictator migrants had to struggle to gain refugee resettlement in the United States, as did Argentinians and Salvadorans seeking stability and safety. Guatemalans and Nicaraguans fled civil wars during the 1980s but were deemed not to qualify as refugees according to the 1980 Refugee Act which specified individual persecution as its standards. Instead, the federal government characterized them as economic refugees. U.S. involvement in funding their repressive governments and fueling their domestic conflicts spurred widespread protests of these refugee policies as a way to protest U.S. foreign policy. The modern sanctuary movement emerged from these campaigns on behalf of Guatemalans and Nicaraguans and primarily sought the provision of temporary protected status so that they could remain legally in the United States until conditions improved at home. A series of judicial rulings carved out greater consideration and better conditions for asylum seekers, including the American Baptist Churches decision (1991) which limited the time asylum seekers could be held in detention. The Immigration Act of 1990 provided for Temporary Protected Status and the 1997 Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA) offered suspension of deportation to Nicaraguans and other Central Americans meeting certain requirements.
Steadily rising levels of illegal immigration and unauthorized residency immigration after 1965 led Congress to attempt to resolve the growing problem by passing the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA, 1986) which gave amnesty to 1.6 million long-term residents of the United States with clean records who were allowed to regularize their status. In parallel, funding for border control increased. These measures did not end illegal immigration, however, with enormous economic disparities and politically unstable conditions in many Latin American nations motivating ongoing unauthorized border crossings in response to readily available employment and safety in the United States. Illegal entry, however, is a lifetime sentence to second-class status because it bars access to citizenship by naturalization permanently, unless Congress provides asylum or legislative relief. Unauthorized immigrants remain vulnerable to detention and deportation while having lesser rights and status, presenting a significant problem for a democratic nation like the United States.
Since 1986, federal resources committed to border enforcement have increased steadily, as have deportations. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (1996) increased penalties and authorized construction of barriers along the border with Mexico. The attacks of 9-11 further heightened motivations to control entries into the United States leading to the consolidation and expansion of immigration enforcement agencies into the Department of Homeland Security. Militarization of border policing and handling of unauthorized immigration has intensified even though illegal entry is formally a civil, not criminal, violation. Economic and political pressures continue to drive unauthorized migration although the economic depression of 2008-2011 led numbers to drop. The United States is now home to about 11 million unauthorized immigrants who are primarily central and south American, many of whom live in mixed status families, are employed in the United States, pay taxes, and are established members of their communities. The United States has yet to reach consensus about an effective, and humane, process for managing this aspect of relations with its closest neighbors.
For more discussion, see Maria Cristina Garcia, “Latino Immigration,” in Ron Bayor, ed., Oxford Handbook on American Immigration History (Oxford University Press: 2015).
Read Pablo Neruda’s poem “United Fruit Company”
Have students identify people/companies they recognize
Briefly discuss why the people/companies students recognize might be mentioned in the poem (i.e. how much do students understand the context?)
Transition: Relationships between the U.S. and Latin American countries stretch farther back historically and more deeply than we often learn about in school. These relationships sometimes shape migration patterns throughout the Americas.
In groups, have students choose one of the laws pertaining to migrations in the Americas (option: students can pick a current event around migrations within the Americas). Each group will research the historical context of their chosen law or policy in both the U.S. and the Latin American country most affected.
Using My Maps (through google maps), create a classroom map where each group will use a pin and upload text and images that:
- Summarize the relationship between the U.S. and their chosen country.
- Analyzes the possible connections to migrations between the two as well as the chosen U.S. immigration policy/law.
Jigsaw new groups so that each student in new groups will be able to share research about a different law/policy/country. Each new group will discuss and prepare to share out a common theme.
Resources for researching U.S. and Latin American connections:
Poster of US interventions in Latin American
This was the first law to define eligibility for citizenship by naturalization and establish standards and procedures by which immigrants became US citizens. In this early version, Congress limited this important right to “free white persons.”
The Haitian revolution led Congress to ban immigration by free blacks to contain anti-slavery campaigners.
In the settlement of the Mexican-American War, this treaty formalized the United States' annexation of a major portion of northern Mexico, El Norte, and conferred citizenship on Mexicans choosing to remain in the territory.
Ratified in 1868 to secure equal treatment for African Americans after the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed birthright citizenship for all persons born in the United States, equal protections, and due process for all legal residents.
This act enacted U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans after the United States acquired the island as an incorporated territory in 1898.
To further limit immigration, this law established extended "national origins" quotas, a highly restrictive and quantitatively discriminatory system. The quota system would remain the primary means of determining immigrants' admissibility to the United States until 1965.
Immigration within the American hemisphere remained uncapped until 1965; however, in 1924 Congress authorized funding for the Border Patrol to regulate crossings occurring between immigration stations.
During the economic and political crises of the 1920s and 1930s, the Border Patrol launched several campaigns to detain Mexicans, including some U.S.-born citizens, and expel them across the border.
Blease's Law criminalized crossing the border outside an official port of entry. Primarily designed to restrict Mexican immigration, the law made “unlawfully entering the country” a misdemeanor and returning after a deportation a felony.
During World War II, the U.S. government negotiated with the Mexican government to recruit Mexican workers, all men and without their families, to work on short-term contracts on farms and in other war industries. After the war, the program continued in agriculture until 1964.
Even as the bracero program continued to recruit temporary workers, the Immigration Bureau enacted these round ups and claimed to have deported one million Mexicans.
The parole authority granted the attorney-general in the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act was used three times to aid refugees fleeing communism. To avoid public outcry, each use of parole was accompanied by extensive publicity campaigns to promote acceptance.
This law set the main principles for immigration regulation still enforced today. It applied a system of preferences for family reunification (75 percent), employment (20 percent), and refugees (5 percent) and for the first time capped immigration within the Americas.
After Fidel Castro's revolution, anti-communist Cubans received preferential immigration conditions because they came from a historically close U.S. neighbor and ally. This law provided them permanent status and resources to help adjustment to life in the U.S.
The UNHCR issued this protocol in 1967 to implement the goals of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which set forth the key principle of refoulement, or that persons in flight from persecution and danger cannot be forced to return to places of danger.
The 1976 Amendments extended to the Western Hemisphere a per country ceiling of 20,000 and a modified preference system for arrivals. In 1978, the law was further amended to establish a single worldwide annual ceiling of 290,000.
This Supreme Court case ruled that public school districts cannot constitutionally refuse admission to unauthorized immigrant children because the harmful effects to the public outweighed the cost savings.
Seeking to resolve the growing problem of unauthorized immigration, Congress acted through bipartisan agreement to a three-pronged solution that provided amnesty for established residents, greater border enforcement, and enhanced requirements of employers.
The regular denial of asylum applications from Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing violence in their homelands during the 1980s led to this legal challenge which forced changes in U.S. standards and procedure for handling such cases.
Building on the steps taken with IRCA in 1986, IIRIRA further empowered federal authorities to enforce immigration restrictions by adding resources for border policing and for verification of employment credentials.
The Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA) allowed certain El Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans who had fled violence and poverty in their homelands in the 1980s to file for asylum and remain in the United States.
Under the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (HRIFA), enacted by Congress on Oct. 21, 1998, certain nationals of Haiti who had been residing in the United States could become legal permanent residents.
This Supreme Court case ruled that immigration authorities cannot indefinitely detain aliens ordered deported, but for whom no destination can be arranged.
After 9-11, the U.S. government acted to expand the budget, staffing, and powers of the immigration enforcement bureaucracy.
The Homeland Security Act created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by consolidating 22 diverse agencies and bureaus.The creation of DHS reflected mounting anxieties about immigration in the aftermath of 9-11.
Passed in October 2006, this law mandated that the Secretary of Homeland Security act quickly to accomplish operational control over U.S. international land and maritime borders including an expansion of existing walls, fences, and surveillance.
Trying to cope with the long-term residence of millions of unauthorized immigrants, this executive order provided protection from deportation and work authorization to persons who arrived as minor children and had lived in the United States since June 15, 2007.
This executive order issued by the Obama White House sought to defer deportation and some other protections for unauthorized immigrants whose children were either American citizens or lawful permanent residents.