Mexican and Central American Labor: The Crux of the Immigration Issue in the U.S.

Capitalism’s demand for cheap labor is the thread that runs throughout the history of immigration in the U.S. and remains the central issue today.  Currently, the crux of the immigration issue is the status of the undocumented Mexican and Central American labor force working in this country.  Just how closely the U.S. economy is linked to these immigrant workers from south of the border is illustrated in Chart 1:

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U.S. Employment and Mexico-to-U.S. Migration, 1991-2004
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Chart 1, based on reports from the Pew Hispanic Center (, tracks the correlation between the performance of the U.S. economy (as measured by the national employment rate) and the estimated number of migrants who arrived in the U.S. from Mexico annually.  Additional analysis by Pew researchers firmly establishes that economic “pull” factors in the U.S. are far more powerful than “push” factors in Mexico in accounting for these migration trends.

The trend lines in Chart 1 suggest that, especially since the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1995, the migration of Mexican and Central American workers and their families to the U.S. closely correlates to the manpower needs of the U.S. economy.  The chart shows that both trends peaked during the boom years of the 1990s and dropped precipitously during the economic recession of 2001.  The graph also indicates that a recovery in both trends began in 2004, and preliminary data for 2005 suggests that the recovery continued through the end of last year.  Though it is impossible to specify the exact degree that the performance of the U.S. economy depends on cheap Mexican and Central American labor, the link between them is beyond question.

Pew researchers discovered a second major trend in Mexico-to-U.S. migration that is depicted in Chart 2:

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Migration to the U.S.: Legal Admissions and Unauthorized Migrants, by Decade, 1960-2010
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Chart 2 compares the ratio of unauthorized to legal migrants, by decade, beginning in the 1960s and projected through 2010.  The graph shows a marked increase in the share of immigration accounted for by unauthorized migrants as compared to legal permanent residents (i.e. legal immigrants) over the past 45 years.  The trend has risen from a low of 13 percent in the decade of the 60s up to 35 percent during the 70s and 80s.  The decades immediately before and after the turn of the century have seen unauthorized migration, most of it from Mexico and Central America, rise to be in excess of 40 percent of the immigrants entering the country.  Clearly, all the evidence indicates that the demand of the U.S. economy for cheap labor has undermined national immigration laws for the last 30 years.

The full implications of the South-to-North migration trends illustrated in Charts 1 and 2 become apparent when they are considered in historical perspective.

Mexicanos y centroamericanos: U.S. Capitalism’s Reserve Labor Supply

The exploitation of Mexican labor began with the U.S. conquest of Mexico in the mid-19th century and has continued ever since.  In the wake of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that transferred almost half of the territory of the Republic of Mexico to U.S. ownership, Mexican workers, many of them former landowners, were used extensively as wage laborers to develop the American Southwest.  In addition to working the land and tending livestock, Mexicans were employed extensively in mining, transportation, and the construction and maintenance of railroads in the American West.

It was, however, the manpower shortages created by World War I that sparked the first mass Mexico-to-U.S. migration.  Mexican workers replaced not only the native farm workers in the American Southwest and Midwest but also many of the native factory workers of the nation who were drafted for military service.  Despite the vital contributions that Mexican workers made to the U.S. war economy, they did not get to enjoy the fruits of their labor for long.  The onset of the Great Depression saw the first mass deportation of Mexican and Central American workers and their families in U.S. history.  This informal but effective deportation campaign employed compulsory and coercive tactics that targeted legal and illegal immigrants, temporary workers, and permanent residents.  In many communities, the pressure was so great that immigrants were forced to abandoned private businesses, homes, household goods, personal possessions, automobiles, and even active bank accounts and uncollected pay.  In some communities where Mexican children had previously been allowed to attend public schools, they were expelled, and many were separated from their families during the exodus.  Deportees were transported en masse to the border where they were dumped, often destitute, on the Mexican side.

Ultimately, an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 Mexicans and their American-born children returned to Mexico between 1929 and 1939.  As a result of the expulsion, the Mexican population in the U.S. dropped 40 percent.  Indiana lost three-fourths of its Mexican-born population and 12 states — Colorado, Illinois, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming — lost over half.  Five years after the purge of the Great Depression, the vicious cycle began all over again.

The manpower demands of World War II eclipsed those of World War I, and again masses of Mexican and Central American workers, with the official blessings of both governments, migrated north to fuel the booming U.S. war economy.  It is estimated that between 1944 and 1954 illegal border crossings increased by 6,000 percent.  And again, it was the downturn of the U.S. economy that robbed the immigrant workers of their gains.  At the bottom of the post-Korean War recession (1954), when their labor was no longer needed, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service launched “Operation Wetback,” a paramilitary campaign complete with psychological warfare operations, against migrant workers in the U.S.

Again the results were the widespread disruption of families and communities.  This time the deportees were transported by land, sea, and air deep into the interior of Mexico to discourage their return.  This mass repatriation campaign, twice the size of the purge that accompanied the Great Depression, displaced over 1.3 million men, women, and children of Mexican and Central American origin.  It is worth noting that, in the same year when “Operation Wetback” was launched against Mexican communities in the U.S., Congress voted to extend the Bracero program, ensuring that the supply of cheap Mexican and Central American labor for U.S. agribusiness was not disrupted.

It appears that the historic South-to-North immigration in America is currently in the middle of a third, and this time, titanic cycle.  The beginning of the current mass migration dates back to the mid-1960s when the Civil Rights Movement curtailed the super-exploitation of native minorities and women and Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan announced that the U.S. would begin looking south of the border for cheap labor.  The consequent development of the predominantly U.S.-owned maquiladora factory system in Mexico and the implementation of NAFTA in the mid-90s, coupled with a gatekeeper border policy, has consolidated U.S. capitalism’s hold on Mexican and Central American labor on both sides of the border.

This brief historical overview indicates that the current South-to-North migration trends depicted in Charts 1 and 2 are the result of the latest refinement in U.S. capitalism’s long-standing practice of exploiting the Mexican and Central American people as a reserve labor supply.  The advantages to American industry of this labor arrangement are manifest: enhanced profits through the payment of substandard wages, non-payment of employment benefits, and avoidance of legal and political liabilities for the social costs of production.  Now, the Mexican and Central American labor force is, irrespective of international borders, a reserve army of labor that can be drafted and discharged at the will of U.S. capital.

A concerned witness of the Depression Era repatriation campaign posed the fundamental question regarding Mexican labor in the U.S.: “Are Mexican immigrants to be sent for again when prosperous times return, to be treated as ‘cheap labor’, and then to be returned penniless to poverty-stricken relatives [in Mexico]?”  This central question, though unasked in the mainstream media, is pending again — as the U.S. economy begins to wind down, anti-immigrant agitation is on the rise.

As in the past, Mexican and Central American workers are the crux of the immigration issue in the U.S., and the essential question is: will there be social and economic justice for these hardworking and long-suffering people this time?

The Prospects for Justice

At first glance, the prospects for justice might seem slim.  The immigration issue is before the U.S. Congress and the court of public opinion, but the economy is teetering on the brink of recession.  The U.S. government is in war mode and the question of national security casts a pall over all political discourse.  The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is now under the command of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the same detection and interdiction technologies used by armed forces on the battlefield are available to the U.S. Border Patrol.  Today, the U.S. government has the capability to mobilize military operations against immigrants that would eclipse previous anti-immigrant campaigns like “Operation Wetback,” and the recent news that 6,000 National Guard troops will be moved to the Mexican border over the next year signals that a crackdown on Mexican and Central American migrants has begun.

A replay of past repatriation campaigns, however, is unlikely.  The current Mexican and Central American communities in the U.S. are markedly different from those of the 1930s and 50s; they are primarily urban and their roots go much deeper than did those of their predecessors.  Current immigrants are deeply integrated into the U.S. economy and their success has provided them with resources to fight deportation.  Families predominate and the education levels of the children of migrants are higher than in the past.  The economic stakes are also higher than ever — home and business ownership by immigrants is widespread as is the level of dependency of family members left behind in the South.  The prospect of abandoning all they have worked for and returning to poverty in the South is not a viable option for current immigrants.

The mass demonstrations in support of immigrant rights that were held across the country on April 10 and May 1 indicate that the demand for economic and social justice is high.  The festive mood and reserved behavior of the men, women, and children who participated in the marches and rallies did not obscure the intensity of their commitment to justice, and their well-articulated demands, delivered by event speakers and through spontaneous slogans, demonstrated that immigrants have a clear understanding of the economic and political issues at hand.

The huge crowds of immigrants and their supporters that paralyzed cities from coast to coast surprised authorities and suggest that officials have grossly underestimated the size of the Mexican and Central American migrant population in the U.S. and their hunger for justice.  It behooves us all to support the immigrants in their demands because the alternative to liberty and justice for all is privilege and license for the few.  The fight for immigrant rights offers an opportunity to turn back the forces of reaction and conservatism that oppress all working people in the nation.

Nativo López, President of the Mexican American Political Association, summed up the strategy of the emerging immigrant movement succinctly: “You get what you’re ready to fight for.”

Richard D. Vogel is an independent socialist writer. He has recently completed a book, Stolen Birthright: The U.S. Conquest and Exploitation of the Mexican People.