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How America has Fueled Illegal Immigration

How America has Fueled Illegal Immigration

Photo: Mexico USA Flag Montage

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Today’s contributor is Hector Luis Alamo, Jr. Hector is a freelance writer and community activist of Honduran-Puerto Rican descent living in Chicago. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his departmental concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States. In 2007 he co-founded an online blog, YoungObservers, and has remained its main contributor. Since 2010 he’s been the Opinions editor for the Chicago Flame, and he also contributes periodically for Examiner.com as its Chicago City Buzz Examiner. He is currently working on his first book.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg railed against the current anti-immigrant sentiment on Fox News Sunday this past weekend.

Bloomberg, a Republican for most of the recent Bush years who has self-identified as an Independent since 2007, urged conservatives to see the potential for economic growth that an effective, welcoming immigration policy could have.

“You can’t deport them,” Bloomberg said on Sunday, referring to the estimated 20 million undocumented citizens now living in the United States. “It’s just too many people. It would never happen. So let’s find a way where they are productive, where they contribute to society.”

The mayor even blamed the explosion of illegal immigration on the federal government’s latent encouragement since the 1980s.

But the origins of the illegal immigration crisis extend farther back than Bloomberg and most politicians are probably willing to admit publicly. Through a historical lens, America’s illegal immigration may be seen is a lasting consequence of the Monroe Doctrine. First introduced to defend the Western Hemisphere from European colonization and influence in the early 1800s, American presidents since James Polk have used the Monroe Doctrine to justify the economic and political, if not military, conquest of the Americas. For decades, nothing happened in Latin America or the Caribbean without receiving Washington’s endorsement.

The United Mexican States, specifically, lives under the perennial weight of American dominance. Now a NAFTA ally and our neighbor to the south, Mexico was once a major hemispheric rival – territorially, economically, and culturally. Mexico lost half of its territory to United States – land which is now the American Southwest, Texas, and California – as a result of the Mexican-American War. The United States remains Mexico’s largest trading partner, and the American corporation Walmart has become Mexico’s largest private sector employer.

Given the historical relationship between Mexico and the United States, and sharing a border nearly 2,000 miles long stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico-U.S. relations have understandably been strained.

U.S.-Mexico relations arguably reached their most turbulent in the period between the start of the Great Depression and the start of Operation Wetback. When the Depression hit in 1929, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service began implementing a program of deporting Mexicans and their children, a decade-long campaign known as the Mexican Repatriation. Around one million Mexicans and Mexican Americans were either deported or pressured to leave the United States between 1929 and 1939. Historians estimate that nearly 60 percent of those forced to leave were actually natural born citizens of the United States.

The onset of the Second World War brought a spike in the demand for labor. With many Americans fighting overseas, the federal government initiated a guest worker program, the Bracero Program, to bring back some of the Mexican labor that had been lost during the 1930s. Bracero workers sending money back to relatives in Mexico encouraged further Mexican immigration to the United States, legal and illegal. Undocumented Mexican workers were not eligible for the Bracero Program and thus were willing to work for lower wages and no benefits. As a consequent, American businesses were attracted by the cheaper form of labor that undocumented Mexicans represented, encouraging illegal immigration even more.

To combat the new wave of illegal immigration, in 1954 the federal government reinstituted its earlier initiative of deporting undocumented Mexicans. Through the Southwest, federal, state and local police departments began sweeping Mexican-American enclaves and racial profiling to perform ID checks. The goal was 1,000 arrests per day; by the end of the one-year operation, over two million Mexicans and Mexican Americans had been deported or repatriated under threat of deportation.

The signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the early 1990s tightened America’s economic grip on Mexico. Critics have argued that the new trade relationship threatens to utterly destroy Mexico’s farming communities, undercutting the Mexican people’s ability to grow their own food. The start of NAFTA coincided with the end of Carlos Salinas’ presidential term, a six-year period during which Mexico witnessed the ascendancy of neoliberal economics, a dangerous overvaluation of the peso, and massive budget deficits. Salinas’ economic policy decisions and his successor’s bungled attempt to reverse them led to el error de diciembre (“the December Mistake”) in 1994, when the sudden plunge of the peso brought about the worst economic recession Mexico has experienced since the Mexican Revolution.

Mexican immigration to the United States has occurred on a massive scale as long as there has been a Mexico to emigrate from and a United States to immigrate to. Mexican immigration is only deemed a problem by Americans when the United States is tackling an economic recession. Living in a bustling metropolis like Chicago, it’s difficult to imagine a single individual who does not come in contact with people of Mexican descent on a regular basis. Mexicans have become as much a part of American society and culture as the Irish, the Germans and the Italians have; yet I’m not hearing calls for the expulsion of any Europeans.

If the United States wants to remedy its illegal immigration problem, it must take several important steps: first, it must renegotiate fairer trade agreements so that Latin American countries aren’t exploited for the sake of American profits; second, it must encourage American companies to keep jobs at home and punish companies that send jobs overseas, ensuring that there are plenty of American jobs to go around; third, it must work toward the economic stability of every nation in the Western Hemisphere, lowering the incentive to immigrate to the United States; and fourth, it must discourage American employers from hiring undocumented employees, making it easier for legal residents to compete in the jobs market.

As Mayor Bloomberg argued, to talk about deporting most of the undocumented citizens in this country is entirely ridiculous and a gross distraction from more serious political issues – like the debt ceiling, the wars overseas, global climate change, the crumbling American education system, and health care. The sooner we stop ostracizing undocumented citizens and start targeting them as potentially valuable members of society, the better off we’ll all be.

Image Hector Luis Alamo, Jr