America Helped Shape “Illegal” Immigration

As we await President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration this coming week, we remember the promises, statements and attitudes he conveyed during his campaign. In 2015, early on in his campaign, one of his most memorable statements highlighted his sustained attitude towards undocumented immigrants and Mexicans:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Hola Arkansas

In this unforgettable moment, Trump not only villainized the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., but he also preserved the narrative that makes Mexico the agent of undocumented immigration—the sole reason as to why the rates of unauthorized entries have skyrocketed in modern America. However, a closer look into history will reveal that America was and is a key creator in this problem that Trump and many other right-wing hawks blame Mexico for.

Two developments in 20th century policy go hand-in-hand in constructing the problem of undocumented immigration today: the Bracero Program and its termination and the Hart-Celler Act of 1965.

The Bracero Program was initiated in the midst of World War II in 1942. It began when American agribusinesses lobbied to the federal government that a war-induced labor draught necessitated a Mexican guestworker program. In a bilateral decision, the program was initiated, having the Mexican government recruit and contract workers in return for promises of fair wages, decent housing, medical services, and work safety for the imported workers.

Oregon Public Broadcasting


At this time, not only did the Bracero Program end, but there was also a move to abolish the racist and discriminatory 1920s national origins quota system that had long-dictated legal immigration in America. The system, established under the Immigration Act of 1924, reinforced Asian exclusion with small visa caps of 100 people per year while granting large quota caps for many European countries. However, countries from the Western Hemisphere, like Canada and Mexico, were not subject to the quota system, making migration relatively flexible and permissible for them.

The fight against this quota system peaked with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of Hart-Celler Act in 1965. This act is the last major piece of comprehensive immigration reform that the U.S. has seen since its making. It abolished national origin quotas, instead establishing an overall immigration cap of 290,000 people a year with 170,000 visas allocated to the Eastern hemisphere and 120,000 to the Western. Sending nations from around the world were given equal numbers of visa slots as well—at the time, about 20,000 each—with a system of preference for family reunification and skilled workers.


Although Hart-Celler initially appeared to be progressive and open-armed, the way it would structure immigration—in combination with the termination of the Bracero Program around the same time—would make it a key piece in today’s problem of undocumented immigration. It proves how the American government played a large role in this issue that Trump blames Mexico for.

First, it is important to look at Hart-Celler’s preference system. With an emphasis on family and skilled workers, top-sending countries such as China, the Philippines, and Mexico easily filled their quota caps quickly. Much of this was because of family endorsement, as one naturalized family member in the U.S. could create a large chain migration of family members. One fully naturalized, skilled, young workingman, for instance, could endorse his children, his spouse, his siblings and parents to also immigrate and become citizens.

Furthermore, the Bracero Program­—which previously created a way for unskilled and agricultural Mexican guestworkers to come to the U.S.—was at its end, and Hart-Celler did not provide an accessible way for these workers to continue lawful employment under American agricultural, poultry, construction, or other unskilled work businesses. The newfound quota cap for Western hemisphere countries under Hart-Celler further complicated visa accessibility for unskilled Mexican guestworkers, as family of U.S. citizens and highly-skilled workers would be more likely to receive visas first under the system.

Meanwhile, these policies did not consider the many businesses and economic infrastructures that had become dependent on Mexican and foreign labor. With Americans unwilling to work these jobs that a Mexican labor force of over 4 million people occupied for decades, and with that same labor force now disadvantaged in their ability to legally enter or work in the U.S., this is when modern “illegal” immigration rose to prevalent levels. Since no major comprehensive immigration reform has occurred since Hart-Celler, the structure of the U.S. immigration system in the face of unskilled work businesses that still thrive on foreign labor has only perpetuated undocumented immigration.


Given the historical lessons, the Bracero Program has made much of both the Mexican and U.S. economies dependent on unskilled Mexican labor. While this dependency became ingrained over a period of 20 years, it could not change or break suddenly with Hart-Celler’s major reform. America’s policies and decisions, therefore, are a significant factor in the creation of undocumented immigration rates we see today.

When Donald Trump victimizes Mexico for creating this problem, he creates historical amnesia and we overlook a large part of history shows how America has made itself dependent on the labor of “illegal” Mexican immigrants. Our policies have made these workers illegal. The policies have just ignored the reality of the way so many businesses in America have been conducted over decades.

No wall of Trump’s can change that.


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