Whatever Happened to Immigration as an Election Topic?

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tags: immigration, Bracero

Mr. Hernandez teaches history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Today is a watershed period in our history: the decline in our economy unseen in generations, an ongoing war in Iraq, and a historic election that may result in an African American as President of the United States.  To add to this historical moment, we daily read about factories being raided, about families being separated, about children being torn from their loving mothers and fathers, and about innocent workers being forcefully deported to Mexico and Central America.  Yet, in the debates between these candidates, the issue of immigration has not been discussed, nor have any questions been posed to the candidates regarding the relationship between economies and immigration.  Indeed, the noted observer of immigration, Marcel Suarez-Orozco of Harvard University has noted that “the best predictor of anti-immigrant sentiment is the economy,” thus underscoring the direct relationship between the national economy and the question of immigration reform.  Thus, the outcome of this current election may decide how these problems and polemics get resolved.  In just a few short weeks the people of this country will decide between John McCain and Barack Obama.

According to a 1993 piece in Foreign Affairs entitled “A Brief History of Ethnic Cleansing,” “ethnic cleansing can be understood as the expulsion of an ‘undesirable’ population from a given territory due to religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic or ideological considerations, or a combination of these.”  The recent workplace raids throughout our country and the thousands of Mexicans and Latina/os that have borne the brunt of this exclusion are evidence that the process of “ethnic cleansing” via deportation raids is alive and well today under a Republican administration.  The numbers are difficult to ascertain, but recent reports from Mexico estimate that a million deportees have now returned to Mexico and that 90,000 children have been abandoned at the border as a result of these recent raids.  An examination of the historical record illustrates, following the words of Marcelo-Suarez, that when the economic situation is tough it is often the immigrant workers—both “legal” and “illegal”—that become the first victims of this government response. 

After the Great Depression of 1929, Republican President Herbert Hoover implemented the forced repatriation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans.  This history is not well known in our country, and certainly not taught in local high schools.  Some might argue that such expulsions happen only to those who entered “illegally,” yet in 1929 more “legal residents” were deported to Mexico than those considered “illegal.” It is a well documented that these expulsions led to the well over one million people being deported to Mexico, sixty percent of whom were actually US citizens! 

In 1954, under another well known and very beloved Republican President, Dwight David Eisenhower, Mexicans were forcefully removed and repatriated under a program known as “Operation Wetback.”  According to the most comprehensive study of this event entitled “Operation Wetback: The Mass Deportation of Mexican Undocumented Workers in 1954,” Juan Ramón García notes that according to US government estimates, approximately 1.4 million individuals were forced or coerced to leave for Mexico.  Paradoxically, it was between 1942 and1964 that the governments of the US and Mexico established the well known and periodically lauded “Bracero Program” as a way to augment the loss of labor due to WWII.  So, not only did Mexicans and Mexican Americans participate and die during this war, but their families and relatives were being deported as they fought to save the world from the grasp of fascist dictators and the false notion of “racial superiority.”

In this contemporary era we are at war with Iraq and Latina/os of all countries and ethnicities have taken the frontline in this war against “Global Terrorism.”  Once again, while Mexican Americans fight on the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan, their families are being threatened with deportation and their communities are being terrorized by an agency that has as its mission this species of “ethnic cleansing.”  Numerous stories have appeared about soldiers fighting both terrorists and the deportation of their loved ones at the same time.  One such story was published by the Associated Press on August 10, 2007 was tellingly headlined “GIs worry illegal relatives will be deported; GIs fear about family could lower morale as immigrants swell military ranks.”  In that piece, the author noted that Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Eduardo Gonzalez is a citizen whose wife entered the country from Guatemala and currently in “deportation proceedings.”  Gonzalez’s reaction to this case sums up the contradictory stance of these policies when he noted “If I'm willing to die for the United States, why can't I just be allowed to be with my family?”

Some of the first casualties of this war, in fact, were migrants (legal and illegal) from Mexico and Guatemala.  Marine Corporal Jose A. Garibay of Costa Mesa and Pfc. Francisco A. Martinez Flores of Los Angeles were both 21 year old Mexican migrants who lost their lives in Iraq in March 2003.  Their deaths, however, represent only the first casualties among a longer list of ongoing sacrifices by both legal and “illegal” migrants.  According to a September 2007 piece by Domenico Maceri of New America Media, “Figures from the National Center for Immigration Law show that one in 10 U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq have been immigrants.” 

Today, we have a decision to make and we have an observation to dissect when it comes to the political stance of the two candidates.  Just two weeks ago, Senator McCain’s attack on Senator Obama regarding immigration generated a vicious exchange between the two obligates us to examine the longer history of Mexican migration and Comprehensive Immigration Reform.  In fact, although McCain had a long history of bipartisanship with immigration reform, we know that he is now against his own bill sponsored in 2006.  Senator Obama, in this regard, has condemned the recent deportation raids but voted for a bill to extend the border wall. 

Today we must ask ourselves, as Americans of all backgrounds, whom should we vote for?  Who will uphold our greatest tradition of being an “Immigrant Nation”?  This election will determine the future of all Americans, but it seems that McCain’s continuing contradictions only threatens to further the Latino struggle to become full citizens in a country that today faces the question of what it means to be a “Nation of Immigrants.”

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Andrew D. Todd - 10/27/2008

I think you have to distinguish between adult citizens and child citizens. Child citizens were commonly sent along with their parents, because they obviously could not live on their own. At the same time, there was a massive back-migration of southern whites to the Deep South, with people going back to the farm to wait out the depression, and local officials in the industrial North were not above creative use of the vagrancy laws, etc., to accelerate the process. All through the 1930's, the basic economic question was not who could find a private-sector job, but who could get on welfare, who could get government make-work jobs, etc. So the Mexican deportations have to be put in context. The question would be what difficulties child citizens eventually experienced in getting American papers when they were grown up. If you take the hypothetical case of someone born in Chicago in 1925, to Mexican parents who had arrived in 1923 to work in the stock yards, and who were deported in 1930, by 1943, his birth certificate would probably have been good enough to get him into an Army enlistment station in El Paso.

Here is a parallel case. In the 1920's, Germany was still in a prolonged postwar slump. The German automobile industry was heavily oriented to the high-end luxury level (e.g. Mercedes), and was understandable affected. By contrast, the American auto industry was still growing reasonably fast, and needed to find technical people where it could. The result was that it recruited German engineers. Of course engineers travel with passports, visas, etc., so they had legal rights which Mexican stock-yard workers would not have had, and for that matter, industrial firms went to extravagant lengths to hand onto their technical talent in some capacity or other. However, when the Great Depression hit, many people were at least underemployed. A few years later, in the late 1930's, Germany recruited some of these German engineers back again, because they now knew about American mass-production auto manufacturing technique, and were therefore wanted to build the new Volkswagen. The result was that in 1945, in occupied Germany, the U. S. Army was called upon to protect U. S. Citizens, the children of the migratory engineers.

Ryan Kost, "Border Orphans," _Phoenix Magazine_, July, 2008, Page 108.

Deals with the case of three American-born children in a Mexican orphanage. The mother was apparently a Mexican immigrant (legal), member of a family which was precariously establishing itself in the United States. However, she was also a druggie, the black sheep of the family. When she got in trouble with the law in Arizona, she fled with her children to Mexico. It was more or less chance that she took the kids with her, rather than dumping them at a relative's house. In Mexico, she left the children alone in a shack for days at a time, and at that point a Mexican neighbor called in the Mexican child protective services, for all the usual reasons. The children's papers are in order, and the American State department recognizes them and will give them passports at age eighteen, but the family circumstances are such that there really isn't anyone in the United States to take them in, or to hire the necessary lawyers to sort out the inevitable complications in an international child custody case. The child welfare authorities in Mexico and Arizona seem to be deeply suspicious of each other, and they tend to create complications rather than removing them.


kelly o'donnell - 10/26/2008

I would choose open borders. I don't want anymore of my tax dolloars wasted on foreign wars or ridiculous "fences" that won't work anyway. I have been to Canada and Mexico and further south. Have you even looked at the topography on a map? when polictician, media, etc talk about closing the border and controlling it I doubt they really know what they are speaking of. this was a unrealistic and expensive ideal to begin with. I find open borders and proper identification to be far more realistic. If someone wants a job and can show the credentials, fine. Make the employer, particularly big business responsible to verify i.d. for employment.

I want people here harvesting, etc. I don't want my food or my animals food coming from unreliable sources in the pan-pacific region.

and when I am old and delicate (which is not far away) I want people to be able to care for me in a healthcare setting. and that means lots of qualified nurses.

if you were paying any attention at all to the news we have a national crisis on our hands in the u.s. healthcare markets. we have had a continual and increasing shortage of nurses nationwide. we can't graduate them fast enough to keep up.

I hope you enjoy your $7.00 can of peas and $5.00 lb. apples that have fallen on the ground. maybe you could convince some of those really useful and able-bodied u.s. citizens to help you pick the peas and apples. especially the really helpful ones sitting around in lawnchairs with binoculars watching the borders and taking little hikes in their camoflage gear. be well.

I am open to open borders and people who are already here being employed to meet job needs that u.s. citizens can't or won't keep up with. I am open to spending money on healthcare, education and immigration reform too. not on wasteful and useless control.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/26/2008

Sure, but let's control the borders first. Congress has now proven twice it cannot be relied on to control the borders at all... unless you think they are in the process of getting control at the moment. If so, it's a very long process.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/26/2008

Your reference relies on "it's authors claim" for the canard about a million Mexicans being deported and for "an estimated 60% of them were U.S. citizens." I can understand how some Mexicans-Americans may have been forced to return to Mexico on a local basis, by intimidating and corrupt local police acting illegally, or by vigilantes responding to the hard times. But to allege it was the work of President Hoover, or that any nationally organized expulsion of American citizens occurred, is false and absurd.

kelly o'donnell - 10/24/2008

I had to run to the dictionary to check that archaic little word out. I dispute this. history does speak for itself with facts. however, I would point out again that the candidates silence is not golden for u.s. citizens. I think we should be deeply disturbed by even the idea of electing anyone to public office that is not addressing this issue. I am very serious when I say that I am considering a third party candidate. I am fed up with smoke and mirrors. wasting billions and trillions of dollars on wars in other countries and building up big expensive border patrols and fences is not the answer, either.

I say open the borders in such a controlled manner with immigration reform that people cross the border to work, stay here for a contract period of time and all people are given credentials to cross again for vacations like normal people and pay taxes like normal people.

and I will say this again, directly to you, Lawrence. why not put some of this creative, talented and undocmented workforce that is already here in places of employment to help with the nursing crisis we have in healthcare nationally??

I just bet you are a babyboomer like me. who is going to care for you when you get sick or age or go to the hospital? think about it. I hope you think about where you food is coming from too. and who is going to pick it. I know I am not strong enough to go out in the fields to make it happen. are you ready to do it yourself? or do you want to spend $7.00 a can for peas at the grocery?

J. Hernandez - 10/24/2008

My information about US Citizens being deported under Hoover is NOT a canard and is substantiated by the historical evidence. I do not indulge in opinions, but stick to the facts. Read "Decade of Betrayal" for more information and a closer reading.


Secondly, your use of the term "whites" needs to be qualified and historicized accordingly. Many "Latinos" consider themselves "white" and this category is not only intellectually lazy, but a misnomer of sorts.

Finally, most Americans are for comprehensive immigration reform and for a just and decent policy that celebrates the ideal of a "nation of immigrants." I won't belabor the point here with more evidence, but will trust that you find out for yourself.

best wishes,

Jose Angel

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/23/2008

Your allegation about large numbers of Mexican-American CITIZENS being deported under President Hoover sounds like a canard to me. Certainly Hoover had nothing to do with it, if it happened.

McCain and Obama are not talking about immigration because the subject cannot do either one of them any good. Obama feels he's lucky to have a majority of the Latino vote, given their long-standing antipathy to blacks, and vice versa. McCain doesn't want to remind his GOP base that he was a ringleader in the effort to grant amnesty without fixing the border first. Latinos must guess which would give them the better deal; I suspect McCain would, since Obama will be trying to win a second term, and most whites of both parties oppose amnesty.

kelly o'donnell - 10/21/2008

yes, it was an excelent article. I would have loved to sit in on your class discussion.

I think the fact that there is so much silence on this issue by both candidates is a broad statement.

I hope your students give serious thought about the candidates silence when they go to vote. I know that I will be considering a 3rd party candidate for the first time in my life.

kelly o'donnell - 10/20/2008

we are all americans. that is my point of view. I am disgusted with both of the major candidates for president. for the first tiime in my life I am seriously considering a vote for anyone else that has a sane immigration policy. the longer this goes on with the politicians the more contempt I feel as a u.s. citizen. I see part of the problem as leadership and big business make way too much money from not solving this crisis. I see this a systemic corruption without check.

we have 12-20 million people in limbo in this country. we also have a nursing shortage and crisis in the states. gee whiz, does anybody think that some of the people in legal limbo could maybe help us with our healthcare crisis??!

Raul A Garcia - 10/19/2008

The day after the recent Mcain-Obama debate I asked my students which issue they did not discuss. A lot of hands went up and stated "immigration". This omission is notable by both candidates and speaks volumes about the lack of vision and a retreat by both parties to accomplish anything concrete (and I don't mean just a wall). Thoughtful article and let's hope we don't have an extended silence on this serious issue.