Inventing the Mexican Other at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Great Wall of Los Angeles: Deportation of Mexican Americans from the Cornfield. Image credit: Judy Baca and the Social and Public Art Resource Center.

The United States is commonly described as a ‘nation of immigrants’ and while this may be true— the country has some 44 million foreign born residents (Budiman et al., 2020), making up around 14% of the population as a whole, and more than a quarter of America’s children have at least one immigrant as a parent (Ward & Batalova, 2023) — this label does not reflect the complex array of attitudes toward migration in a nation which not only accepts the more migrants, but also spends more money on border security (Akkerman, 2023), and deports more people, than any other nation in the world (Ambrosius & Leblang, 2019). Although the advent of air transport means travellers can enter a new country from a multiplicity of locations and has therefore dispersed the administrative and legal functions of the border (along with the physical and emotional experiences migrants associate with border crossings) to many different sites, the frontier, the physical space where two countries meet, is still significant, both in terms of the sheer number of crossings, and in the way the concept of “the border” is understood in the popular imagination. The United States shares with Mexico the world’s most traversed political border (Diaz & Gonzalez, 2020), with over half a million incoming land travellers processed by the U.S. authorities a day in 2022 (U.S. Customs and Border Protection, n.d.). In order to contextualise some present day conflicts and contradictions associated with migration, language and national identity that mobility across the U.S.-Mexico border provoke, this blog post discusses it’s early history, exploring how the current political border and the border regime (along with associated concepts like ‘illegal’ immigration and mass deportation) came to be.

The border as we now know it took shape in the wake of the U.S. Mexico war, which ended with the treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo in 1848. In all, Mexico, negotiating from a position of military occupation, ceded over two and a half million square kilometres of land including what is today California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada, as well as parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma, in exchange for $15 million (National Archives, n.d.). Although this amounted to around half of Mexico’s territory (Perea, 2003), the sparsely inhabited land contained only 4% of its population. The popular All of Mexico Movement had pressed President James K. Polk to fully annex the U.S.’ neighbour to the South, according to the expansionist philosophy of Manifest Destiny (Pinheiro, 2003), however, the proposal was rejected, in large part due to the concern of Southern Democrats over the potential consequences of admitting so many Mexican nationals as U.S. citizens. Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina protested ‘Are we to associate with ourselves as equals, companions, and fellow-citizens, the Indians and mixed race of Mexico? Sir, I should consider such a thing as fatal to our institutions’ (quoted in the Congressional Globe, 1848). Rather, the U.S. opted for a formula that allowed it to acquire the maximum of Mexican land, with a minimum of Mexicans (Christman and Karp, 2022).

Image credit: Charles Kendall Adams (1909) A History of the United States Allyn and Bacon, 303.

The finalization of the political border in its present form occurred in 1853 with the Gadsden Purchase. The U.S. acquired an additional 78,000 square km of Mexican territory, now encompassing southern Arizona and southern New Mexico, for a sum of $10 million (Britanica, 2022). These acquisitions left approximately 300,000 individuals residing in the once-disputed lands, many of whom were Mexican nationals. To address this situation, Mexican citizens were offered free land in northern regions of Mexico in exchange for repopulating the area. Under the terms of the acquisition, Mexicans who chose to remain could elect to become U.S. citizens with “free enjoyment of their liberty and property, and secured in the free exercise of their religion without restriction.” (Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 1848).

The vast majority of the inhabitants of these lands spoke languages other than English, either Spanish or one of the many Amerindian languages native to the region. Although language is not mentioned specifically in the treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, the rights of citizenship were commonly understood at the time to imply the right to conduct public business in a language you understand (Oliver, 2017). The first constitution of California acknowledged this principle, affirming that “All laws, decrees, regulations, and provisions emanating from any of the three supreme powers of this State, which from their nature require publication, shall be published in English and Spanish” (Crawford, n.d.) However, the demographics of the state were already changing. The Gold Rush brought teeming masses of anglophone settlers into California with little regard for the rights, linguistic or otherwise, of the people already living there (Moreno-Fernández, 2022, p.116). As John Steinbeck describes in The Grapes of Wrath (1990):

Once California belonged to Mexico and its land to Mexicans; and a horde of tattered feverish Americans poured in. And such was their hunger for land that they took the land, stole Sutter’s land, Guerrero’ s land, took the grants and broke them up and growled and quarreled over them, those frantic hungry men; and they guarded with guns the land they had stolen. They put up houses and barns, they turned the earth and planted crops. And these things were possession, and possession was ownership.

When California came to revise its constitution in 1871, public sentiment toward languages other than English had hardened dramatically. Not only was the requirement to publish official documents in both languages dropped, but in fact, all official proceedings were limited to English (a restriction that remained in effect until 1966), making California one of the nation’s first “English only” states. During the debates surrounding this amendment, Spanish language speakers were characterised as ‘foreigners’ who only had themselves to blame for failing to take advantage of the ample time they had been afforded to learn English.

Despite the obvious prejudice toward people of Mexican descent and Spanish speakers in general, there was relatively little concern in the U.S. about immigration across the Southern border. The concept of “illegal” immigration was first applied, not to Latin Americans, but rather to migrants from Asia. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which marked the first instance of certain groups being deemed unauthorized. During the early decades of the 20th century, crossing the border into the United States was relatively easy for Mexican immigrants, who were excluded from the harsh restrictions intended to limit immigration from Asia. Numerous testimonies from that period recount how individuals simply walked or waded from Mexico into the U.S. (Balderrama & Rodríguez, 1995).

It wasn’t until 1917 that Congress imposed stricter regulations, such as an eight-dollar head tax and a literacy test for Mexican Nationals. Despite these measures, Mexican immigration continued, with the focus of border patrols primarily aimed at Asian and European immigrants. The Mexican Revolution, which lasted from 1910 to 1920, sparked widespread social and economic unrest. The resulting upheaval led to a massive flow of Mexicans seeking refuge and economic opportunities in the United States (Balderrama & Rodríguez, 1995). Between 1899 and 1928, approximately half a million Mexicans entered the United States legally, with the 1930 U.S. census estimating that more than 1.4 million Mexican Nationals and Mexican Americans resided in the country, mostly concentrated in the South-West. By 1930, over 10 percent of Mexico’s entire population had relocated to the United States.

In 1929, the passage of Section 1325 of Title 8 of the U.S. Code made for the first time the act of crossing the border without going through an official entry point a federal misdemeanour on the first offence and a felony on the second (Lee, 2019). However, the U.S. Border Patrol, which was created in 1924 as part of the Department of Labor, frequently exercised selective enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws, often catering to the needs of influential growers and industrialists (Alvarez, 2017). When Mexican labour was needed to boost agricultural production or work in mines and factories, regulations were loosely enforced. However, when the supply of Mexican labour exceeded seasonal demand, strict enforcement of immigration laws ensued. Deportation raids at work sites targeting Mexican workers, frequently orchestrated at the request of unscrupulous employers, became a common occurrence.

After the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing economic depression, the climate became truly hostile toward migrants. Mexicans, regardless of legal status or citizenship, were targeted by a range of policies aimed at removing them from the country by any means, in what can be regarded as the first mass deportation campaign in history. Individuals could be deported for reasons such as suffering from epilepsy, engaging, being physically unable to work, or subscribing to anarchist philosophies (Goodman, 2020). Even minors entering without their parents could face expulsion. In addition to formal deportations there were also waves of repatriation drives aimed at impelling Mexicans to leave voluntarily. These drives often involved campaigns of violence and intimidation, tactics some government officials called scareheading (Lee, 2019).

Migrants, family of Mexicans, on road with tire trouble. Looking for work in the peas. California (Photo credit: Dorothea Lange)

Mexican immigrants regularly faced degrading treatment and discrimination when interacting with immigration authorities. They endured long wait times, often being turned away after waiting for hours. Immigrants, including men, women, and children, were crowded into examination pens without adequate facilities. Mass public baths and clothing disinfections were seen as indignities by Mexican immigrants, but they endured these procedures due to the hope that America provided for a better life (Balderrama & Rodríguez, 1995). Individuals facing deportation who sought formal hearings and had their claim denied were permanently barred from re-entering the United States. On the other hand, those who agreed to voluntary deportation faced fewer consequences and could potentially re-enter the country legally in the future.

Between the years 1929 and 1935, a total of 82,400 Mexicans were deported by the federal government (Lee, 2019), however, this figure is only the tip of the iceberg. While it remains challenging to precisely quantify the number of individuals who departed the United States during the Great Depression and to identify the precise factors guiding each person’s choice, it is undeniable that the collaborative actions of authorities at local, state, and federal levels played a significant role in instigating or influencing the repatriation of potentially up to half a million Mexicans and Mexican Americans from 1929 to 1939 (Goodman, 2020).

In the narrative of American history, the threads of migration, xenophobia, and mass deportations are intricately woven, reaching far back beyond the present era. This short blog post on the early history of the U.S.-Mexico border reveals that these prominent topics are not products of recent decades. By delving into the past, we recognize that the challenges and conflicts surrounding migration are long-standing and complex. Understanding this historical context not only sheds light on the origins of present-day dynamics but also compels us to recognise the importance of addressing these issues with an awareness of their enduring significance.


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David Chapman, B.A., is a student in the HCIAS’ Master’s program Communication and Society in Ibero-America

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