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Mexico, America, and the Continental Divide

ISSUE:  Spring 2007

I’m sitting at the bar in a Depression-era saloon on a slightly seedy commercial strip in Pomona, California. The town is bathed in the harsh glare of an autumn sun, but in here it’s dim and cool, the light muted by heavy curtains and brick walls and polished mahogany. You can hear the muffled click of billiard balls from the pool tables that line the rear of the room. It’s the sort of atmosphere that lends itself to reminiscence, and my old friend Mark Cromer is doing just that.

Mark is unusual in this day and age, and in Southern California especially, because he’s spent all of his life, save a few years of college, in the town of his birth. His grandmother worked behind this very bar, Mark is telling me. His dad used to drink here. “When I was a little kid we would drive by here and he would point it out.” The place is practically a Cromer tradition.

But we’re not dwelling on family history. I’ve asked Mark to spend the afternoon showing me around Pomona and explaining how its evolution has shaped his own. It’s not a distant leap to make: Mark is convinced that illegal immigration has ruined the town he loves. And earlier this year, Mark set aside his business as a private investigator and occasional journalist—the latter being the career he pursued for most of his working life—to take a gig as a writer for an outfit called Californians for Population Stabilization. CAPS was founded in 1986 to promote population control as an answer to environmental degradation, and counts among its early supporters David Brower, the late, charismatic leader of the Sierra Club. In recent years, CAPS has made immigration the primary target in its drive “to preserve a good quality of life for all Californians.”

Mark is, as I said, an old friend. He’s middle-aged, bluff and garrulous, a fluent writer and sometime editor who prides himself on his independence and disdain for political cant. His website is emblazoned with the legend, “A liberal with common sense, or a conservative who likes to party?” With immigration, he’s found just the sort of platform he relishes: a chance to speak for the common man, to debunk the platitudes of the politically correct, and to denounce the elites on both sides of the aisle. Most important, the roots of the debate twine deep in the story of his beloved Pomona.

Mark is given to the jarring, sweeping statement. “Pomona was once a vibrant town that is now utterly in the throes of dysfunction and has been for quite some time.” But as is also his wont, Mark is careful to keep his analysis layered, nuanced. He understands that much of what happened to Pomona had nothing to do with Mexico. “Pomona had, when I was a kid, General Dynamics, the Naval Sea Systems Command, Xerox Military Plating Division, and Lockheed Martin. GD alone at the height of the Reagan years was employing more than 10,000 skilled laborers. It was a round-the-clock operation.” But the end of the Cold War was tough on Pomona. “The military-industrial base got cut out, we lost the jobs, and the town went into a spiral.”

It’s the story of Southern California, the story of the Rust Belt—the decline of American manufacturing and the elimination of the working middle class. It’s a theme Mark returns to repeatedly. “You know, my dad dropped out of Pomona High and went to work at Wayne Manufacturing and started his career as a skilled laborer. He doesn’t have a high-school diploma. But he made a living back then with his hands. He worked a lathe and joined the union and did his whole thing.” Mark’s warming up for one of his populist volleys. “My parents were both Republicans, hard core, and they both left the party because they felt the Republicans did what the Democrats eventually did, which was sold out the working people.” A little later, he recasts the formula. “The Democratic Party is driving getaway on the Republican heist of the American skilled-labor base.”

Okay, so how do the Mexicans fit in? “Now Latinos, at the same time this was happening, as we were losing jobs that paid twenty, thirty dollars an hour, middle- to high-wage jobs that allowed a man to raise his family on a working wage for a decent day’s labor, we lose those jobs but what did we get? We got an influx over fifteen, twenty years of sustained immigration from Mexico and Central America.

“What happened was, starting back in 1986, when amnesty came in, Pomona by that time had enough illegal immigrants that the INS opened a huge processing bureau on Colt Avenue. There were lines, I remember, outside of that thing, I mean huge, to process for the amnesty.

“This goes back the better part of two decades. And suddenly it wasn’t just the Latinos on the south side of town, and it wasn’t Chicanos, it was a guy who’s living in a rental with his family four doors down, there’s one family, there’s two families, and none of them speak English. This isn’t just change. It’s like painting entirely over, in broad strokes, multiple coats of where you once were. Where it’s virtually no longer recognizable.”

Yes, well, that’s another larger story, and not just the story of immigration. California has been defined by growth, since its early days of sleepy towns and powerhouse agriculture. Population in the Golden State reached five million around 1930; it doubled again in twenty years, and again in the twenty after that. The rate of growth has actually slowed since: there were twenty million residents in 1970, and there are thirty-six million today. But change has remained constant: from rural to urban, from modern suburban to ramshackle slum, and more recently, in some favored locales, from wasted city core to downtown revitalization.

In short, the world has turned—and not just in Pomona. Manufacturing has declined steadily in the United States for the past thirty years, and now accounts for just 10 percent of the American workforce. Similar declines have been recorded in Europe and throughout the industrialized world. The union movement in the US has declined apace, for structural reasons and due to its own hubris. Economic insecurity has become the law of the land, and there’s no turning back the clock. Meanwhile, I’ve been watching the immigration debates in Congress, the contest between the hard line—seal the border and ship all the undocumented residents out—and the more moderate guest-worker schemes, and I find myself landing altogether outside the parameters of the debate. The only “solution” I see to the immigration “problem” is to back off, to acknowledge the facts on the ground, and to open the border between the United States and Mexico.

It sounds like a radical notion, I realize, but the effect is largely semantic, because much of the immigration has already taken place. What would be truly radical, in its effect on citizenship and the role of the state, would be to enact the enforcement schemes being considered in Congress—arrests and deportation of millions of peaceful residents, background checks at domestic worksites, and implementation of a race-based caste system that would hold Mexican immigrants in virtual bondage. Relaxing restrictions on Mexican immigration would be more realistic and more reasonable, and I’ll go further: It is, like globalization, of which it is a part, the shape of things to come, regardless of our efforts to stop it. And a laissez-faire response promises far better outcomes, for our quality of life as well as for the present and future immigrants, than any law enforcement based alternative might envision.

Put simply, my argument turns on three points. First, there is no way to stop the continuing migration from Mexico, save for institution of a massive internal control system, complete with a full militarization of the border, national ID cards, and wholesale violations of rights guaranteed in the Constitution. In fact, so far, every effort to stem the flow from the south has proven counterproductive.

Second, there’s no urgent need to stop immigration; to the contrary, migrants from Mexico have proven a boon to what’s left of American manufacturing, helping breathe life into shattered cities and forlorn Rust Belt towns. And last, we have no right to stigmatize an entire generation of hardworking people from Mexico. We can no longer insist on dictating terms founded in a race-based worldview that we, as a nation, repudiated more than forty years ago.

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The flow of Mexicans moving north into the United States is the single largest international migration taking place today, in a world in which the scale of human migration has become a defining feature. A 2005 United Nations study found that the number of migrants on the planet had doubled since 1970, with most of the movement heading into advanced countries. Of all the advanced countries, the US has received more immigrants than any other by half, and most of them from Mexico. To look at it another way, close to 10 percent of all people born in Mexico now reside in the United States.

That’s the picture in macro. Closing in on the details is trickier, as much of the movement from the south is covert, and illegal immigrants generally avoid census-takers and government authorities. Most estimates peg the annual number of illicit border-crossings at something like one million, based on border patrol apprehensions and on interviews with migrants, who say that, if caught, they simply keep trying until they succeed. As to the total number of illegals in the United States, estimates range from 10 million—based largely on census figures—to more than 20 million. Immigrants—half of them illegal—accounted for virtually all the US job growth since 2000.

These facts might be startling, even alarming, but they did not take shape suddenly. The foundations for today’s Mexican immigration were laid during World War II, when the industrial imperatives of the war effort combined with military conscription to create serious labor shortages in American agriculture. The upshot was the Bracero Program, engineered by the Roosevelt administration in early 1942, which established a formal system of “guest” labor to work the fields, especially in the Southwest. During the war years an average of 50,000 Mexicans made the round-trip to the farming districts of Texas, the Great Plains, and California.

The end of the fighting brought an end to the “emergency,” but the growers of the American Southwest and the wage-starved peasants of Mexico had by then formed a symbiotic bond. The program was left in place, and soon accompanied by a much larger, clandestine flow of migrants. In 1946 there were 32,000 braceros; that year, apprehensions by the INS, always just a fractional measure of illegal migration, reached 100,000. In 1953, there were 200,000 braceros, and 850,000 apprehensions.

This massive illegal movement coincided with McCarthyist security fears, and by the early fifties, in a political climate remarkably similar to today’s, demand mounted that the government “do something” to control the border. The government offered a two-edged response: Operation Wetback, an enforcement campaign that resulted in deportation of more than a million Mexicans, and a simultaneous increase in the scale of Bracero. It was a clever strategy, satisfying both the growers’ demand for labor and the political imperative for border control. But it masked what had by then become institutionalized: the large-scale migration of low-skilled labor from Mexico to the American Southwest. From 1956 to the end of the decade, Bracero imported an average of more than 400,000 workers each year. And by attending diligently to each employer—ensuring that hands were available when needed, and gone when not; that they labored without complaint, and for bottom dollar—the INS became complicit in ignoring contracted wage provisions and worker protections, and in deporting suspected labor-organizers and other malcontents. With growers and government working in concert, the rate of INS apprehensions subsided, while migrant fortunes declined steadily in terms of wages, housing, and other basic amenities.

But times were changing, and the compromise represented by Bracero couldn’t hold. By the early 1960s, the civil rights movement expanded its mandate to challenge discrimination against Latinos as well as American blacks. At the same time, INS officials were lambasted at congressional hearings that investigated mismanagement and abuses in operating the “guest worker” program. Growers responded by turning, once again, to the informal market. Enrollments in Bracero began a steady decline, and in 1964, the program was shut down.

Throughout this period, Mexico regarded Bracero with suspicion, and on occasion, moved to terminate the program unilaterally. Their objections came to a head in 1953, when Mexican negotiators pressed for an end to border recruitment and poor wages for braceros. When their American counterparts refused to give ground, the Mexicans terminated their participation in Bracero. The Americans responded by declaring the border “open”—and for three weeks residents of border towns in Texas and California were treated to the spectacle of migrants swarming past official Mexican roadblocks by the thousands, to reach INS recruiting stations on the northern side. A New York Times photographer captured the essence of the contest with an image of an aspiring farmworker standing astride the border, a Mexican official holding on to one arm and an American pulling on the other. It was a tragicomic moment that demonstrated something crucial in the dynamic of Mexican migration north: from the outset, it was driven by American demand for cheap labor.

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The demise of the Bracero Program spelled the end of the formal guest-worker system, but not of Mexican immigration to the United States. Over the following two decades, the migration north continued, most of it illegal. In the first year after Bracero, in 1965, INS apprehensions surpassed 100,000 for the first time in a decade; five years later they reached 400,000. By the early seventies, with the number of illegal residents counted in the millions, Congress convened a series of hearings, and during his first year in office, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter moved to double the size of the Border Patrol in an effort to combat “this enormous problem.”

Carter’s initiative foundered, however, as agricultural interests and other major employers fought any measure that might deprive them of access to cheap, easily replaced labor. Migration continued unabated; in the twenty years after Bracero was closed down, an estimated 28 million Mexicans entered the US illegally, compared to 1.3 million legal immigrants. The influx was offset, however, by a continuing flow back across the border. Most of the migrants maintained deep roots in their homeland, and over the same span of time, over 23 million immigrants returned to live in Mexico.

This was around the time that my friend Mark says he noticed the influx into Pomona. Mexicans didn’t cause the decline of his hometown, as Mark readily concedes, but they moved into the vacuum created by the collapse of the manufacturing sector, and the tide of strangers drifting into his old haunts compounded his senses of loss and of betrayal by the political system. His reaction was shared by millions of Americans, and led to passage of the landmark Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed into law in 1986 by Ronald Reagan.

IRCA incorporated all of the policy elements that experts agreed should be included in a comprehensive effort to combat immigration. There were employer sanctions to stanch US demand, dramatically heightened border enforcement to cut off the flow from the south, an amnesty provision to allow humane treatment of those migrants already resident here, and a Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) provision, an echo of Bracero, to allow for continued use of migrant labor. The law was passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by a Republican president. It was fully funded and won the endorsement of all but the most extreme political elements. Yet in its implementation, the IRCA backfired in every possible way. It stands now as a classic case of unintended consequences, and it’s worth taking a look at what went wrong.

There’s no question the escalation of border enforcement made crossings tougher, as evidenced by the steady rise in fees paid to coyotesthe smugglers who charge bounties to help migrants avoid US authorities. But as a wide number of studies show, that didn’t reduce the number of migrants. Instead, it forced the immigrants onto more hostile, more dangerous terrain. More than that, it altered the traditional, cyclical pattern of the Mexican migration. Rather than limit the flow north, the tougher policy meant that those immigrants in the US stopped returning home. And since the husbands couldn’t travel home, the wives and children of migrant workers began making the (more) arduous trek themselves in order to unite their families. These numbers are hard to quantify, as the flows are largely clandestine, but the migrant patterns were closely mapped through extensive interviews conducted by the Mexican Migration Project, a joint effort of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Guadalajara. “In short,” those researchers found that “U.S. immigration and border policies . . . transformed what had been a circular flow of temporary migrants into a settled immigration of permanent residents.”

As to employer sanctions, they quickly became a test case highlighting the flexibility of the market in the face of government regulation. Employers seeking cheap and capable workers easily dodged the law by accepting bogus documentation—how could they know the papers were false?—or by insulating themselves through using subcontractors. And for all the rhetoric about getting tough on immigration, the government was never really ready to start fining, let alone jailing, American business managers.

One more unintended consequence of IRCA compounded all the others: by legalizing millions of immigrants who before were here without documents, the act cut them free of their dependence on family and community networks inside the US. Moreover, the sudden legalization of so many marginal workers—more than half a million in Los Angeles alone—swamped mainstream labor markets. Consequently, resident Mexicans capitalized on their new legal status to disperse across the country. And new immigrants followed the same trend—where in the 1980s two-thirds of Mexican immigrants settled in California, now just one-third do, and the balance head for altogether new destinations, places such as Iowa, Georgia, Oregon, or North Carolina. What had been a movement confined largely to the Southwest became a national phenomenon.

The failure of IRCA was followed at fairly regular intervals—1990, 1996, and 2006—by new efforts to tighten border enforcement, to toughen employer sanctions, and to further limit immigrant access to social services. The results have only confirmed what was learned through IRCA: none of these efforts have put a dent in the volume of Mexican immigration. It’s akin to the War on Drugs: in confronting a broad-based, intrinsically human initiative, the punitive, disciplinary model simply doesn’t work. In fact, it generally makes the problem worse.

Fortunately, from my point of view, the immigration “problem” isn’t a problem at all. The academic critics of immigration, led by Harvard economist George Borjas, have worked assiduously to document the ill effects of immigration, but even their strongest findings show only incremental wage erosion for the least-skilled American workers. Those effects are disputed by other researchers, however, and are at least balanced by ancillary, positive effects of job creation and the augmenting of an aging native workforce. It feels counterintuitive, but the unemployment rate is actually lower in cities with high percentages of immigrants, for low-skill workers as well as for managers and other professionals. Moreover, entire sectors of the economy, including agriculture and food processing but also construction, hospitality and health care, have become dependent on the highly motivated immigrant workforce.

In certain specific instances, the interests of migrants clash more directly with those of native constituencies. But even here, my sense is that the blame ascribed to immigrants is misplaced.

*  *  *  *  

In the summer of 1969, at the height of the groundbreaking Delano grape boycott, Cesar Chavez led activists and workers on marathon marches through the Coachella and Imperial valleys of Southern California and down to the Mexican border, there to demonstrate against the growers’ use of illegal migrants to break strikes in the fields. It was a signal moment for Chavez, demonstrating a sense of vision broader than the next farm strike or the next labor contract. And it has since become a touchstone for anti-immigration activists, who are glad to claim Chavez as an ally.

“Cesar Chavez,” my friend Mark exclaims, wielding the name like a cudgel. “Look at the old footage. When they attempted to break the UFW strikes, who’d they bring in? It wasn’t a bunch of white people or black people, it was fresh illegal immigrants. Cesar went down there and formed what he called his ‘wet lines’”—squads of ham-fisted vigilantes, forerunners of the Minuteman militias that have sprung up since to defend a porous border.

This is central to Mark’s critique: Immigration is not a racial issue, but a question of labor supply and demand. “They don’t like to talk about it because it’s Cesar Chavez, this iconic saint. But the fact is he was adamantly opposed to illegal immigration because he knew: You throw the culture and the race aside what’s it used for? It’s harnessing illegal migration to screw the working man in this country.”

It’s true, that was Chavez’s vision, and it’s true that, under Bracero and in the years that followed, growers used migrant labor to replace striking farmworkers. But as Chavez himself later acknowledged, the equation was never so simple as his first formulation. The workers being replaced were often migrants as well, making the line between “us” and “them” much harder to draw. And for all the success the UFW enjoyed in the popular mind, little changed in the fields, suggesting that the stern rules of market for agricultural labor are more enduring than whatever achievements political action may realize.

Over the three-plus decades since the mass marches and the grape boycotts that made the United Farm Workers famous, we’ve all come to a new and more durable understanding of the dynamics of agricultural labor. The painful fact is that seasonal work on industrial farms has been and always will be an entry-level job at the bottom rung of the labor market, too temporary to sustain a settled, conventional lifestyle. Since its inception, industrial-scale agriculture has secured low-wage migrants to exploit, be they from Oklahoma, as portrayed by John Steinbeck, or from Mexico, as they are today. Their lowly status appears a harsh but integral feature of the system, and cannot be charged against the next wave of migrants.

Today, the UFW tacitly acknowledges this reality by supporting a legal path to citizenship for immigrant farmworkers and by opposing legislation to seal the border. That’s a far cry from “wet lines,” and a tacit acknowledgment that their lot lies with the immigrants as a class, and not with the winners of an occasional contract dispute.

The years since Cesar Chavez’s death have been lean ones for the union he founded, and so the policy shift might be seen as a sign of its weakness, not the maturing views of Chavez’s successors. But the UFW is not alone. Organized labor, long a fount of nativist vigor, is now broadly sympathetic to immigrants, in part because the new arrivals are more political—and more receptive to union organizers—than is much of the domestic workforce. Thus, in an address to the Senate Judiciary Committee, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney acknowledged that “occasionally in the past, there has been resistance within our ranks to new groups in society and in the workforce.” Now that’s changed. Labor’s new platform calls for permanent legal status for all undocumented workers and their families, scaled-back employer sanctions that focus on violations of wage and work rules, and strict limits on guest-worker programs. Such reforms, Sweeney said, are a matter of “fundamental justice.”

Again, it’s easy to ascribe this change of heart to the steady decline of organized labor in America. But I see it as a necessary adjustment to a changing world. At a time when traditional union jobs are being robotized or shipped overseas, the unions have recognized the need for a more fluid definition of the population they represent. They need to globalize as fast as the capitalists they seek to corral.

Globalization implies moving jobs and technology across borders and oceans in pursuit of the most efficient combination of inputs. But when the borders divide neighboring countries, the chief effect of globalization is integration. And no two countries have gone further to integrate their economies than the United States and Mexico. The free trade agreement that took effect in January of 1994 brought dramatic expansion in the economic interdependence of the two neighbor states: under NAFTA, US exports to Mexico grew four-fold, to more than $100 billion, with roughly half that material shipped directly back across the border as finished products. Mexican exports to the US increased even faster in real terms, reaching more than $150 billion, and comprising more than 90 percent of total Mexican exports.

Today, something like 20 percent of the Mexican economy is occupied exclusively in fabricating exports for the United States. And more than half of all foreign investment in Mexico comes from its neighbor to the north. As the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas noted last year, “The two economies now march almost in lockstep.”

Against that backdrop of economic intimacy, the barrier to migration stands out as the exception, not the rule. Economist Richard Freeman, among others, has proposed open borders as the “radically economic” corollary to open markets for goods and capital. And while I’m not ready to endorse a full open-borders policy—I can imagine a boatlift from China that would inundate the Great Plains in a generation—I see Mexico as a special case. We share a border, we share a continent, and, with the recent acceleration of our economic integration, we share our destiny. With so much in common, it seems fair to ask just what it is that divides us.

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San Xavier del Bac was dubbed by its founder “the White Dove of the Desert.” In the centuries that followed, the friars and priests did all they could to see that the mission lived up to its name. Its two whitewashed towers framing a grand, central frieze of carved sandstone, the church looms as an ethereal, almost otherworldly, presence over the dry, rocky plain of the Santa Cruz Valley.

At the time if its founding, in the waning days of the seventeenth century, the church marked the northernmost reach of a string of missions raised by Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit from Italy who befriended the pacific Indians of the Sonora Desert during a thirty-year tour on the frontier. Mexico then was ruled by Spain and dominated by a central government in Mexico City, already a metropolis watered by aqueducts and boasting a university, a cathedral, and such emblems of European modernity as a printing press. Kino and his fellow Jesuits were charged with the task of settling the vast, untamed regions to the north. Like Junípero Serra in California, he saw his mission as one of enlightenment rather than conquest; their object was to extend the “Rim of Christendom,” winning converts along the way.

Kino was a visionary: on a harsh desert basin watered by a river that ran dry most of the year, he anticipated a settlement of 30,000 people in “another city like Mexico.” His plans were frustrated by the shifting priorities of his superiors in Mexico City, and by the occasional ravages of the warlike Apaches. Still, the little church Kino founded in the shadow of the Tucson Mountains was still standing in 1775, when Juan Bautista de Anza passed through on his trek north to establish the presidio at San Francisco.

Today, the ancient mission stands on the grounds of the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, a desolate patch of desert reserved for the original inhabitants of the valley. There is, consequently, little development—just a few forlorn homesites scattered in the brush. The border with Mexico lies fifty miles to the south, and the City of Tucson, first imagined by Eusebio Kino, with its bus station and rail lines and nearly a million residents, lies ten miles north.

I’ve stopped by this lonely outpost on the old Spanish trail to get a firsthand look at a more modern path—the northward route followed by thousands of Mexican migrants forced from their customary corridor by increased INS enforcement around Tijuana. The migrants travel singly or in groups, sometimes following a guide but often on their own. They sleep by day and move by night, the better to avoid both the cruel sun and the agents of the US Border Patrol. The traffic is clandestine and all but invisible, but it crops up in aggregates—the rise in activity reported by the Border Patrol, to more than 400,000 arrests each year, and the increasing number of bodies. Hundreds of migrants die in their desert crossing each year, their corpses discovered in gravel washes and on rocky flats, often signaled by circling buzzards.

I’ve made the drive out here from my home in Los Angeles to get a sense of the situation on the border. In Tucson I went by the offices of an outfit called Humane Borders, a group led by a Methodist minister which has placed hundreds of “watering stations” at lonely spots in the desert to sustain the desperate migrants. One of their innovations was to map the locations of where migrants’ bodies have turned up in the deserts south and west of Tucson; I decided to drive the old two-lane road that crosses the region and see the terrain up close.

Father Kino, who traveled the Sonora Desert extensively, called this path across the desert toward Yuma “El Camino del Diablo”—the Devil’s Highway—and what is striking today is how little has changed. There are half a dozen mountain ranges and, between them, sweeping basins of sandstone and volcanic rock that have baked for millennia in temperatures that routinely exceed 100 degrees. The landscape is dominated by saguaro cactus, which can grow fifty feet high and take the better part of a century to mature. You know them from Road Runner cartoons, but seen in person they are strangely affecting, their limbs crooked in haunting, human poses. I couldn’t help but wonder how they appear to the migrants who pass by—are they comforting, with their welcoming arms, or do they only underscore the lonely nature of the trek, and how little nature cares for the fate of the occasional sojourner?

As it happened, the week I drove through, in October, President Bush signed legislation authorizing seven hundred miles of new fencing along the Mexican border, most of it along just this desolate corridor. Much of the debate in Congress turned on the costs of building and maintaining a viable barrier in such remote and inhospitable terrain, weighed against the need to secure the US border from infiltration by lawbreaking immigrants. What struck me, as I drove west from the mission at Xavier del Bac, was the audacity of the project, that by erecting a steel barrier across the vacant wastes, the government was attempting to seal off migratory routes that have been active since the Puritans were burning witches in a small hamlet on the coast of Massachusetts.

There is irony here, as well as tragedy, because as the mission church demonstrates in concrete form, this entire region once was the domain of Mexico.

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In 1819, on the eve of Mexico’s war of independence from Spain, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams signed a treaty with Spain to establish the boundaries of the United States after the acquisitions made by the Louisiana Purchase. Adams gave up all claims to Texas, while Spain ceded its lands in Florida and, on the West Coast, the Oregon territory up to Canada. The treaty provided extensive hinterlands for both nations, allowing the Anglo republic on the eastern seaboard to expand west across the Rockies to the Pacific; and the Hispanic society to the south, to extend north and build out from the footprint laid down by the early missionaries.

The result was a continental division that appears strange in light of the current international boundary, but a fair reflection of the state of European presence in North America at the time it was devised, with the Anglo settlers poised on the verge of the Great Plains, and the Spanish established in the arid Southwest. Though an ardent expansionist, Thomas Hart Benton, the US senator from Missouri, said at the time, “This is the boundary between the United States and Mexico pointed out by the finger of nature . . . as proper for Mexico as for ourselves, and written down in the book of fate as the true and permanent boundary between the two first Powers of the New World.” Mexico won its independence in 1821, but the logic of the treaty remained sound, and it was ratified by both young republics ten years later.

The comfortable balance was soon upset, however, by upheaval in Texas. The revolution there was, at the outset, a purely internal affair for the Mexican republic, which was then divided between centralists and advocates of a federal system. But it quickly became an American question, the immediate object of the ambitious doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Mexico regarded the annexation of Texas, in 1845, as an act of American aggression. Their suspicions were confirmed when, a year later, President James K. Polk sent an American Army across disputed territory to the banks of the Rio Grande. When Mexico responded in force, Polk declared war, dragging a reluctant Congress along.

Better armed and better led, the US Army quickly vanquished every force the Mexicans could muster. Yet opposition grew steadily in Congress, where the war exposed fundamental rifts in the American union. Northern interests feared the slaveholding Polk was seeking to open a new empire for slavery, while southerners like John Calhoun decried the prospect of racial mixing should America incorporate large numbers of Mexicans. And many political leaders recoiled at the aggressive nature of the war, marked from the outset by Polk’s dispatch of troops to seize the territories of New Mexico and California, which he claimed as “indemnity” for the cost of invading Mexico in the first place.

To Polk’s frustration, Mexico refused to concede defeat, and so the fighting wore on, the Americans taking first the provinces of the north, and then driving into Mexico City itself. After two years of bloodshed, the president’s critics grew exasperated. “What more do you want?” Senator James Pearce of Maryland demanded in early 1848. “Mexico cannot bring an army into the field. Her revenues are exhausted; her means of military defense destroyed; the military spirit of her people is broken. She is helpless and hopeless, except in your mercy. You propose to carry the war further—‘into the vitals of the country.’ Not satisfied with the blood already shed, do you thirst for more? Do you desire more towns to bombard, fresh armies to defeat? When there are none to be found, will you rejoice in the slaughter of the miserable guerrillas?”

The answer came a few months later when Polk, with Congress on the verge of outright rebellion, accepted the terms of his conquest. He allowed Mexico to retain Baja California, a coastline he once coveted, but Polk took most of what he wanted—California from San Diego to Oregon, a larger Texas, and everything in between: Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado. It was a huge acquisition, nearly half the landmass of the new Mexican republic, and it reconfigured the political shape of the continent.

The discovery of gold near the Sacramento River, in 1849, prompted a surge of Anglo settlement in California, but for much of the conquered territory, especially along the northern stretches of the Rio Grande, from El Paso to Santa Fe, the historic Latino settlement of the region continued apace. From 1820 to 1870, Latino traders, ranchers, and farmers spread across the arid plains in what the geographic historian D. W. Meinig has called “a little-known event of major importance,” in which a “spontaneous unspectacular folk movement impressed an indelible cultural stamp upon the life and landscape of a broad portion of the Southwest.”

In the years that followed, American industry and enterprise transformed the barren wastelands of the conquered territory. Rail lines were built west linking Los Angeles through Albuquerque to Denver, and through Tucson and El Paso to New Orleans. Mining boomtowns cropped up in places like Ajo and Globe in Arizona, and Tyrone and Dawson in New Mexico. In California, the great Central Valley gave birth to new, industrial farms that operated on a scale never seen before, spreads of a thousand acres or more planted and harvested by seasonal labor. All these operations relied on low-skilled, low-wage workers, and for a time, both rail and farming magnates imported labor from Asia. But when nativist reaction in the late nineteenth century gave rise to laws banning immigration from China and then Japan, the capitalists of the west began looking south.

Many Mexicans proved ready and willing. The strongman regime of Porfirio Díaz had brought industrial development and economic growth, but also dislocation and poverty for the rural farmers who constituted 80 percent of the population. Díaz’s overthrow, in 1911, precipitated interminable revolution that left more than a million dead, and millions more jobless and destitute. Already by the turn of the century masses of landless peasants were moving to north-central Mexico to work in American-owned mines and railroads; when American labor recruiters began to show up along the rail corridors south of the border, they found ample supplies of cheap labor eager to take the next step. By 1920, more than a million Mexicans had made the trek north and taken up residence in the American Southwest. When, in 1921, the federal government finally moved to end the great migration from Europe, Mexicans were specifically excluded from the immigration restrictions. The border remained open, and Mexico’s northward movement, interrupted for a generation by conquest and political separation, had resumed.

*  *  *  *  

I had lived here in Los Angeles for three years when I made my first trip to Mexico City. I flew in around midnight and, peering through the airplane window, was awed by what I saw. The lights below showed up first in discrete patches, here and there, scattered over the pitch-dark countryside. The patches increased in frequency until they formed a sort of quilt, set off by rectangles of inky darkness. Then the rectangles filled in, until the light grid blanketed the high-mountain plain as far as I could see. It felt like a scene from Star Wars, when spaceships approach the mind-boggling expanse of the Death Star.

Over the next few days I got to know the city, or at least to explore some of its endless colonias, linked by a winding tangle of avenues and boulevards. It was mystifying, certainly, and enchanting in the way of some meandering baroque novel, but then I was struck with a sense of recognition: Los Angeles, my new hometown, was not a larger version of an American city, but a smaller version of Mexico City. It had the same confusion, the same haphazard pattern of development, the same sense of surprise, as each neighborhood revealed its own unique character.

It is no great insight, I suppose, to see parallels between Los Angles and Mexico City: L.A. claims the largest settlement of Mexicans anywhere outside Mexico. Of roughly 10 million people in Los Angeles County (the distinction between city and county in this sprawling metropolis is largely irrelevant), nearly half, more than 4 million, are Latino. Non-Hispanic whites, the next largest share of the population, account for just 30 percent of the population. The simple fact: L.A. is a Latino city, if it’s anything.

That’s not a “reconquista,” as my friend Mark fears, but a natural progression. For most of this century, Los Angeles was the place to which migrant farmworkers retreated after the harvest and before the spring plantings. There were barrios where they felt at home, where they found kin and compatriots, friends from distant hometowns and markets where the clerks spoke Spanish. That such a footprint would expand during a period of historic migration is only to be expected.

My sense of L.A.’s Latino nature comes from living here, but my more recent inquiries into immigration extended my horizons a bit. That is, as I reviewed the mapped, state-by-state data from the most recent American census, I was struck by a remarkable pattern: those states with the highest concentrations of Latinos (or as they are called by the census, Persons of Hispanic Origins) conform almost precisely to the region appropriated from Mexico by the United States in the 1840s. If you include just the states where Latinos comprise 25 percent or more of the population, there are no exceptions: California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. If you draw the line at 10 percent Latino, you get some others in geographic proximity—Nevada and Colorado—and a few more that are anomalous: Illinois, where Mexicans have worked industrial jobs since the 1920s; New York, which includes many non-Mexican Hispanics; and Florida, where Cubans and other Caribbean Latins swell the count.

In other words, it’s fair to say that Los Angeles is as much Mexican as it is American, but it’s more than that. Los Angeles is the metropolitan seat of a broad region of Anglo–Mexican overlap and integration, a region that was given by one historian the hybrid name “Mexamerica.” It’s an apt designation, but it’s too static to capture the dynamic nature of what’s going on. What the census map suggests to me is the continuing extension of Mexico’s population into its natural hinterlands. It’s a matter of flow, the demographic equivalent of osmosis. Remember, in terms of human history and the movement of peoples, this is still a very young continent. Five hundred years, if you count the first landfall of white men; fewer if you count actual settlement. Within that time frame, the gradual infill of peoples is an ongoing process, far from complete. If you start with the Anglos in the east, and the Mexicans in the south, “the finger of nature,” as Thomas Hart Benton termed it, would designate the American Southwest as Mexican turf.

This is a historic movement, to my mind, in the sense that it is part of the continuing, epochal process of peopling the continent, but that doesn’t mean it’s antique. The great American movement west took place in the middle of the nineteenth century, around the time Horace Greeley exhorted the young men of his generation to “Go West!” The Mexican movement, by contrast, got under way fifty years later, with Greeley’s clarion call replaced by the more prosaic but no less compelling lure of the American dollar.

Beginning around the close of Mexico’s revolution, in certain districts, and then entire regions, elders turned to the young men and said, “Go North!” The migration waxed in the early part of the century, stalled during the Depression, resumed with Bracero, and reached critical mass only in the last twenty or thirty years. It’s happening today. It’s happening now. And while the boulevards and barrios of Los Angeles and Fresno and El Paso are crowded with newcomers, there is ample room in the transitional suburbs and decaying industrial strips of San Antonio and Phoenix and, yes, Pomona, to accommodate a new generation of pilgrims.

This long view should be a sobering one for anyone seeking to stanch the tide by police action, physical barriers, or regulatory obstacles. Consider what our own ancestors endured on their trail across the continent—the deprivation, the hardship, the risk. Looking back from our more comfortable time, it seems almost inconceivable that settlers would embark across burning deserts and snowbound mountains, expose themselves and their families to hunger, weather, and attack by hostile Indians. Yet we see the same feats of endurance and faith performed by thousands of Mexicans every day—trekking across searing deserts, squeezing through flimsy tunnels, cramming into dark, airless compartments in border-running trucks, and, once inside the US, dodging armed authorities to hunt for work despite legal, linguistic, and cultural barriers. These latter-day migrants show all the heroics and fortitude of the frontiersmen; they seem just as likely to survive and, eventually, to thrive.

*  *  *  *  

What the census map illustrates is the degree to which the border has failed to shape the flow of population. What the map does not show is what the border does do: it demarks the terms of relations between people, depending on where they come from. That is, most of the Mexicans reflected in the census crossed the border illegally, and so long as they remained on the American side, they lived their lives outside the law—in terms of compliance, certainly, but also outside its protection. For however long it took before they became naturalized, they were consigned to an underclass with strict limits on their rights and opportunities. The same outsider status persists today for a huge category of people—10 million, perhaps 20 million—and for all those to come.

The border also marks another distinction, albeit one diminished by years of amalgamation, and that is race. To my mind, that question lies at the root of most of the nativist fears and protests: those who oppose Mexican immigration recoil at the prospect of even more brown-skinned neighbors. But if you put it plainly, most anti-immigrant activists will vehemently object to that characterization. My friend Mark, for example, says he has no problems with Mexicans per se, just the cultural baggage they bring from Mexico. “It’s just quality of life,” he says, as we wheel along one of Pomona’s suburban boulevards. “Look,” he says, and he points, and lying there on its side, as if on cue, is an empty shopping cart. “Shopping carts, right? All over the place . . . It’s just an attitude of, we’re going to be here, we’ll take our shopping carts, we’ll go to the store, which is what they would do in Mexico, and we’ll leave it in the front yard, let it fall over. You’re living the life that you would live in Mexico, it’s just a little easier to do.”

I press the point, suggesting that Mark’s antipathy toward the immigrants has a racial element underlying it, but he’s not biting. “I wouldn’t care if these people came from Denmark; there are just too many goddamn people.” Okay, I’ll take that statement at face value, but even if Mark is truly color-blind, many of his cohorts are not. On this score I’ll borrow from one of Mark’s political heroes, Pat Buchanan. In his recent book State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America, Buchanan worries, “Will the American Southwest become a giant Kosovo, a part of the nation separated from the rest by language, ethnicity, history, and culture, to be reabsorbed in all but name by Mexico from whom we took these lands in the time of Jackson and Polk?”

As to the Southwest being “reabsorbed,” my answer would be that it’s already largely occurred. Where I differ with Buchanan, and with Mark, is that I regard this development as evidence of the genius of the American system, not of its vulnerability. It’s an old saw but it bears repeating here: we are a nation of immigrants, united more by allegiance to the ideal of liberty than any common ancestry. I can report from personal experience that Los Angeles may not feel like Philadelphia—nor is it “separated” like Kosovo. The roads are open, the people are generally friendly, and, despite my limited Spanish, I’ve never felt slightest bit unwelcome as a sojourner in Mexamerica.

Buchanan goes further in his book, warning that, “by 2050 Americans of European descent will be a minority in the nation their ancestors created and built. No nation has ever undergone so radical a demographic transformation and survived.” Maybe, but again he fails to account for the unique nature of the United States. Never the home to any single people—Buchanan fudges the point with the polyglot term “European”—America was from the beginning an amalgam: there were British colonies, populated by Germans and Dutch and Irish as well as the English, but also, in succession, slaves from Africa, French territories, Spanish cessions, and then the invasion of Mexico.

At each step along the way, Buchanan’s spiritual forebears raised concerns similar to those he voices today. John C. Calhoun, for example, opposed any incursion into Mexico for fear of corrupting the conquerors. “Ours is the government of the white man,” Calhoun declared on the Senate floor in 1848. “Are we to associate with ourselves as equals, companions, and fellow citizens, the Indians and mixed-race peoples of Mexico? I would consider such association as degrading to ourselves and fatal to our institutions.” The expansionists of the time responded in the same tenor: Lewis Cass, former secretary of state and an ally of Polk, proposed that, “We do not want the people of Mexico, either as citizens or subjects. All we want is a portion of their territory, which they nominally hold, generally uninhabited, or, where inhabited at all, sparsely so, and with a population which would soon recede, or identify itself with ours.”

Both sides of that debate appear antiquated and shortsighted today, and Buchanan’s view should be regarded in the same light. To our credit, and at no small cost, Americans have learned to look past categories of race and heritage to find virtue in tolerance and strength in diversity. In fact—and this should be taken as a sign of things to come as well as of things past—it was the arrival of this new consciousness that spelled the end of the Bracero Program.

Bracero was designed with the best intentions, and in collaboration with the Mexican government. Employers were required to certify that no domestic workers would be displaced by immigrants, and the braceros would be guaranteed a “prevailing wage” that in no case was to sink below the US minimum wage. The Mexican representatives made sure that recruitment would take place in Mexico City and not at the border, in order to prevent destabilization of their domestic labor market.

That was the theory. In practice, Bracero represented another episode in our long history of racial castes, supplying growers with unlimited supplies of low-cost labor that could be exploited with impunity and jettisoned for the off-season. Efforts by the government to enforce wage rates or workplace rules were met with defiance as the growers simply returned to the illegal market; to regain their allegiance, the INS systematically ignored abuses and itself engaged in wholesale violations of workers’ and civil rights. In Texas especially, where Mexicans supplanted black slaves as the preferred labor force in the cotton fields, Mexicans were disparaged in the same fashion as blacks, and subjected to the same segregation; they were routinely barred from restaurants, from public toilets, and from theaters.

That was fine with the growers, fine with the dominant white culture in Texas, and, for a time, fine with the federal government. What changed was not the economics of the labor market—that dynamic remains much the same today—but the political climate in America. The civil rights movement and a more progressive labor movement combined in the early 1960s to challenge discrimination against Latinos as well as American blacks, and Bracero became a focus of critique. What was essentially a race-based program, which enlisted the government in designating an entire class of workers for separate and unequal treatment, would be tolerated no longer. At the same time, officials at the US Department of Labor began to challenge the INS and the growers through more aggressive enforcement of contract provisions. It was more than coincidence when, in the waning days of the program, Lee Williams of the Department of Labor denounced Bracero as “legalized slavery.”

My point is not to make accusations or ascribe blame, but to suggest that taking a longer view of the migration north might lead to some different conclusions about how the migrants should be perceived, and how they should be treated. My friend Mark, and his champion Buchanan, would defy the underlying forces of geography and demography to draw a bright line harking back to our racially chauvinist heritage. They represent the “right” side of the current political debate. The “left,” as codified in the bill passed last year by the Senate, would resurrect the guest-worker concept, providing for naturalization of immigrants only after an extended period of servitude, forced departures, and family separation.

It seems to me that such a prospect is not only odious but also untenable, considering the current state of political and racial consciousness in America. Specifically in regard to guest workers, leaders from both labor and the Latino community have promised vigorous opposition. “A new guest-worker program built on the failed policies and models of the past cannot be the centerpiece of our national immigration policy,” John Sweeney told the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2001. At the same hearing, National Council of La Raza president Raul Yzaguirre reprised the “highly negative” history of Bracero, and promised to fight “all proposed expansions to these programs because they undercut workers rights by offering few labor protections, tie workers to individual employers, and provide no opportunities for adjustment of status.”

Both approaches now under consideration in Congress appeared rooted in an earlier time, preserving distinctions of ethnicity and nationality and subverting the simple truth of America as a nation united by precepts of equality and economic and cultural liberty. The phenomenon of northward migration from Mexico presents a policy conundrum, but also an opportunity. Instead of asking why, we can pose the question, Why not?

Rather than fortify the border, another exercise in the failed, punitive mode, why not open it, granting open-ended visas to all Mexicans who apply, and, later, citizenship to any? New entrants would have the same obstacles—financial, linguistic, cultural—as their predecessors, factors that would tend to mitigate any sudden rush north. With the traffic aboveboard, security would improve, and the coyotes would be put out of business immediately and entirely. An open border might even slow northward movement by restoring the southward leg of the migration cycle, allowing Mexican families to stay rooted in their homelands rather than resettling far from their kin and traditions.

Remember, the groundwork has already been laid, by NAFTA, and by the migration that’s already taken place. And Europe has shown the way, creating a common market—and an economic powerhouse—of twenty-five distinct and prideful nations. Our North American Common Market is already established in regard to trade and capital; open flows of people would only complete the picture.

What of America? The future, of course, is impossible to predict. Our country is changing, that much is certain, and I think that’s what spurs people like Pat Buchanan and my friend Mark alike. They want to alert the citizenry before it’s too late, but they’re trying to turn back the clock. What they see as realism, I see as nostalgia. The day of Mark’s father, of the unskilled worker taking home a middle-class paycheck, is gone, and no amount of recrimination will change that. Instead of yearning for that time—a time when American society was tacitly defined by racial caste—we can affirm our commitment to the ideals of equality and opportunity, by looking to the future, by embracing Mexicans as our brethren in what is still a new world, and as partners in building an open, dynamic, and optimistic society.


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