Deport the Interlopers? But They've Been Here All Along

There may be some real objections to immigration reform. But the idea that it would violate national sovereignty shouldn't be one of them.

In this 1936 photo by Dorothea Lange, a family of migrant workers from Mexico has car trouble on a California road. (Library of Congress)

Mexicans don't necessarily have it the worst when crossing illegally into the United States. Ecuadorans and Salvadorans, who also immigrate here in large (and rising) numbers, tend to face a much longer land journey -- they have to pass through all of Mexico to get here. The ocean crossing from Cuba to Key West, a mere 100 miles, may be the most dangerous of all, especially if you set out at night on a homemade raft, as many migrants used to do.

But Mexicans, even those traveling safely and legally between the two countries, carry history with them when they cross the border. On the drive past Nuevo Laredo to San Antonio or Houston -- or at any number of checkpoints along the national border -- they pass through land that used to be claimed by Mexico.

President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of eight senators have proposed comprehensive immigration reform. If the measure passes, it will impact immigrants from around the world, but perhaps none more so than Mexicans. As Brian Resnick of National Journal notes, 55 to 60 percent of our undocumented immigrants are Mexican. That's about 6 million people, a far greater number than any other country has sent us.

At least publicly and at least so far, a lot of the objections to the plan have taken the law-and-order angle. What kind of message does it send to reward law-breakers with citizenship? But other objections are not as sophisticated. Commentators have begun to invoke the idea, long popular on the right, that legalizing our undocumented workers would somehow mock or weaken U.S. sovereignty.

At moments like this, it's good to remember that the border has been highly porous, and often ambiguous, for most of U.S. history. Mexicans and their forebears have lived on both sides of it for a long time. Because of the Mexican-American war, our economic ties, and our geopolitical situation, almost every Mexican citizen has some kind of history with the U.S. (The relationship is arguably Mexico's most fraught.)

In Tijuana in 2005, Argentine artist Judi Werthein hands out free pairs of her Brinco sneakers to men planning to illegally cross the border into the U.S. The sturdy, lightweight shoes feature a map of the Tijuana-San Diego area and a built-in compass. To cross the border, migrants often have to travel 100 miles or more on foot through extreme heat and cold. In the past decade, 2,000 have died while making the journey. (Denis Poroy/AP)

But for some migrants and visitors, the ties are even deeper. Many Mexicans trace their heritage to indigenous groups cleaved in two by the border. Others have worked for factories or firms that produce goods primarily for U.S. export. Tell these people they don't have a right to live or work in the U.S., and some would reply that they have as much of a right as any U.S. citizen.

Like many national borders, the initial line drawn between the two countries was in a sense highly arbitrary. Through the end of the 19th century -- that is, even after the Mexican-American war -- native populations that inhabited what is now the border region roamed without restrictions the area between the American Southwest and Northern Mexico. Because of the process of mestizaje, many Mexicans could trace part of their heritage back to one of these cultural groups.

During the conquest, the Spanish settled deep in North America. Before the Mexican-American War in 1848, Mexico's claims on the West Coast stretched all the way up to modern-day Oregon. And, of course, the country also claimed more than half of what is now Texas.

The Alamo in 1980 (Wikimedia Commons)

As settlers from the eastern United States began to move west, the disputed slice of the future state of Texas started to become a problem. American settlers clashed with Mexicans, and with indigenous people still living in the area. By 1846, both U.S. and Mexican federal troops had arrived in the territory. In two years, Mexico had lost the war. 

As part of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which ended hostilities and established a friendly relationship between the two nations, Mexico ceded a vast swath of territory, from today's California to today's Texas. Our southern contour was set. In the east, the treaty moved our border from one natural boundary (the Nueces River) to another (the Rio Grande). In the west, the geological boundary between the two countries is less clear.

For some people living between the two cultures, the border is a fracture that has never healed. The treaty, wrote the Chicana activist Gloria Anzaldúa, "left 100,000 Mexican citizens on this [the U.S.] side, annexed by conquest along with the land." They became the first Mexican Americans. It was not, and is not, a comfortable position to be in, Anzaldúa writes:

The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta [is an open wound] where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country -- a border culture. ... A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition.

The war delineated our current border. But beginning in 1850 -- that is, almost immediately after the war -- Mexicans began to replace immigrant Chinese and Japanese as cheap manual labor, especially on Midwestern and Western farms. While they crossed the border to work without any particular authorization, it didn't really matter. The concept of an "illegal alien" didn't yet exist. Their immigration without papers hadn't been criminalized, and many agricultural workers returned to Mexico at the end of each picking season.

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Emily Chertoff is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's National channel.

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