Not until 1924, when the Border Patrol was founded, did it become illegal for Mexicans to cross the border without permission from the U.S. government. The government first began policing the border, in fact, after a general nativist backlash against immigrants provoked by World War I. The first mass deportations of immigrant farm workers occurred in the 1930s -- that is, during the Great Depression.
The first few years of border enforcement set the pattern we have followed since: U.S. borders have been enforced more or less rigorously depending on the country's political and economic mood, with a general trend towards greater enforcement. Of course, even after policing began, employers still needed to use Mexican labor. Through the mid-1960s, the U.S. maintained a bracero program, which brought Mexicans here legally as temporary workers just for the harvesting season. The program was discontinued after investigations revealed mass abuse of labor by the growers who used the program.
Generally, though, the border has tightened as globalization has accelerated and the two countries' economies have integrated -- an apparent paradox, but one that makes sense if you think about it.
One of the objections to immigration reform has always been the message it sends about national sovereignty. The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, faced a similar objection. Supporters billed the measure as a way to grow Mexican manufacturing, expand U.S. and Canadian access to low-cost Mexican products, and get Mexicans access to the high-end consumer electronics they had long coveted (and sometimes smuggled across the border at the end of family vacations).
But NAFTA had a tough sell on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Some Mexicans saw it as an imperialist power grab, while their American counterparts billed it as an attempt to dissolve the integrity of the U.S. through close economic ties with its southern and northern neighbors. After extensive hustling by the Clinton Administration and the business community of all three countries, all three nations ratified the treaty in 2003.
Since the ratification of NAFTA, opponents of a path to legalization for undocumented workers have raised again and again this specter of a North American Union, an EU-like federation of Mexico, the U.S., and Canada. They have threatened that to show any leniency towards this group of immigrants would send Mexicans streaming across our southern border to wrest jobs from Americans.
Other critics of legalization have suggested we might as well create a union. After all, with all the illegal immigrants here already, haven't we already ceded the responsibility of a sovereign nation to protect our citizens' interests? They imply that undocumented immigration means fewer jobs for U.S. citizens.
Many writers have addressed the notion that Mexicans routinely take jobs Americans would like to do. But in another way, comprehensive immigration reform may do a lot to address the sovereignty objection. Right now, we have a lot of Mexican nationals living in the parts of the U.S. that Mexico once claimed. If we gave them a path to citizenship, we might, in a sense, be redrawing a boundary that has always been partly imaginary.
It's worth noting, too, that if the U.S. economy continues to change the way some people have predicted, the border will become even less relevant to the actual functioning of our society, culture, and economy. In last weekend's New York Times, former Wired editor Chris Anderson floated the idea that manufacturing and engineering jobs might return to northern Mexico from China. Anderson, who now runs a company that manufactures drones for personal use, described his commute between two countries:
You can drive from our San Diego engineering center to our Tijuana factory in 20 minutes, no passport required. (A passport is needed to come back, but there are fast-track lanes for business people.) Some of our employees commute across the border each day; good doctors are cheaper and easier to find in TJ, as are private schools, although it's generally nicer to live in San Diego. In some ways, the border feels more like the notional borders of the European Union than a divide between the developed and developing worlds.
That old North American Union -- it's happening anyway. We can argue about whether that's a good thing. But what better way to acknowledge a complicated history (and improve a few million lives) than giving Mexicans here the chance to legally become Mexican American? In all but name, many of them already are.