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.

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.

President Clinton signs NAFTA into law in December 1993. (Mark Theiler/Reuters)

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.