Developments in the recent history of the United States

Immigration from Latin America—and the at‐
tendant growth of the nation’s Hispanic or La‐
tino population—are two of the most impor‐
tant and controversial developments in the re‐
cent history of the United States. Expanding
from a small, regionally concentrated popula‐
tion of fewer than 6 million
in 1960 (just 3.24 percent of
the U.S. population at the
time), to a now widely dis‐
persed population of well
more than 50 million (or 16
percent of the nation’s popu‐
lation), Latinos are destined
to continue to exert enorm‐
ous impact on social, cultural, political, and
economic life of the U.S.1 Although space limi‐
tations make it impossible to provide a com‐
prehensive account of this complex history,
this essay is intended to provide an overview
of the history of Latino immigration to the U.S.
with particular emphasis on issues of citizen‐
ship and non‐citizenship, the long running po‐
litical controversies over immigration policy,
and the global economic context in which re‐
gional migration and immigration have oc‐
curred. The essay suggests that the explosive
growth of the nation’s pan‐Latino population is
the result of the intricate interplay of national,
regional, and global economic developments,
the history of U.S. military and foreign policy in
the Western Hemisphere, the checkered histo‐
ry of international border enforcement and in‐
terdiction efforts, and, not least, the aspirations
of Latin American migrants and potential mi‐
grants themselves.
Foundational Population Movements:
The history of Latino migration to the U.S. has
complex origins rooted in the nation’s terri‐
torial and economic expansion. Technically, the
first significant influx of Latino immigrants to
the U.S. occurred during the California Gold
Rush, or just after most of the modern boun‐
dary between the U.S. and Mexico was estab‐
lished at the end of the U.S.‐Mexican War
(1846‐48). Under the terms of the Treaty of
Guadalupe Hidalgo (signed
outside of Mexico City in
February 1848), the Republic
of Mexico ceded to the U.S.
more than one‐third of its
former territory, including
what are now the states of
California, Nevada, Utah, Ari‐
zona, New Mexico, Colorado,
Texas, and parts of several other states. In ad‐
dition, the treaty also offered blanket naturali‐
zation to the estimated 75,000 to 100,000 for‐
mer citizens of Mexico who chose to remain
north of the new border at the end of the war.2
With exception of the approximately 10,000
Mexican miners who entered California during
the Gold Rush, migration from Mexico was very
light during most of the 19th century, averag‐
ing no more than 3,000 to 5,000 persons per
decade in the period between 1840 and 1890.3
This changed dramatically at the beginning of
next century. As the pace of economic devel‐
opment in the American West accelerated after
the expansion of the regional rail system in the
1870s and 1880s, and as the supply of labor
from Asian nations was dramatically reduced
by a series of increasingly restrictive immigra‐
tion laws beginning in 1882, U.S. employers
began to look to Mexico to fill a dramatically
rising demand for labor in basic industries in‐
cluding agriculture, mining, construction, and
transportation (especially railroad construc‐
tion and maintenance). Drawn to the border
region by the simultaneous economic devel‐
opment of northern Mexico and the southwes‐
The history of Latino
migration to the U.S. has
complex origins rooted in
the nation’s territorial
and economic expansion.
58 An Historic Overview of Latino Immigration and the Demographic Transformation of the United States
Braceros arrivingby train into Los Angeles, California
(Oakland Museum of California, Dorothea Lange, 1942)
tern U.S. (largely facilitated by the eventual lin‐
kage of the American and Mexican rail systems
at key points along the U.S.‐Mexico border), at
least 100,000 Mexicans had migrated to the
U.S. by 1900. The outbreak of the Mexican Rev‐
olution in 1910 greatly intensified the move‐
ment of people within Mexico and eventually
across the border, a trend that continued for
the first three decades of the 20th century.
Historical migration statistics for this period
are notoriously inaccurate because of inconsis‐
tent enumeration techniques, changing me‐
thods of ethnic and racial
classification in the U.S.,
and the fairly constant
movement of uncounted
thousands of undocu‐
mented migrants into and
out of U.S. territory. Extra‐
polation from both U.S. and
Mexican census sources,
however, provides a sense
of the magnitude of popula‐
tion movement over this
period. In 1900, the num‐
ber of Mexican nationals
living in the U.S. reached
100,000 for the first time
and continued to rise dra‐
matically thereafter, doubling to at least
220,000 in 1910, and then doubling again to
478,000 by 1920. In 1930, at the beginning of
the Great Depression, the number of resident
Mexican nationals is conservatively estimated
to have increased to at least 639,000. When
combined with the original Mexican American
population (that is, the descendants of the for‐
mer citizens of Mexico who lived in the South‐
west at the end of the U.S.‐Mexican War), the
total Mexican‐origin or heritage population of
the U.S. in 1930 was probably at least 1.5 mil‐
lion, with the largest concentrations in the
states of Texas, California, and Arizona, and a
smaller yet significant number working in in‐
dustrial jobs in the Midwest, especially in the
metropolitan areas of Chicago, Detroit, and
Gary, Indiana.4
Despite a brief reversal of migration flows dur‐
ing the Great Depression, when an estimated
350,000 to 500,000 Mexican immigrants and
their children were pressured or compelled to
leave the country in a mass repatriation cam‐
paign coordinated by local, state, and federal
officials, Mexican migration trends seen earlier
in the century quickly resumed after the U.S.
entered the Second World War in 1941.5 Fac‐
ing a significant farm labor shortage as a result
of conscription and war
mobilization, U.S. employ‐
er lobbies convinced the
Federal Government to
approach Mexico about
the possibility of imple‐
menting an emergency bi‐
lateral labor agreement.
Still stinging from the hu‐
miliation suffered by Mex‐
ican nationals and their
children during the repatr‐
iation campaigns of the
previous decade, Mexican
government officials were
at first reluctant to enter
into such an agreement,
but after securing guarantees from U.S. officials
that contract workers would be provided
transportation to and from Mexico, a fair wage,
decent food and housing, and basic human
rights protections, the two governments signed
the Emergency Farm Labor Agreement in the
summer of 1942.6
Soon dubbed the Bracero Program (from the
Spanish colloquial word for manual laborer)
this new guest worker program had a number
of important long‐term effects. On the most
fundamental level, the program not only reo‐
pened the southern border to Mexican labor,
but also more significantly, reinstituted the use
of large numbers of immigrant workers in the
American Latinos and the Making of the United States: A Theme Study 59
U.S. economy for the first time since the De‐
pression. The scale of the program remained
fairly modest through the war years, with an
average of about 70,000 contract laborers
working in the country each year during the
war. Over time, however,
the Bracero Program,
which was extended by
various means after the
war, had the effect of
priming the pump for
the much more exten‐
sive use of such workers. By 1949, the number
of imported contract workers had jumped to
113,000, and then averaged more than
200,000 per year between 1950 and 1954.
During the peak years of the program between
1955 and 1960, an average of more than
400,000 laborers (predominantly from Mexico,
but augmented by smaller numbers of Jamai‐
cans, Bahamians, Barbadians, and Hondurans
as well) were employed in the U.S. By the time
the program was finally terminated in 1964,
nearly 5 million contracts had been issued.7
The guest worker program instituted in the
early 1940s also had the largely unanticipated
effect of increasing both sanctioned and un‐
sanctioned migration to the U.S. from Mexico.
By reinforcing communication networks be‐
tween contract workers and their friends and
families in their places of origin in Mexico, in‐
creasing numbers of Mexicans were able to
gain reliable knowledge about labor market
conditions, employment opportunities, and mi‐
gration routes north of the border. Conse‐
quently, the number of Mexicans who legally
immigrated to the U.S. increased steadily in the
1950s and 1960s, rising from just 60,000 in the
decade of the 1940s to 219,000 in the 1950s
and 459,000 in the 1960s.8
More importantly over the long run, the Brace‐
ro Program helped to stimulate a sharp in‐
crease in unauthorized Mexican migration.
Drawn to the prospect of improving their ma‐
terial conditions in the U.S. (where wages were
anywhere from seven to ten times higher than
those paid in Mexico), tens of thousands of
Mexicans (almost all of them males of working
age) chose to circumvent the formal labor con‐
tract process and instead
crossed the border sur‐
reptitiously. This was
seen in the sudden in‐
crease in the apprehen‐
sion of unauthorized
immigrants, which rose
from a negligible number in 1940, to more than
91,000 in 1946, nearly 200,000 in 1947, and to
more than 500,000 by 1951.9
The increasing circulation of unauthorized
workers in this era suited employers, who
sought to avoid the red tape and higher costs
associated with participation in the formal la‐
bor importation program, and would‐be Mex‐
ican braceros who were unable to secure con‐
tracts through official means. Indeed, the mu‐
tual economic incentives for unsanctioned
entry (bolstered by ever more sophisticated
and economically lucrative smuggling, commu‐
nication, and document‐forging networks) in‐
creased so much in this period that it is esti‐
mated that at different times, the ratio of unau‐
thorized workers to legally contracted
braceros was at least two‐to‐one, and in some
cases, was even higher in specific local labor
markets. That the use of unauthorized labor
had become a systemic feature of the U.S.
economy is further reflected in that fact that
over the 24 years of the Bracero Program, the
estimated number of unauthorized persons
apprehended—nearly 5 million—was roughly
equivalent to the total number of official con‐
tracts issued.10
Although the U.S. government has never
achieved an accurate count of the number of
unauthorized Mexican migrants circulating or
settling in the U.S. at any one time, population
movement of this magnitude inevitably contri‐
“There is a definite need for a
source of imported labor during
the harvest peaks.”
R.E. Browne, Southern California Farmers Association, 1950
60 An Historic Overview of Latino Immigration and the Demographic Transformation of the United States
Liga Puertorriqueña e Hispana, Brooklyn Section, 1922
(City University of New York)
buted to a steady increase in the permanent
resident ethnic Mexican population. According
to U.S. Census data (which again, significantly
undercounted undocumented residents in each
census) and recent demographic analyses, the
total ethnic Mexican population of both natio‐
nalities in the U.S. grew from about 1.6 million
1940, to 2.5 million in 1950, and reached 4 mil‐
lion by 1960.11 The historical significance of
the Bracero Program as a precursor to neoli‐
beral economic practices and a driver of demo‐
graphic change has recently been recognized in
a number of public history projects, including
the Smithsonian’s ongoing Bracero Archive
project and the “Bittersweet Harvest” traveling
Puerto Ricans
The growth of the Puerto Rican population in
the continental U.S. has even more complicated
origins. Almost exactly a half‐century after the
end of the Mexican War, the island of Puerto
Rico became an “unincor‐
porated territory” of the
U.S. after Spain ceded the
island and other colonial
possessions at the end of
the Spanish‐American
War of 1898. In the first
years of American rule,
Puerto Ricans were go‐
verned under the terms of
the Foraker Act of 1900,
which established the isl‐
and as unincorporated
possession of the U.S. and provided a civil gov‐
ernment consisting of a Governor appointed by
the U.S. President, an Executive Council com‐
prised of 6 Americans and 5 Puerto Ricans, and
an integrated court system. In 1917, the U.S.
Congress, responding to an increasingly ag‐
gressive Puerto Rican independence move‐
ment, passed the Jones Act. The Jones Act
sought to quell local unrest by providing a
number of political reforms including a bica‐
meral legislature (although still under the ul‐
timate authority of a U.S.‐appointed Governor,
the U.S. Congress, and President of the U.S.),
and a Puerto Rican Bill of Rights. More impor‐
tantly, the Jones Act granted U.S. citizenship to
all Puerto Ricans except those who made a
public choice to renounce this option, a mo‐
mentous decision made by nearly 300 Puerto
Ricans at the time.13
Although the authors of the Jones Act had not
anticipated that their actions would open the
door to Puerto Rican migration to the conti‐
nental U.S., the extension of U.S. citizenship to
island residents ended up having just this ef‐
fect. Indeed, one of the lasting ironies of the
U.S. government’s action in 1917 was that even
though congressional leaders had expected to
continue to control Puerto Rico as a remote co‐
lonial possession, a Supreme Court ruling soon
revealed the Pandora’s Box Congress had
opened by granting U.S. citizenship to the isl‐
and’s inhabitants. In the case Balzac v. Porto
Rico (1922), the Court
held that although Puerto
Ricans on the island did
not have the same consti‐
tutional standing as “ordi‐
nary” U.S. citizens (based
on the logic that the Con‐
stitution’s plenary power
granted Congress almost
unlimited authority to de‐
cide which specific rights
people in unincorporated
territory could enjoy), it
also ruled that the conferral of citizenship al‐
lowed Puerto Ricans the unfettered right to
migrate anywhere within U.S. jurisdiction.
More importantly, the Court ruled further that
once there, Puerto Ricans were by law “to en‐
joy every right of any other citizen of the U.S.,
civic, social, and political.”14
Puerto Ricans soon took advantage of this
oversight by exercising one of the most basic
rights of U.S. citizenship—that of free move‐
American Latinos and the Making of the United States: A Theme Study 61
Freedom Flight arrives in Miami from Cuba, 1970
(Juan Clark Cuban Refugee Center)
ment within the territorial boundaries of the
U.S. and its possessions. Beginning soon after
the Balzac ruling, but increasingly after the
Great Depression, growing numbers of Puerto
Ricans began moving to the continent, and es‐
pecially to New York City. Migration from the
island was spurred by an evolving colonial
economy that simply did not provide sufficient
employment to keep up with population
growth. Prior to the 1930s, the Puerto Rican
economy was heavily oriented toward sugar
production, which required intensive labor for
only half the year and idled cane workers for
the rest of the year. With unemployment now a
structural feature of the island economy, the
first wave of Puerto Ricans began to leave for
the mainland, searching either for work or af‐
ter having been recruited to work in the agri‐
cultural industry. Consequently, the mainland
population began to grow.

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