Mexican Immigration Research Paper Examples
In her discussion of immigration and social welfare legislation passed by the U.S. government at the end of the twentieth century, social activist Grace Chang argues that “all of these policies are aimed at the same objective: to capture the labor of immigrant men and women separate from their human needs or those of their dependents” (Chang, 2000, p.11). This postulation expresses an age-old view of immigrants in the United States as a valuable yet cheap labor force conducive with a globalized economy and capitalism during the twentieth century. At the same time, however, their cultural and social presence in the United States society was undesirable, as nativists decried the presence of Mexican immigrants because their very presence threatened to destabilize an American society governed by the ideology of white hegemony. History professor Mai Ngai uses the example of the bracero program, a guest-worker program enacted during the 1940s to meet labor needs of the American Southwest during World War II, to expose the structural injustices with regards to race, sex and class evident in immigration labor policy. Her analysis is similar to Chang’s discussion of Proposition 187, passed in California in 1994 at the initiative of Governor Pete Wilson. It discouraged immigrant reproduction in California by barring immigrants access to essential public services such as healthcare and public education. By analyzing the US policies of the Bracero Program and Proposition 187, it is evident that the United States imported both male and female immigrant labor from Mexico out of necessity for their profit-driven, capitalist economy to thrive, yet forbade them access to welfare and cash benefits as a result of a socio-cultural fear that immigrant presence would disrupt the racial and social status quo. Both Ngai and Chang’s discussion of government policies represent a theoretical analysis based on a colonial model to explain the intersectionality of race, gender, class and labor within the structural aspects of U.S. immigration and welfare policies.
MEXICAN IMMIGRATION AND THE BRACERO PROGRAM
Because only those who embodied the modal subject could truly enjoy the privileges of full citizenship, the experience of migrant workers was one of devaluation and exploitation within a capitalistic society. This notion further supports Das Gupta’s claims about the limitations conferred to an individual with citizenship. Immigration legislation throughout American history has been used to create plentiful labor supplies according to the fluid demands of the U.S. economy. One example that highlights this trend is the bracero program, which was a guest-worker program enacted during World War II to meet the labor demands in the American Southwest (Vora, 2010). Mai Ngai asserts that the bracero program aimed to capture the cheap labor of Mexican laborers while rejecting their socio-cultural presence within U.S. society, which led to the exploitation of immigrant workers at the hands of their employer and the U.S. government that mimicked a colonial relationship between a First World and a Third World country (Ngai , 2004, p.166). As temporary workers, braceros were contracted out of Mexico to work in the United States, but they were expected to leave once their work permit ended (p. 244). This contract labor thrust immigrant workers into a modern slave system by stripping them of their political rights.
Nonetheless, this system ensured a cheap workforce within the United States that would reap huge profits via the exploitation of the Mexican immigrants (p. 144). Thus, Ngai argues that the bracero program created a labor force similar to that of a colonized Third World Country vis-à-vis contract labor. Mexican workers did not have the right to bargain the wages of their contract, strike against employers, or quit (p. 255). Underpayment and poor living conditions became the primary grievances articulated by the workers (p.145). The U.S. government thus categorized braceros as “national subjects” instead of as “citizens,” despite their legal presence in the United States. This categorization rendered them vulnerable to excessive exploitation because they were not protected by any laws or rights guaranteed to American citizens. Moreover, their sole function and utility in the United States was an economic one in which their cheap labor would yield high profits and boost the economy in the American Southwest. As such, Mexican workers were dehumanized in public discourses as a way to justify their exploitation.
Historically, the U.S. has implemented a “revolving door policy” regarding Mexican migration, as the U.S. embraced Mexican immigration when cheap labor was needed yet restricted it when labor necessities were met by a domestic labor force (Ngai, 2004, p. 129). This de facto policy led to the illegal production of migrant population inequality, which shows that laws created the notion of certain people being illegal. The status of illegality was constructed through arbitrary laws, so even though Mexican migrants were in the United States legally, laws were subsequently passed that rendered them illegal. Laws can change the status of immigrants, as they make drastic changes so quickly that people cannot respond to them quickly enough. Indeed, social change takes time to be enacted whether laws are intentional or unintentional. Thus the immigrant workers were excessively vulnerable to exploitation. Even if they were given access to rights they were not able to use them because citizenship is the pipeline to rights both nationally and internationally. Today, Mexicans living in the United States continue to be viewed as alien and “illegal” regardless of how long they have been living there as legal citizens.
Classified as second class citizens, these immigrant laborers were denied the rights and protections that Americans citizens because of their cultural and racial Otherness. This grim reality underscores the centrality of their race and the colonized view of them as subhuman and backwards, which undergirded their inferiority in the United States. Mexican immigrants thus represent one of several instances in American history when non-white peoples were discursively constructed as an unequal and wholly Other social group in the eyes of the U.S. solely because of their race, despite their legal, physical presence in the United States. Juxtaposed with the criminalization of minorities on welfare, it is evident that inherent, structural racism shaped the treatment of and public policies towards immigrant communities in the United States, which resulted in their exploitation, dehumanization, and subjection to second-class citizenship.
MEXICAN IMMIGRATION: RACIAL AND GENDERED UNDERTONES
While Mexican immigrants remained essential to the U.S. economy in the American Southwest, their socio-cultural presence was detested by society at large out of nativist fears of “racial impurity.” Certain states implemented and enforced segregation practices implemented further attests to this fear, as Mexicans were barred from entering “white-only” movie theatres, restaurants, and other public places (Ngai, 2004, p. 147). Such policies illuminate the desire in the US to preserve the purity of the white race in America at all costs. These racial undertones permeated imperialistic ideology in the United States beginning during the nineteenth century, which validates Ngai’s cogent argument that the braceros program manifested a form of “imported colonialism” because the Mexican immigrants constituted an exploited, devalued workforce deployed solely to benefit the economy in the American Southwest at their human expense. Ngai’s concept “imported colonialism” retains de facto socio-legal connotations embedded in formally non-colonial relationships and spaces (Ngai, 2004, p. 129). Some Mexican workers who migrated to the United States through the bracero program appealed to become American citizens. However, they were denied U.S. citizenship for a litany of reasons including if they voted in the Mexican elections, or if they did not fight for the United States in World War II. It was typical for people living at the border to have their identities shaped and reshaped between demands of living on imaginary border lines and the legal demands of the nation state. The Bracero program helped create a proletariat class that was racialized and included a lot of people. Indeed, the history of those living on the borderlands with citizenship who were subject to being deported and/or affected arbitrarily. As a result of their liminal position, their identities were external to social construction of them as both. Thus, Mexican citizenship has historically been rendered vulnerable by social convention. Mexican labor was devalued, which is evident through the paltry wages they earned in comparison to white workers as well as the squalid living conditions they were forced to endure. The U.S. government did not follow up on the adherence of employers and workers to contracts, so Mexican workers had no access to their families or external resources. As such, these immigrates remained cast as cultural and racial Others who were incapable of assimilating and acculturating.
In addition to the racial undertones and imperatives of the bracero program, gendered undertones in conjunction with the program’s obvious economic function were also subtly implicated. Only men could enter the United States on work visas as braceros. However, American employers often urged the braceros to bring their families and friends illegally into the United States as undocumented workers to work alongside their compatriots for paltry wages. As a result, female immigrant workers who labored in the fields were automatically viewed as illegal aliens unfit for arduous labor. This construction relates to salient notions about gendered labor within the heteropatriarchal family model, which represents the “social organization of a nuclear family with the male as the head of the household” who possesses the majority of power through the division of society into private and public spheres (Vora, 2010). In the private sphere, unpaid, domestic work—often referred to as reproductive labor and traditionally regarded as feminine labor occurred—such as the socialization of children and caring for the elderly and infants was considered unskilled due to the lack of contract and monetary compensation for such labor. In contrast, labor performed in the public sphere traditionally by males was deemed “productive” because it was organized through contracts between a worker and employer (Vora, 2010). Reproductive labor, although regarded by U.S. society as unskilled and unworthy of public recognition, it nonetheless retains much value and social, cultural, and economic currency because it allowed for the productive labor of the male to yield higher profits. This paradigm represents the Fordist mode of capitalist production, which further developed the notion of gendered labor by asserting that the male worker who, by putting in time and energy into the productive work force, performs work of value as a result of women’s unpaid, reproductive labor in the home. The transposition of this family model onto immigrant families via government policy resulted in immigrant women being affected in different ways than immigrant men were. The exclusion of women from the bracero program suggests the implied belief held by American lawmakers that women were unfit to perform the productive, back-breaking labor necessary to reap profits in the agricultural American Southwest.
Further developing Ngai’s argument of “imported colonialism,” Chang—through a gendered lens in the context of the heteropatriarchal family model—interweaves race, class, gender and labor to elucidate the colonial nature of restrictive immigration in the United States, such as Proposition 187 that was passed in California in 1994. Such policies ushered in an influx of poor immigrants—the majority of whom were female—seeking low-wage jobs into an expanding American economy to support their families. Also known as the “Save Our State Initiative (SOS), proposition 187 curbed social services such as public education healthcare to “illegal aliens” and their children as a vehicle to dissuade immigrants from coming to California (Chang, 2000, pp. 209-213). A state-run screening system that determined eligibility for U.S. citizenship was established in order to outlaw and deter illegal immigrants from using social services such as public education and healthcare. This law came about in response to the myth of hypersexuality and dependency of immigrants propagated by the U.S. government and media throughout the twentieth century (Vora, 2010). It purported that Mexican immigrants migrated to the California to take advantage of the welfare system, ultimately draining public resources.
Although untrue, Chang argues, this myth circulated in public discourses and functioned as a way to influence policy makers to pass legislation that would bar immigrants from coming to the U.S. and reproducing citizens by virtue of jus soli. This view goes hand in hand with the myth of immigrant women as hypersexual beings, which expresses the paranoia of immigrant women’s sexual proclivities by depicting them as baby-making machines (Galvez, 2011, p. 30). Such paranoia resulted in the criminalization of immigrant women for having children—whom were pejoratively labeled as anchor babies—in the U.S. vis-a-vis government policies that produced a phenomenon known as the “chilling effect.” As a result, immigrant families often did not seek public health services even if they were sick out of fear of deportation or imprisonment due to their criminalized, racial identity. By putting essential public services at the core of the proposition, California lawmakers intended to maintain social and racial hierarchies within the United States through economic restrictions that forced immigrant women into low-wage jobs. Indeed, these women needed a source of income to provide for their families because the state refused to help them out financially. As a result, the state exploited immigrant women—whose traditional role in the heteropatriarchal family was as reproductive labors—by coercing them to accept low wage jobs to provide for their families.
The myth of immigrant hyperfertility, which catalyzed the passage of Proposition 187, represents the public sentiment about the place of immigrants in US society during the 1990s. The dominant political voice emanating from such policy views the US as a country made for white, middle class people. Thus, such beliefs prompted the need to make the colored populations within the United States invisible despite the economic necessity for their labor. What emerges is the government’s fear of the “rising hordes” of Mexican immigrants coming into the United States and threatening to “take over” (Graham, 2008, p. 194). This profoundly trenchant and racialized construction of hordes of immigrants becomes endemic to the U.S. populations of color in conjunction with their reproduction as a threat to the purity of the American race and mainstream culture (Chang, 2000, p. xv). As a result, government policy is constructed so immigrants in U.S. society remain a cultural and racialized Other confined to a life of hardship and poverty in the same way that colonial subjects have throughout world history.
CONCLUSION AND FUTURE ACTION
Minority groups living in the United States—often left unprotected by the government—are covertly discriminated against in a de facto manner, even if they possess American citizenship. The coexistence of an affirmation of human rights in the founding documents of the US and a de facto set of exclusions based on race greatly contradict one another, revealing that reality of the state of US society deviated from the ideal one conveyed in the Declaration of Independence. The lived experience of minority groups such as blacks, Asians and Mexicans Americans was shaped by racial hierarchies and power relations firmly in place within the US. Blacks—despite achieving political and legal equality through various civil rights acts—are left at a disadvantage even into the present day as compared to whites as a result of collective disadvantages accumulated from slavery and racial oppression of the past. As a result, they still possess a form of second-class citizenship rather than full citizenship. The need to bring the reality of U.S. society as a racially burdened society closer to the ideal egalitarian state espoused in the founding documents becomes quite evident. Das Gupta fleshes out the social construction of citizenship in relation to the constructs of gender, race and sexuality in order to expose citizenship as another construct designed to organize and construct the lives and experiences of subjects (Das Gupta, 2006, p. 257). Although citizenship rights are conceptualized as unquestioned rights an individual possesses in a certain nation-state, Das Gupta argues for the necessity for a “language of rights that does not depend on full citizenship” (Das Gupta, 2006, p. 257).She attempts to deconstruct this perception of U.S. citizens by revealing that citizenship is not the only way to obtain rights in the United States (p. 257). Rather, she aims to show that everyone possesses human rights which transcend all national and political borders. In essence, she lobbies for migrants rights rather than political rights that are confined to a nation-state because of the inherent intersectionality of racism, classism, and sexism within the U.S. construct of legal citizenship. Space-making politics use creative processes of assembling a plan for political action and social change not based on existing states structure as a means to achieve political change. Rather, they create new methods band space to counter oppressive practices rather than using existing ones. This leads to the building of coalitions because of the need to re-imagine who and what a group is fighting for, leading activist groups to influence one another. It is only through such innovative, forward thinking can social justice within a globalized world truly become a reality.
Regardless of the legal status of Mexican immigrants, they have been and continue to be viewed as “illegal” because of government legislation that emerged in lieu of purported myths of immigrant hyperfertility and dependency. Through an analysis of immigration and social welfare policies, it is unequivocal that the treatment of Mexican immigrants in the United States must be viewed as a product of First World nations that deploy economic policies beneficial to themselves at the expense of Third World nations such as Mexican (Chang, 2000, p. iii). Immigration policies in the United States fostered a dependence of immigrants on low-wage labor by denying them social and political rights. In doing so, the colonial nature of U.S. government policy and the legacy of slavery in the twentieth and twenty-first century becomes quite clear. Indeed, government policies elucidate the theme of arbitrary laws passed by the U.S. government construct immigrant groups as criminal, forcing them to resign themselves to excessively exploitative labor. By elucidating the structural realities of U.S. immigration policies towards Mexican laborers and other Third-World migrants, both Mai Ngai and Grace Chang promote social advocacy on behalf of immigrant communities wronged by an inherently racist socio-economic system. While change will manifest itself quite slowly and gradually, scholars and social activists nonetheless prompt American audiences to begin thinking about the litany of social and political injustices that have persisted in the structural elements in American society, economy, and politics. In doing so, they convey the notion described by scholar Long Bui: “The first thing that is colonized is your imagination” (Bui, as cited by Vora, 2010). Only by recognizing these injustices inherent in U.S. capitalism and government policies towards Mexican immigrants can change and social and political justice materialize.
Chang, G. (2000). Disposable domestics: Immigrant women workers in the global economy. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press.
Das Gupta, Monisha. (2006). Unruly Immigrants: Rights, Activism, and Transnational South Asian Politics in the United States. London: Duke University Press.
Galvez, A. (2011). Patient citizens, immigrant mothers, Mexican women, public prenatal care, and the birth weight paradox. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press.
Graham, O. (2008). Immigration reform and America's unchosen future. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.
Molina, N. (2014). How race is made in America: Immigration, citizenship, and the historical power of racial scripts. San Diego: University of California Press.
Molina, N. (2013). Borders, laborers, and racialized medicalization: Mexican immigration and U.S. public health policy in the twentieth century. American Journal of Public Health, 101(6), 1024-1031.
Ngai, M. (2004). Impossible subjects: Illegal aliens and the making of modern America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Ramirez, C.S. (2009). The woman in the zoot suit: Gender, nationalism, and the cultural politics of memory. Durham: Duke University Press.
Vora, K. (2010). “Histories and Hierarchies.” Ethnic Studies. San Diego: Peterson.
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