Although there has been an increased focus on Mexican immigration to the United States, Mexicans have been migrating north for better opportunities since our nation was formed. When the U.S. gained control of the Southwest, the Mexican population that was living there became U.S. citizens. The expanding nation needed workers and many looked to the Mexican-American population already living within its borders. This use of Mexican labor not only laid a foundation for employers, but it also established a resource for working poor Mexicans as they traveled north to earn a better wage and hopefully a better life.
Over the years, U.S. and Mexican public policy has furthered immigration and the use of Mexican labor by U.S. employers. The historical foundation for immigration was solidified with the passage of NAFTA in 1994. Supporters of NAFTA argued that it would bring more jobs to Mexico and slow immigration. But the proliferation of U.S. factories only furthered the atmosphere for exploitation of workers on the Mexican side of the border, did not deliver on increased prosperity for the migrant laborer, and drove more Mexicans to seek a living wage north of the border.
As the nation’s politicians look to “fix the immigration problem,” it is important to understand the history, politics, and economics behind the rhetoric and the targeting of undocumented workers in the U.S. Many employers, both large and small have benefited from the labor of Mexican men, women and children who have either picked crops, washed dishes in restaurants, landscaped their homes or babysat their children. Large contractors could not erect hi-rise condos and office buildings without the convenient day laborer.
The flow of illegal immigration might stop at the doorstep of the U.S. if the wages and working conditions in the maquiladora jobs that lure the migrants from the South allowed them to care for their families. Most of them do not. This struggle and the circumstances that created their lives of contestation are what continue to drive so many Mexican migrant laborers to follow in the footsteps of the millions before them, who have historically traveled north for a better life.