Mexican Immigration: A Special Case of What?

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By Peter Skerry

The Implications of Mexican Exceptionalism
The Influence of Contemporary American Political Culture and Institutions


The question we have been asked to address is whether Mexican immigration constitutes "a special case" in our history as a nation of immigrants and in our contemporary immigration policy. The short answer here, it seems to me, is yes. Among the many immigrant groups that have come to the United States, Mexicans are exceptional in several respects, many (though not all) of which will be highlighted in this brief essay. But behind this question lies another, more important one: What is the political significance of this Mexican exceptionalism? More specifically, what is the significance of Mexican exceptionalism in the context of contemporary American political culture and institutions?

To address these questions, I will first walk through the evidence that Mexican immigration is a special case. I will then explore the implications of that evidence with an eye to demonstrating that, on balance, none of the at times troubling evidence about Mexican exceptionalism looms as large as the influences of our own political culture and institutions on Mexican immigrants and their offspring. In other words, the United States does not have a "Mexican problem, but rather a "Mexican/American problem."

The first piece of evidence in the case for Mexican exceptionalism is the relative lack of diversity in today's immigrant stream. In his recent book, Heaven's Gate, economist George Borjas asserts that the current influx "is much more dominated by a few ethnic groups than the First Great Migration [from around 1880 until 1924] ever was." He goes on to point out that in that earlier influx the two largest groups were Germans and Russians, who accounted for only 15 percent and 12 percent of the immigrant population respectively. Today, about 30 percent of the immigrant population is of Mexican origin. When these individuals are folded into the larger category of immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries who are typically identified by immigrant elites as a coherent political grouping dubbed "Hispanics" or "Latinos" and who are often perceived (incorrectly) by many Americans as a homogeneous group this percentage figure is, of course, even higher.

Second, it is similarly striking that such a high proportion of illegal immigrants are from Mexico about 39 percent. Again, if we focus on all immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries, then Latinos constitute about 55 percent of illegal immigrants in the United States. The salience of these data is heightened because, as a nation, we draw a much brighter line between legal and illegal immigration today than we did a century ago. Moreover, survey research consistently reports that Americans habitually overestimate the proportion of immigrants who are here illegally.

Third, Mexican immigrants and Mexican-origin individuals generally are highly concentrated in one part of the country, the Southwest. To be sure, there have in our past been specific concentrations of immigrant groups in various regions of the United States. What is unique, of course, in the case of Mexican immigrants is that they are concentrated in a part of the U.S. that once belonged to their country of origin. While the settlement of the United States has obviously involved the conquest of various indigenous peoples, including Mexicans, no other group of immigrants to this nation has ever had quite this historical experience.

This points to the historical dimension of this immigrant stream. Not only are Mexicans unique in being concentrated in the Southwest, they are also well aware that the region was once part of their country. Indeed, under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the U.S.-Mexican War, Mexico lost half its national territory to the United States. That the Southwest was once part of Mexico is a fact well preserved in the region's place names, architecture, and ranching culture. With regard to the latter, I can attest that one of the most culturally integrated places in my own area of Southern California is the Broken Horn, an emporium about twenty-five miles east of downtown Los Angeles that sells Western riding gear, many of which items have no English names, only those carried over from Spanish. In my experience, this establishment stands out as a rather unique place, where working-class Mexicans and Mexican-Americans mix freely and on roughly equal footing with middle- and upper-middle-class Anglos.

Among Chicano activists and academics, it is a cliche to say that Mexicans and Mexican-origin individuals in the southwestern United States, especially Texas, feel themselves to be a conquered people--in the words of historian David Montejano, "a people living under the shadow of the Alamo." Chicanos sometimes make too much of this historical awareness, to be sure. But just as surely, Anglos typically make too little of it. As the saying goes, "Americans never remember, and Mexicans never forget." In some fundamental way, being a Mexican in San Antonio is not the same as being a Pole in Chicago.

Also contributing to the unique situation of Mexicans is their special place in the history of U.S. immigration policy. The national-origin quota system established in 1924 applied only to European and Asian countries, not to Mexico or indeed to any other Western hemisphere countries. While there were various qualitative restrictions on immigrants from within this hemisphere (for example, literacy and public charge tests), there were no quantitative restrictions. These did not come until 1968. Even before this date, the so-called Texas Proviso, which effectively exempted U.S. employers of illegal immigrants from any penalties, was in effect. As a result, for much of the twentieth century there was a virtually open border between the United States and Mexico--punctuated by periods of forced repatriation, such as occurred during the Depression and again during the 1950s (an effort notoriously called "Operation Wetback").

This de facto open border policy was enforced by an Immigration and Naturalization Service that has been either administratively weak or highly decentralized or both. For much of its history, the INS was highly responsive to local economic and political interests. It is commonly acknowledged, for example, that in the past the INS would routinely fail to enforce immigration law around harvest time, for example. The point here is straightforward: our immigration policy toward Mexico has served and continues to serve American interests, especially but not exclusively American economic interests. This seemingly obvious point is frequently overlooked. For example is his controversial and seemingly fearless critique of our immigration policy, Alien Nation, journalist Peter Brimelow (who has written regularly for the business weekly Forbes) never once mentions the role of economic interests in shaping our immigration policy. Whether our policy also serves the national interest is of course another question. But Mexican immigrants are in this county legally or illegally because American interests benefit from their presence here.

The Implications of Mexican Exceptionalism

What are the implications of this body of evidence for Mexican exceptionalism? To begin, it must be acknowledged that the preponderance of Mexicans in today's immigration stream and the consequent relative lack of diversity are cause for concern. To be sure, some scholars point to the drawbacks of diversity that diversity among immigrants can actually generate harmful intergroup competition and conflict. But I believe the more persuasive case is made by the dean of American immigration historians, John Higham, who maintains that the diversity of the migration stream into the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries actually mitigated the impact of immigration. As Higham argues in his masterful collection of essays, Send These To Me, anti-Semitism against Jewish immigrants was moderated by "the presence within the country of a great variety of ethnic targets." Similarly, today, the fact that immigrants are generally welcomed more positively in New York than in California may be explained, at least in part, by the greater diversity of the immigrant population in New York.

Diversity of immigrant groups also encourages dispersion. As George Borjas points out in Heaven's Gate: "The lack of diversity in the post-1965 immigration flow may greatly reduce the incentives for assimilation by allowing some ethnic groups to essentially develop separate enclave economies and societies." There is still considerable mobility out of most U.S. barrios, but as the concentration of Mexicans within those enclaves continues to grow, the prospect highlighted by Borjas may become a reality.

Of equal concern is the large contingent of Mexicans among the population of illegal immigrants. That so many illegals are Mexican fuels two harmful misconceptions: first, that all or most Mexican-origin individuals are in the United States illegally; and, second, that Mexico is the only source of illegal immigrants. This latter misconception, which has been dubbed "Mexican myopia," causes policymakers, the media, and Americans generally to focus exclusively on our southern border as evidenced by the national preoccupation with building a border fence and increasing the number of agents patrolling it. What "Mexican myopia" overlooks is that the majority of illegal immigrants are not Mexicans. Mexican myopia also obscures the fact that about half of all illegal immigrants in the United States arrived here legally and subsequently overstayed their visas. And in a given year only about one-fifth of these visa overstayers are Mexicans.

Given the history sketched here, it is not surprising that the rate of naturalization for Mexican-origin individuals in the United States has been low historically, and today is low relative to other national-origin groups. But then the naturalization rate of Canadian-origin individuals is also quite low, suggesting that proximity to the United States is a relevant explanatory factor here.

More to the point, there is scant evidence of divided loyalties among Mexicans in the United States. The "ampersand effect" described by Samuel Huntington when individuals take advantage of dual citizenship to vote in the elections of both countries involves an extremely small number of Mexicans, and there is little hard data with which to respond to the questions Huntington raises. Much more visible have been the eagerness with which Mexican Americans have served in the U.S. military and their pride in having made many wartime sacrifices. These are not just sentiments expressed by leaders but strong emotions deeply ingrained in Mexican-American group consciousness including that of the second and third generations. There are simply no reasonable grounds for concern about divided loyalties among the descendants of Mexican immigrants.

Nevertheless, there is one situation that might under certain conditions be worrisome. Today, the U.S. Border Patrol is approximately 40 percent Hispanic, of whom the largest proportion is presumably Mexican-origin. If there were ever any cataclysmic events of either a political or economic nature propelling even larger numbers of Mexican nationals north than we have been receiving, then the pressures on the Border Patrol would be enormous, and those on Mexican-origin individuals in the agency arguably even more so. Whether such agents would enforce the law and defend our borders is a question that would be asked sooner or later.

It is extremely difficult to answer such a question. I am aware of no systematic studies of this question. But certainly anecdotal evidence as well as my own experience in the field is that, if anything, Mexican-origin Border Patrol agents are tougher on illegal aliens than are their Anglo counterparts. By this, I do not mean to suggest that they are abusive or derelict in their duty, but Mexican-American agents do seem more inclined to adhere rigidly to rules and procedures and less inclined to afford any special considerations when dealing with illegal immigrants along the Mexican border. Even if generally true, however, this finding might reflect factors other than ethnic background for example the fact that many Mexican-descent Border Patrol agents come from Texas, where the organizational culture of the INS is very different from elsewhere, especially in California.

It is not clear what conclusion we can derive from such informed speculation. A tougher enforcement posture on the part of Mexican-origin agents might be welcome during a border emergency, but then such responses might also provoke incidents and controversy in an already tense situation. But perhaps such an emergency situation would elicit a more lenient posture from normally tough Mexican-origin agents. In any event, I would, on balance, conclude from the available evidence that divided loyalties should not be a concern here.

The Influence of Contemporary American Political Culture and Institutions

If there is a problem facing us as a nation, it is not simply that Mexicans are a unique group with a special relationship to the United States. For, in my judgment, none of the evidence on Mexican exceptionalism looms as large as the influence of contemporary American political culture and institutions. History as well as contemporary social and economic outcomes are important. But even more important is the political context that frames and gives meanings to these.

To cite one example of the importance of contemporary political institutions, Huntington correctly notes that today's Mexican-American leaders and organizations have a vested interest in expanding the size of their constituency and that they therefore resist attempts at restricting immigration. Yet this was not always the case. Mexican-American leaders used to be wary of immigration from Mexico. Political scientist Rodolfo De la Garza reports that during the 1950s and 1960s, "Mexican-American leaders were among the most vociferous of the opponents to continued Mexican immigration." Given the complicated and continuing ties between Mexicans on both sides of the border, this position was often arrived at reluctantly. But for two decades after World War II, organizations such as LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) and the American G.I. Forum nonetheless argued for restricted immigration from Mexico, on the grounds that large numbers of newcomers would undermine the social and economic position of Mexican-Americans struggling into the American mainstream. As educator and political activist George I. Sanchez argued in 1966: "Time and time again, just as we have been on the verge of cutting our bicultural problems to manageable proportions, uncontrolled mass migrations from Mexico have erased the gains and accentuated the cultural indigestion."

It was not long afterward that a momentous shift occurred in leadership views toward immigration. As already noted, today's Mexican-American leadership is overwhelmingly in favor of adopting a de facto open-borders stance. There is certainly no voice comparable to Sanchez's objecting to the present influx of immigrants to be heard among Mexican-Americans today.

The critical factor that accounts for this widely ignored sea change is, it seems clear, the Voting Rights Act and similar programs that now reward Mexican-American leaders not for their group's political clout at the polls, but for its population totals at census time. The affirmative-action logic that now pervades our political culture means that steadily increasing numbers of Mexican immigrants readily translate into demands for steadily increasing numbers of Hispanic employees and Hispanic-majority electoral districts. Thus, Mexican-American leaders have not only acclimated to immigration from Mexico at high levels, but they have in fact become dependent on it as the source of their visibility and influence.

By contrast, a generation or more ago Mexican-American leaders were working within the organizational structure of political parties and trade unions. For them, it was not enough to have sheer numbers if those numbers did not translate into dues-paying members and voters. From their own experiences, such leaders understood all too well how difficult it is to organize unskilled immigrants, who are preoccupied with economic advancement, even survival, and whose transiency typically reflects their intentions to return to their country of origin.

The context within which today's immigrant leaders function could not be more different. With historically low levels of voter participation and extremely weak political organizations, we have what Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol refers to as "associations without members." Designed to represent interests and constituencies previously left out of the political process, public interest organizations are characterized by their heavy reliance on third-party funding (from wealthy individuals, corporations, and especially foundations) and relatively modest reliance on membership dues. Even when public interest organizations have members, they tend to be widely dispersed, with direct but not very strong ties to the organization and very weak or nonexistent ties to one another. But in many instances, as Skocpol's phrase suggests, membership is dispensed with entirely.

What it is undoubtedly the dominant voice in the Mexican-American community reflects these developments. Indeed, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund is the quintessential public interest organization. MALDEF seeks to represent all Mexican Americans indeed all Latinos. In this capacity its role is widely and routinely accepted. The organization has been an important and visible participant in numerous policy debates, including the recent controversy over California's Proposition 187 and immigration policy generally.

Yet MALDEF is not a membership organization. It has no members whatsoever in the communities it represents, and therefore no real bonds of accountability to those communities. The organization has received most of its funding from a few corporations and large foundations in particular the Ford Foundation, which played the critical role in establishing the organization in the late 1960s.

At the same time MALDEF is more than just another public interest organization. It also represents the institutionalization of the post-civil rights view that Mexican-Americans ought to emulate the political posture of black Americans. Thus, when the Ford Foundation launched MALDEF in 1968, its model was the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. As Ford president McGeorge Bundy opined at that time, "In terms of legal enforcement of civil rights, American citizens of Mexican descent are now where the Negro community was a quarter-century ago." Accordingly, building on the unique history of the Southwest, Mexican Americans have come to present themselves not as an immigrant ethnic group like Italians or Poles, but as a discriminated-against racial minority with longstanding grievances that can be rectified only by extraordinary measures. Those measures include affirmative action programs as well as the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and bilingual education. MALDEF has played a key role in securing these benefits for Mexican-Americans broadly construed to include both citizens and noncitizens, including illegal aliens. Indeed, MALDEF initiated the suit that culminated in the now controversial Supreme Court ruling (Plyler v Doe) that illegal alien children are entitled to free public education.

Today, many Americans decry the policies advocated by Mexican-American organizations such as MALDEF. I myself have criticized them for being both divisive and ill advised. Yet while it cannot be denied that such claims are to some degree fueled by Mexican and Mexican-American grievances over past and present injustices, their thrust is nevertheless for inclusion into the contemporary American mainstream. To be sure, a few activists call for the reconquista (the reconquest of the Southwest by Mexico), but none of the serious policies advocated by Mexican-American organizations and leaders translate into territorial or separatist claims. However divisive or even misguided Mexican-American claims for affirmative action, bilingual education, or the Voting Rights Act are, they are not some fifth column effort to return the southwestern U.S. to Mexico.

Moreover, I argue that these controversial and divisive claims reflect the degree to which Mexican-Americans have assimilated into an array of post-civil rights political institutions that encourage them to define their interests in terms of the aggrieved racial minority perspective forged in the turbulent 1960s and their aftermath. To put the point a bit differently, Mexicans do not push for affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act in Mexico; they push for them after they have come to the United States and gained an understanding of contemporary political institutions.

Such efforts and policies may well, as many Americans fear, change and distort the mainstream. But it should not be lost sight of that the goal of these efforts is to join the mainstream, and indeed that the mainstream has defined the direction that these efforts now take.

Finally, I would caution that when the topic is immigration, it is too easy to be drawn into a preoccupation with Mexican exceptionalism too easy to be drawn into Mexican myopia. It is easy, even tempting, to blame Mexicans and Mexico for a problem that many Americans understandably regard as out of control. But it is we Americans who are long-time consumers of Mexican labor, and it is our political institutions that have come to shape the understandable demands for recognition and justice that emanate from immigrant communities in general, Mexican communities in particular. In their origins, if not their present form, those demands are fundamentally no different from those made by previous generations of newcomers.

Peter Skerry is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where his research focuses on immigration policy and the politics of the U.S. Census. He has held research positions at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) Center for American Politics and Public Policy, and the American Enterprise Institute. He also served as legislative director for New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. His book, Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority, was awarded the 1993 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. In addition to his work at Brookings, Skerry also teaches political science at Claremont McKenna College.

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