The Law That Villainized Mexican Immigrants

How conservatives helped create today’s immigration “crisis.”

Republican Presidential candidate and business mogul Donald Trum,Republican Presidential candidate and business mogul Donald Trump talks to the media after exiting his plane during his trip to the border.

Trying to stem the tide: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump talks to the media after exiting his plane during his trip to the border on July 23, 2015, in Laredo, Texas.

Photo by Matthew Busch/Getty Images

As Fox News debate moderators reminded America last week, Donald Trump believes that “the Mexican government is forcing their most unwanted people”—including drug dealers and rapists, who are “doing the raping”—into the United States as illegal immigrants. Trump nonetheless wants to make clear that he has no problem with legal immigration. “Many fabulous people come in from Mexico and our country is better for it,” Trump wrote in a July statement. “But these people are here legally, and are severely hurt by those coming in illegally.” Almost all conservative politicians who believe illegal immigration is a problem make the same distinction: Ted Cruz’s website, for example, says the senator “celebrates legal immigration,” while Marco Rubio used a debate answer to praise the patience of immigrants who wait their turn for a visa. Trump said during the debate that he wants to build a wall on the border but would include “a big beautiful door in that wall” for legal entry.

It wasn’t always this way. Fifty years ago a substantial number of conservative United States senators openly supported severe restrictions on legal immigration, influencing a bill that helped create the modern Mexican “illegal” immigration “crisis” as we know it.

In 1965, President Johnson backed a reform proposal called the Hart-Celler Act (aka the Immigration and Nationality Act), which proposed to eradicate the “national origins” immigration quotas that had been in place since the 1920s. Those quotas prohibited vast non-white portions of the world population (e.g. almost all Africans and Asians) from immigrating to the U.S. while restricting the number of visas allotted to European countries, like Italy and Poland, whose natives were considered ethnically inferior to those from England, Scandinavia, and the like. Under the new system proposed by Hart-Celler, every country outside the Western Hemisphere would have the same basic quota of 20,000 visas. Legal immigration from the Western Hemisphere (i.e., North, Central, and South America) was to remain uncapped—as it had always been, even during the height of the 1920s anti-immigration movement, out of diplomatic respect for our nearby neighbors and because a treaty related to the military takeover of the Southwest had already declared that ex-Mexicans were eligible for citizenship.

But some conservative senators were skeptical about altering the “national origins” system. They argued, as South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond did, that the imperative “to preserve one’s identity and the identity of one’s nation” justified restrictionist policies that favored Western Europeans because they could more easily assimilate into the existing (white) culture. These opponents furthermore added that uncapped Western Hemisphere immigration was itself a looming threat to the United States’ identity and stability. “The day is not far off when the population explosion in Latin American countries will exert great pressures upon those people to emigrate to the United States,” said West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd.

One of the hesitant Southerners was the influential Sam Ervin of North Carolina, a Democrat who led subcommittee hearings on the bill. (The debate over Hart-Celler was taking place before most of the South’s racially conservative Democrats defected to the Republican Party—Thurmond himself had just switched a year before.) To win the support of Ervin and Illinois’ Everett Dirksen, another key conservative vote, the Johnson administration agreed to a basic annual cap of 120,000 on total Western Hemisphere immigrants. The bill soon passed the Senate 76–18. In 1976 a further restriction was enacted that limited each Western Hemisphere country to basic caps of 20,000. The country most affected by the new Western Hemisphere rules: Mexico.

Until it became a bargaining chip between LBJ and the Senate, the U.S.’s southern neighbor had played almost no part in the discussion of Hart-Celler or in the decade-plus immigration-reform movement that had preceded it. In her book Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, Columbia University historian Mae Ngai notes that John F. Kennedy’s pro-reform history A Nation of Immigrants, first published in 1958, “devoted all of two paragraphs to Asian and Latino immigration.” And a 900-page 1950 Senate report about pressing immigration issues didn’t mention illegal Mexican immigration at all.

The lack of national interest in Mexico did not necessarily reflect a lack of activity at the border, as Ngai documents in her book. In the decades before Hart-Celler was passed, as many as 450,000 Mexicans had been legally entering the United States each year using temporary work permits issued by the “bracero” program, which supplied a migrant workforce for farms in California, Texas, and elsewhere. On top of that huge influx, some 50,000 Mexicans annually entered the U.S. as permanent residents. Conditions were still far from ideal for Mexicans from a civil rights perspective: Farm employers often didn’t live up to the terms of their contracts, underpaying bracero workers and housing them in grim conditions, while even legal Mexican-American citizens were subject to discrimination, segregation, and hostility. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of so-called “wetbacks” did enter the country illegally (often because of promised jobs) and were subject to raids and deportations. But the significant majority of Mexicans who came into the country did so under legal auspices.

All that changed when, within a matter of a year, the bracero program was terminated and Hart-Celler’s Western Hemisphere immigration cap passed. The end of the bracero program was actually supposed to be a liberal reform that put an end to the systemic exploitation of Mexican workers. But once Hart-Celler went through, there were less than half as many visa slots allotted to the entire hemisphere as had been received in some previous years by Mexican migrants alone. (Liberal reformers do deserve some blame here, it should be said, for helping eliminate the temporary bracero visas and then immediately acceding to a compromise that drastically reduced the number of other legal options for entry.)

You likely already know what has happened in the half-century since Hart-Celler. Jobs for immigrants didn’t disappear and in fact opened up in a number of industries besides agriculture. The Mexican workers who wanted those jobs didn’t stop coming. (Princeton sociologist Doug Massey and his collaborators have found that “initiation of undocumented migration from Mexico is driven primarily by the pull of U.S. labor demand.”) They simply arrived without immigration papers and instead of moving back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. as they often had in the days before strenuous border control, they began to settle here. (Roughly 50 percent of Mexicans making their first undocumented trip to the U.S. in 1970 returned to Mexico within a year. By 2005 that number was approximately 10 percent.) The “illegal” immigrant population, of which Mexicans make up more than half, rose steadily and peaked at an estimated 12.2 million in 2007. (One of the multiple ironies of Donald Trump’s hysterical position on immigration is that because of deportation and emigration, the number of undocumented individuals residing in the U.S. has actually been falling for several years.)

Politically, meanwhile, the same kinds of Mexican immigrants who’d been participating in legal migration for years became targets of criticism, villainized for supposedly disrespecting American laws and mooching off the American social safety net. Conservative rhetoric on immigration now treats our legal quotas on Mexican immigration—which were created more or less arbitrarily, without regard to the labor demand being created by our economy—as sacrosanct limits that deserve Mexicans’ respect. But those legal limits were put forth in the first place to accommodate conservative senators who wanted to make it more difficult for Mexicans to move to the United States legally. If only all these Latino immigrants were legal, modern conservatives say, we’d be fine with them. Had it not been for Trump and Cruz and Rubio’s predecessors, they might be.