by Victoria Gurrola
The United States has served as a beacon of hope for immigrants for centuries. Immigrant populations vary by state and city location. Current political debate has brought attention to high immigration rates to the United States from Mexico, backed by Conservative attacks on illegal immigration specifically. Like many immigrants to America, Mexican immigrant hopefuls saw, and still see, America as a land of opportunity.
Reyna Hernandez de Policarpo was interviewed about her experience as a Mexican immigrant in 1989. Policarpo originally lived in San Miguel del Valle in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, but then immigrated to Los Angeles, California. Through her testimony of deciding to move to the United States and overcoming obstacles, a history of discrimination in United States immigration policy is explored.
The United States has had a long and complicated history with Mexican immigration. In 1883, a Mexican land law allowed private companies to receive up to one-third of any land they subdivided. As a result, Mexican residents were stripped of their land, and were forced to become tenant farmers and sharecroppers, making them especially vulnerable to exploitation. Anti-Mexican immigration efforts in the United States began as early as the 1800’s at which point border inspection stations were created at ports of entry on the southern border of the United States. In the early 1900‘s, the United States experienced a flood of new Mexican immigrants. This was partially due to the construction of the Mexican International Railroad. In 1910, the Mexican Revolution forced thousands of refugees to the United States in search of safety and work. United States Border Patrol was created in 1924 as a result of anti-smuggling efforts during Prohibition. Mass migration to California additionally began during the Great Depression due to a reduction of agricultural jobs in the “dust bowl states.”
War time reductions of the American labor force during World War II called for immigrant laborers, which led to the creation of the Bracero Program in 1942. The Bracero Program allowed for temporary use of Mexican agricultural labor on farms in the United States. At the time, the Bracero Program was extremely controversial. Mexican nationals were willing to take farming jobs in America for low wages that American laborers would not accept. Additionally, Mexican immigrant farmers already in the United States worried that they would have to compete with a new wave of immigrants for agricultural labor, creating a fear for lowered wages. Unfortunately, many people who participated in the Bracero program were exploited, with employers paying cheap wages for Mexican labor.
From 1965 to the start of the 1970’s, the number of illegal immigrants in the United States tripled, with four out of five illegal immigrants originating from Mexico. In 1978, Congress created the Select Commission on Immigration, which deemed that illegal immigration was out of control. The Select Commission on Immigration wanted to take a law enforcement approach to tackling the immigration “problem,” suggesting practices such as illegal immigrant employment sanctions and increased border security.
Policarpo’s journey then began in the late 1980’s. She immigrated to the United States in 1989, just three years after the United States Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. The Immigration Reform and Control Act attempted to reduce illegal immigration by seeking to reduce employers who hired illegal immigrants. A more positive output of the Immigration Reform and Control Act was the amnesty that was granted to more than 2.7 million illegal workers, giving them a legal status. At this time, illegal immigration decreased dramatically.
Policarpo was one of many immigrants of the time who migrated to the United States illegally. Like many Mexican immigrants, Policarpo decided to leave her home in Mexico because she felt that there would be more opportunities in the United States than in her home state of Oaxaca. She described life in her hometown of San Miguel del Valle, mentioning, “The habitants of this town were farmers, however some were already starting to become artisans. They made wool rugs and handmade bags but these jobs were not enough to give them a good life. For these reasons many young people, usually from 14-20 years old, started to immigrate to the United States.” Policarpo then went on to explain that the political situation in Oaxaca was making citizens restless. The PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, kept winning elections, and many residents were unhappy with election results. She explained, “Oaxacans wanted to see a change.”
Policarpo described her long journey of migration to the United States in great detail, reporting that, “I left my hometown on December 31st at 5 a.m. to Oaxaca City. I took a flight at 7:45 a.m. to México City. At 2:00 p.m. I took a flight to Tijuana, México. I stayed in a hotel for a night. The next day at 9:00 a.m. I met up with the coyote. I took a bus to the middle of nowhere; there I met other people who were trying to cross the border. Everybody had to obey the coyote, we had to walk, climb, and run over a fence until we got to a hiding place where we stayed for half a day. When we got the order to continue our journey we walked for two more hours until we finally reached the place where a truck came to pick us up. There were about 12 of us that had to fit in the truck. The coyote said to lie down on top of each other. The truck driver took the freeway towards Los Angeles and we arrived at 10:00 p.m. I noticed the coyotes were drunk. I paid $250 to be brought to the US.” Reflecting on her immigration journey reminded Policarpo of her fears at the time. She said, “My biggest fear was living alone since I come from a big family of 13 brothers and sisters.” Although Policarpo was married, and traveled with her husband, trying to adopt a new life style was one of her biggest fears. She later explained that she was scared of living away from her 13 brothers and sisters.
As a part of the discussion of the current political state of immigration, employment of immigrants has gone under attack. The United States has a history of work place race-based discrimination. On average, Mexican immigrant men in the work force make less money than men of other races. Mexican immigrants have earned an average of $18,000 annually, while their white counterparts earn an average of $46,000 per year. Native born Mexicans who now live in the United States also make less than their white counterparts, earning about $30,500 per year. Policarpo knew that as a new immigrant, the first task that she would have to accomplish was to find work to start earning an income. When asked about her employment prospects upon immigrating to the United States in 1989, Policarpo said, “Finding a job in this country was very hard for me.” As a recent immigrant, Policarpo was expected to do considerably worse than a native-born Mexican American.
Although Mexican immigrant men are more likely to be in the labor force than most other races, this is not the case for Mexican immigrant women. Policarpo mentioned, “I felt discriminated against when I was looking for a job. Most employers judged me by my race, age, and gender.” Policarpo spent a full year applying for jobs before she was finally hired at a pizzeria. After working at the pizzeria, Policarpo found her current job at a dry cleaners. Although Policarpo had difficulty finding a job, Mexican immigrant women overall have experienced increases in their labor force participation rates in the past two decades. Unfortunately, for both men and women, the difference in labor success, or wages earned between a Mexican immigrant and their children is considerably less than the earning differences of white Americans and their children. “Not only are immigrant men earning considerably less than native-born white males in each census year, but their earnings are falling further behind as time passes. Furthermore, most of the improvement in immigrants’ earnings occurred between 1970 and 1980; their earnings leveled off thereafter.”The steep disparities between earned income of the three groups may be due multiple variables. Some characteristics that affect earnings are age, English proficiency, marital status, work disability status, and for women, having children can negatively effect job security.
All of those factors can be used to discriminate against immigrants as they are trying to find work. Additionally, lack of education among immigrants and has a huge impact on Mexican immigrant and native-born children of immigrants’ earning potential. As of 1990, 75 percent of Mexican immigrants hadn’t completed high school, while 91 percent of whites had completed high school. Mexican Americans had a lower rate of attending high school, having a 65 percent high school attendance rate.
Policarpo is now a Mexican-born Los Angeles resident, and is part of the 40% of Los Angeles residents that can trace their origins to Mexico. The current large Mexican population in Los Angeles is an increase from a half-century ago. In 1960, Mexican-born population within the United States represented only one third of Mexican-origin populations in Los Angeles. The increase in population is partially due to the passage of Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965. The Immigration and Nationality Act ended numerical immigration restrictions by country of origin, switching restrictions to immigration numbers of the Eastern and Western hemispheres.
One of the changes that is visible in the United States as a part of a large wave of Mexican immigration is a change in community in that areas that previously had few Latino residents decades ago now have many Mexican residents. In the Southern California area, these regions include South Central and the historically white communities in Southeast Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.
As a new immigrant, Policarpo lived in the Los Angeles areas of Venice, Mar Vista, and finally settled in her current home in the city of Los Angeles. She enjoyed living in her first home in Venice because “it was very nice and close to the beach where there were always a lot of people.” Policarpo went on to explain that she currently does not live in a Mexican immigrant neighborhood even though Los Angeles has high rates of Mexican immigrant populations, nor does she feel connected to a specific Mexican immigrant neighborhood. She explained that because she does not live in a neighborhood that is dominated by one race, she now has strong relationships with people from different races and cultures.
Even though Policarpo does not feel connected to an immigrant area or involved with other immigrants from her home country, she still believes in attempting to preserve her family’s Mexican culture by speaking Spanish in the home. Policarpo explained, “Speaking Spanish at home is very important to me because it helps to maintain my home culture. It makes me feel like I am at home and when I speak Spanish with my kids I feel like I am home with my family from México.” Unfortunately, the United States is experiencing the near extinction of non-English languages. However, almost all Mexican immigrants speak Spanish in the home. “Spanish in the United States, perhaps like other ethnic mother tongues, also signifies informality and intimacy to members of the ethnic group.”Most immigrants find ease and comfort, and are sometimes limited to speaking their native language. As in Policarpo’s case, communication in Spanish includes conversation with her children, who speak Spanish in the home, and speak and learn English at school.
Shortly after Policarpo’s arrival in 1989, President George H. W. Bush started the Immigration act of 1990. Similar to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the Immigration act of 1990 sought to control immigration by increasing the number of legal immigrants allowed into the United States by 200,000 people each year. Under Bush’s new law, the U.S. Commission on Immigration reform was created. The U.S. Commission on trade hope to take control of illegal immigration by focusing on strengthening the training of border patrol officials. However, the number of illegal immigrants caused by the Immigration Reform and Control Act increased to an estimate 3.4 illegal immigrants by 1992.
As of 2001, the number of illegal immigrants in the United States was an estimated 7 million, and half of those coming from Mexico. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 intensified concerns of illegal immigration. The Department of Homeland Security was set up in 2003, reorganized previous border patrol and customs agencies. Border patrol increased as an emphasis was placed securing the border as a result of the September 11 attacks. As of 2008, the United States gained more support for Operation Streamline, which is an effort to prosecute illegal border crossings.
As part of the recent emphasis on addressing what is perceived to the be the problem of United States immigration, it is important to consider various issues that stem off of the immigration debate. Some of these issues include questions of whether illegal immigrants should be entitled to certain United States benefits, and whether there should be a national language.
Even though Policarpo has been in the United States in 1989, she still doesn’t feel Americanized. Policarpo explained, “I don’t feel assimilated into the US yet and I am not sure if I want to be.” She feels that people don’t see her as an American, primarily because of her outward appearance. It is important to recognize that although Policarpo may not identify as American, she plays a vital role in the American work force. At a time in which many residents of the United States are suffering economically, it is important to understand that although it might make people more comfortable to not be surrounded by immigrants, the United States depends on the labor of immigrant populations. Furthermore, if the United States wants to hold it’s title as the land of opportunity, it is important to have compassion for people who work hard, and are struggling to make ends meet. Like many immigrants, Policarpo moved to the United States to find more opportunities for she and her husband. A move to the United States has allowed for her United States-born daughters to have access to education system and to become a part of the work force, so that one day they too can attempt to live the American dream.
Author Victoria Gurrola is a sophomore at Mills College.
Place of Origin
San Miguel del Valle Oaxaca Mexico
Place of Settlement