Mexico-US Migration 1965-86

A review of Undocumented Lives: A History of Mexico-U.S. Migration from 1965 to 1986, by Ana Raquel Minian Andjel. 

Simply put, Ana Raquel Minian’s “Undocumented Lives” is a tour de force. With this work, she masterfully weaves an untold history of Mexico-U.S. migration in the post-1965 period. This is socio-political history at its best. In part, Minian’s work is so successful because she is a skilled and engaging writer who is deeply attuned to the multilayered lives of her characters. Whether she uncovers the emotional distress of leaving a family member behind, the agony of loss immortalized in song, or the economic incentives that drove so many out of their native Mexico, Minian provides the reader with a panoramic lens in which to understand this understudied history. Among its many contributions, this work analyzes migrants’ voices and experiences alongside the decisions of top government officials in both Mexico and the United States.

This is a history of belonging, of jumping both fenced and imaginary borders, and the provisional personal and political state of being caught in the middle of a battle larger than the individual. It is a story of a collective coming to the aid of those torn between two governments that refuse to fully incorporate them as part of the nation-state. Certainly, while a porous and encroaching border has historically helped define Mexico-U.S. relations, it was not until the mid-1970s that “U.S. and Mexican policymakers effectively turned migrants into ‘illegal aliens’” (pp. 53-54). As citizens of nowhere, Minian argues, Mexican migrants created new identities and states-of-being often independent of either nation-state.

No doubt, Minian’s research serves as a model for future works in transnational, ethnic, (im)migration, and sexuality studies. This is not a traditional work in immigration history. This is so much more. Minian unearths “undocumented” lives that have heretofore been erased from the historical record or relegated to the margins based on the needs of labor magnets. Minian rightfully redirects our attention not just to the ebbs and flows of labor supply and demand, but also to the bonds, anchors, anxieties, distress, and general displacement that plagued the everyday lives of Mexicans who crossed the border. In short, she provides a human face to those affected by policies enacted from above—both in the United States and Mexico.

Minian’s research could not come at a timelier juncture in our history. As Congress drags its feet on immigration reform and job creation struggles to counteract high unemployment and underemployment, Minian’s research helps unravel the complex roots fueling the modern-day nativist furnace.

“Undocumented Lives” is organized into three distinct sections. It includes an introduction and five chapters of original research. Minian’s introduction incorporates a highly sophisticated state of the field and historiography that would greatly interest scholars of immigration, ethnic, Latina/o, and modern Mexican and U.S. history.

One of the many strengths of Minian’s project is her focus on the post-1965 period—a seriously and surprisingly understudied era in im(migration) history. While many have looked to the Johnson administration’s passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act as a “liberal” moment in immigration history, Minian encourages a reevaluation of its implementation. Indeed, it placed unprecedented restrictions on (im)migration from Latin America that would have long-term effects on the trajectory of people on both sides of the border. With this focus, Minian boldly builds upon the works of historians—particularly Mae Ngai—who have reevaluated the trajectory of restrictive U.S. immigration policies in the twentieth century. She similarly builds on works in Chicana/o and Latina/o migration in noting that the passage of the 1965 act could not have come at a more ill-fated juncture in either Mexican or U.S. history. That is, its introduction came at the heels of the abrupt end of the long-existing Bracero program that provided Mexican laborers temporary or seasonal contracts for agricultural work in the United States. So, from World War II to 1964, Mexican laborers relied on this program to supplement low wages and unemployment in Mexico. Its end, however, coupled with new restrictive laws, amplified a gap in wages and remittances so critical to the Mexicans’ pockets.

This dialectic position frames Part I of Minian’s research, titled “Government Policies and the Creation of Superfluous Subjects.” Here she explores how both the Mexican and U.S. governments came to espouse policies that encouraged pushing Mexicans outside of their national borders.

In Chapter 1, Minian identifies a critical shift in the Mexican government’s policy on emigration to the United States. While it had historically discouraged permanent U.S. settlement, it now sought to purge Mexican laborers from the country. As Minian argues, “From the mid-1970s onward, the Mexican government reversed a long-standing trend in the history of the Mexican state regarding its position on migrants: no longer considered solutions to the country’s economic and social problems, repatriated migrants were now understood as a source of such ills” (p. 60). In light of the neoliberal turn, Mexicans were oftentimes exported to Mexico’s interior as U.S. industry relocated abroad. Processes such as these helped establish unemployed Mexicans as “surplus” to the Mexican state.

As Minian documents in Chapter 2, those now deemed “superfluous” and pushed to the north were simultaneously purged from the United States. She explores how Mexican women were portrayed as hypersexual and distinctly fertile by immigration restrictionists, policymakers, and INS officials. As such, they came to represent “welfare queens” in the U.S. imagination who burdened the state with their illegal status and expanding family. One of Minian’s greatest contributions here includes Chicana/o resistance and the creation of a collective welfare society. One such example is the work of the Comité de Beneficencia Mexicana in Los Angeles. The Comité responded to the very real needs of those slighted by both governments vis-à-vis a hegemonic discourse that vilified Mexicans as welfare abusers and largely helped render them ineligible for any other assistance. So, while ineligible for legal work and exploited by unfair labor practices and low wages in the United States, undocumented Mexican became citizens of nowhere who turned to more established Chicana/os for assistance. As Minian argues, “The enforcement of the U.S.-Mexico border literally created people who were dependent on welfare” (p. 191).

In Part II, “Migrants’ Visions of Belonging,” Minian explores the lived experiences of those who braved the dangerous and numerous journeys to and from Mexico and the United States. Minian uncovers the realities—while they were tragic, dire, and exploited, they were also often articulated as modes of resistance and empowerment—of these transnational figures.

In Chapter 3, Minian turns ideas of the Mexican family on their head. In the face of the hegemonic discourses that relegated the Mexican female body as dangerous and hyper-fertile, “migrants themselves produced their own cartographies of belonging based on ideas about kinship, gender, and sexuality” (p. 202). To better understand this level of “belonging,” Minian heavily relies on over 150 oral history interviews she conducted in Mexico and California. She complements and supports these testimonies with private correspondence, poems, love letters, and periodicals she attained in both formal and informal archives. This is a marvelous achievement that cannot be overstated. The determination of successfully creating this archive and recovering the voices of those affected by migration is truly remarkable. Minian uses these voices to better understand how migration affected Mexican towns and helped forge new elastic definitions of family and kinship. Gendered patterns of migration soon emerged. As Douglas S. Massey, Jorge Durand and Nolan J. Malone have demonstrated in Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration (New York: Russell Sage, 2003), Minian notes that most of the Mexicans who crossed the border during this period were married men. All the while, available work at the maquiladoras (i.e., assembly plants) prompted mostly young and single women to migrate internally, as their life circumstances rendered them “ideal” laborers for the industry. As Minian argues, however, these gendered patterns do not suggest mutual agreements between men and women and their respective families. Rather, Minian uncovers “reigning sexual ideologies” that deeply limited a woman’s access to migratory networks and resources. With limited resources, fear of molestation or assault, and family restrictions, women “belonged” to Mexico in a way that transnational men did not. Further demonstrating the gendered patterns of migration, Minian investigates how—contrary to popular belief and the findings of several scholars—queer men were less likely to migrate than their sexual and gender normative counterparts. “Rather than describing discrimination as a source that pushed them to emigrate, many queer men described that the discrimination that did exist actually discouraged them from migrating because it cut them off from migrant networks” (p. 226). This work, then, puts Minian in direct conversation with the groundbreaking scholarship on queer Latina/o migration, including those works authored by Héctor Carrillo, Lionel Cantú, and Carlos Decena.

Chapter 4 looks to the creation of clubes sociales in California that held dances and events in order to raise and send funds back to Mexico. Minian pays particular attention to the ways that these organizations, club activists and members forged transnational identities and “developed autonomous ideas about belonging” (p. 309). These clubes sociales “gave some migrants who had been marginalized due to class background, gender, legal status, or ethnicity tolls to insist on their inclusion in these communities and to assert political power” (p. 310). Minian details how particular chapters helped mobilize, reconnect, and financially assist members. In this way, migrants supplanted the responsibilities traditionally assumed by the state. Unlike the eligible benefits that came along with paying taxes, these actions often rendered many recipients vulnerable to feelings of guilt as casualties of charity. Nonetheless, these organizations renegotiated migrants’ space in the United States and, to a smaller extent, Mexico. It was not until the 1980s that the clubs had formal relationships with state governments in Mexico. It was also then that the clubes sociales included more women and expanded the borders of who belonged in the organization. One particularly revealing example is Minian’s telling of an event featuring female revolutionary Valentina Ramírez. Her gender-bending persona crossed borders in both the revolution with Pancho Villa and her presence at the clubs. In displaying and embracing Ramírez’s revolutionary queerness, the clubs became far more inclusive organizations that helped destabilize many of the powerful gender-normative ideologies that further complicated the migrants’ lives. Lastly, Minian details the multi-leveled and often tiered feelings of belonging created by the clubs. With the creation of federations that incorporated regional identities among the clubs, members could simultaneously maintain attachments to their hometown, their state, their new home, their district, and their nation-state. In many ways, Minian implies, the clubs helped make “belonging” both a reality and a state of mind.

The final section explores changes in migratory patterns following the U.S. passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986. This law serves as a natural bookend to Minian’s powerful account. She notes how the law motivated Mexican migrants to settle in the United States, rather than maintain a circular pattern to and from their native Mexico. Despite the fact that the United States intensified its efforts to police the border in the 1970s, the flow of Mexican migrants steadily increased. By 1986, an estimated two to six million undocumented Mexicans resided in the United States.

In her final chapter, Minian uncovers the competing visions that dominated the debate over immigration reform. At times, this manifested in what appears to be an unholy alliance. As employers sought to protect their cheap labor force, Mexican organizations such as the National Council of la Raza (NCLR), the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) lobbied Congress. Indeed, employers and Mexican-American organizations made the same argument in favor of keeping the workers in the United States: the migrants did not use welfare and merely took jobs that U.S. citizens did not want. The United States ultimately passed IRCA as a means of closing the border while also controlling and containing its pool of laborers. This included allowing 2.3 million Mexicans who proved continuous residence in the United States to attain citizenship and fining employers who hired undocumented workers. As Minian argues, however, “IRCA did not, as legislators had hoped, reduce undocumented migration, but it did dissuade migrants from returning to their home countries by raising the cost and dangers of crossing the border” (p. 376). Minian points to discourses surrounding family construction, welfare, unemployment, border control, Cuba’s Mariel boatlift, and Central American migration in the wake of civil war to better understand the passage of the law and its many effects on ethnic Mexicans. Here, Minian adds new dimensions to the works of scholars such as David Gutiérrez by documenting the Chicana/o and Mexican migrant divide. Minian notes that by the 1970s, Chicana/o organizations shifted their stance, now favoring opening the border and no longer viewing the new workers as a threat to their own standard of living.

Minian concludes by suggesting the many implications her findings could have on public policy. “Migrants’ persistence in heading to the United States, as well as the border’s increasing permeability to trade, information, and capital,” Minian argues, “suggests that it is once again time to rethink migratory policies. There are no conscionable reasons for workers to die in their search for work, for mothers to cry over absent sons who cannot return, or for individuals to lack the capacity to belong in the place they reside” (p. 444). Indeed, Minian’s work serves as a model for the type of work possible in the field when intelligence and ingenuity meet. Minian’s research is a bold and courageous account of the lives of people deemed “superfluous” and therefore previously erased from the historical record. With this work, Minian recovers their voices, traces their steps, and rightfully situates them as historical characters who indeed belong.

Julio Capó, Jr.
Assistant Professor
Department of History and Commonwealth Honors College
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Primary Sources

Over 150 oral histories and testimonies conducted in Mexico and California
U.S. Congressional record
Private archives and personal collections in both Mexico and the United States
Corridos and other song lyrics
Love letters, correspondence, and newspapers

Dissertation Information

Yale University. 2012. 492 pp. Primary Advisors: Stephen Pitti and George Chauncey.

Image: Photo by Author.

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