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“Crossing the Border”

Southwest Crossroads Spotlight

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo defined the border between the United States and Mexico in 1848. Before that year, the region now called the American Southwest was part of Mexico.

The Southwest“The Southwest,” Deborah Reade (Artist)

After the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, thousands of Mexicans migrated to the United States. They were looking for jobs and higher pay and trying to escape the political chaos, armed conflict, widespread unemployment, and sometimes desperate poverty in their rural villages. They worked on farms and railroads and in mines, oil fields, and factories. During the Great Depression (1929-1941), the United States deported thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to Mexico in order to lower the rate of unemployment.

In 1942 the United States and Mexico agreed to the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexicans to enter the United States legally to work temporarily on farms. During the Second World War (1941-1945), many braceros joined the US Army or moved to the cities. Many thousands more people came from Mexico to replace them on the farms. After the war, the Bracero Program continued. Some of the people who entered the United States legally with “green cards” came seasonally to work, and others migrated permanently, sometimes seeking American citizenship.

Over the next twenty years, more than five million workers entered the United States. Big agribusiness firms always wanted more workers, and so more and more of them came. If they did not have green cards, workers and their families paid men called coyotes to help them cross the Rio Grande and the stretches of desert along the border to reach their destinations. Immigrants called themselves “mojados,” “the wet ones,” to describe their crossing the Rio Grande, and other people used the negative term “wetbacks” to describe those who came from Mexico illegally. The US Immigration and Naturalization Service (the INS or “la migra”) caught and sent many illegal workers back to Mexico.

The Mexican workers labored under hard conditions in the fields of the American farmers. The migrant farm workers’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s, led by César Chavez, grew out of these conditions. His union forced agribusiness to recognize farm workers’ human rights and to improve their working conditions and wages.

The US-Mexico border stretches more than 2,000 miles. The ongoing migration from Mexico to the United States has produced millions of personal stories by people who have crossed the border or have loved ones who did so.