Immigration, Race, and Economic Globalization on the U.S.-Mexico Border: Tangled Histories and Contemporary Realities

Author:Marc Belanger
Position:Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of Political Science at Saint Mary s College in South Bend, Indiana

I. Race, Economic Globalization, And Identity In The United States: A Historical PerspectiveA. Race and Political Order B. Economic Expansion and the Construction of National Identity C. New Markets, New RacesII. United States Trade And Immigration Policy: The Never-Ending Tension A. Mexican Immigrants and the Politics of ImmigrationB. Foreign Investment, Free Trade, and Migration III.... (see full summary)


    Marc Belanger, Marc Belanger is an Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of Political Science at Saint Mary's College in South Bend, Indiana. His research has focused on the political impact of globalization and his published articles include Democratization, Civil Society and Latin American Social Movements, in UNCIVIL SOCIETIES: HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRATIC TRANSITIONS IN EASTERN EUROPE AND LATIN AMERICA (Rachel May & Andrew Milton eds. 2005). He is also contributing a chapter on Guatemala to a forthcoming volume on democratization in post-conflict societies. I would like to acknowledge with gratitude: Sarah Alden, for initiating my participation in the Symposium in October 2005; Amy Dollash and the other conference organizers for creating such a stimulating and welcoming environment; Katie Dingeman, for research and discussion that helped the initial development of this article; Sarah Staley, for learning and then carrying out the initial conversion to law journal citation format; Roseanna Castillo, for superb multiple readings of the manuscript and suggestions that improved the Article's substance and organization. Special thanks to Roseanna and her staff for their patience while I learned the citation and footnote practices of law journals.

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In a congressional hearing, a U.S. representative from Colorado explained the continuing need for labor from Mexico: "The American working people will not get down on their hands and knees in the dirt and pull weeds and thin these beets and break their backs doing that kind of work . . . [n]o matter how much they are paid, they cannot and will not do it."1 In response, a Texas Chamber of Commerce official asserted that:

The competition of Mexican labor in every walk of life . . . is so intense that no room or opportunity exists for the American who wants to work for sufficient wages to support himself and his family. This is resulting in this country¥s being almost taken over by the Mexican citizens because the American cannot compete with the low wages of the Mexican.2

These statements were made with a bluntness that might indicate to the reader that they were made during the 1920s. In the decades since, the Page 2 language has grown more nuanced, and anti-immigration forces generally have expressed less overt racism.3 The basic terms of the debate, however, have not changed significantly. Advocates of more restrictive policies decry the loss of jobs by U.S. citizens and the social costs of ineffective border- control.4 There are also concerns expressed about the dilution and fragmentation of a common national and cultural identity.5 This perspective is challenged by arguments that new immigrants bring work skills and ethics that strengthen the workforce and contribute to lower prices for consumers in a variety of areas including food, construction, and food and hotel services.6

With recent attention on the intensified conflict along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as post-9/11 anxieties about terrorism, immigration reform is once again a source of lively policy debates.7 These debates occur in the wake of several recent efforts to "fix" immigration policy, including the 1986 Immigration and Control Act and later amendments.8 Why have immigration policy debates remained stagnant and the policy outcomes proven so ineffective?

This Article will offer a partial explanation by analyzing the historical roots and contemporary consequences of a persistent contradiction, which is well explained by Peter Andreas:

The awkward and often overlooked predicament facing U.S. policymakers is that their promotion of borderless economies based on free market principles in many ways contradicts and undermines their efforts to keep borders closed to the clandestine movement of drugs and migrant labor.9

Andreas wrote with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as Page 3 the principle referent, but the "predicament" is not new. At its heart are issues about race, national identity, and economic globalization, which are issues as old as the nation. Every previous period of economic expansion has not just added to this nation¥s wealth, it has also made the nation more multicultural. Proponents of NAFTA neither argued that the agreement would reduce immigration by stimulating Mexican development nor did they try to sell the treaty¥s ability to make the United States more multicultural.10 While such an admission would not have increased the chances of NAFTA¥s approval, a long overdue discussion of the relationship between race, trade, and immigration could have begun.

Race has been an influential element in the process of state formation in the United States. It has also been embedded within the structure of the United States economy since the English landed in Virginia. Economic expansion has continually brought new populations of color to the United States and necessitated the construction of racial guidelines, as seen with immigration law as one of the principle formative crucibles. Immigration law has sought to define citizenship and restrict who may cross the border. Until well into the twentieth century, explicit racial hierarchies shaped the immigration process, but the appearance of new populations-driven by the demand for labor-continually complicated the task. Mexican immigrants developed patterns and strategies in response to racism and exclusion which further complicated this task. The Civil Rights movements of the 1960s forever changed the public rhetoric regarding race and immigration but did not eliminate the cultural assumptions and conceptions of a national identity which supported it.

In this Article, I will analyze the fundamental connections between race, globalization, and immigration. The argument will be developed in four parts. Part I will provide a historical overview of the relationships between race, national identity, and economic expansion in the United States. Using Desmond King and Rogers Smith¥s analysis of "racial order,"11 this Article will examine the ways racial categories were used to reconstruct notions of national identity in the face of economic change. Part II will examine the relationship between immigration policy and economic development with particular emphasis on the post-World War II economic order built upon expanded trade and the globalization of manufacturing processes. Part III will focus more closely on the crucial role of immigration in those processes. Part IV will use the analysis developed in the previous sections to critique Samuel Huntington¥s widely-read warning that "the Hispanic Challenge" threatens to weaken the country¥s national identity and Page 4 cohesion.12 This Article will argue that the multiculturalism Huntington deplores is a consequence of 200 years of United States economic policies which have generated immigration and cultural diversity. Hence, the current "crisis" is the most recent manifestation of a political dilemma as old as the United States.

I Race, Economic Globalization, And Identity In The United States: A Historical Perspective

While the economic impacts of globalization have been widely examined, its cultural effects are no less significant. As technology has enabled capital and information to flow with unprecedented mobility, the flow of people has also intensified. In the United States, levels of immigration, especially from Latin America and Asia, have led to concerns about the breakdown of a unified sense of national identity. This section will argue that these anxieties are not new.13 Preoccupations with how to define a national identity and make sense of the other people and nations inhabiting the Americas has long haunted the political and cultural life of the United States. A strong sense of national duty to spread democratic institutions across the hemisphere has alternated with doubt and anxiety regarding the potentially corrupting influence of its neighbors on the United States¥ civic virtue, economic health, and political institutions.14 When President Bill Clinton invoked John F. Kennedy¥s Alliance for Progress and Ross Perot spoke of corrupt Mexican politicians to counter NAFTA, cultural battles as old as the Monroe Doctrine and manifest destiny were reconstructed for a new generation.15 This confused blend of altruism, xenophobia, idealism, and pessimism has produced inconsistent policies.

A Race and Political Order

From the beginning, race was a central formative element in the process of constructing national identity in the United States. Racial categories and hierarchies appeared early across the colonial Americas, but their forms Page 5 were not monolithic.16 Historian Ronald Takaki argues that the forms of servitude present in the British colonies were not originally constructed solely in racial terms.17 For the English settlers, Africans and Native Americans were "other" and often viewed in derogatory ways, but the same was true of Irish as well as Catholics more generally.18 These prejudices extended to how white servants saw their black counterparts, but it was still possible for each to find common ground.19 In response to this alarming development, colonial elites erected new political and legal barriers based upon race...

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