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Background Essay on Early Twentieth Century Mexican Immigration to the U.S.

This essay outlines the reasons for Mexican immigration to the United States during the early part of the twentieth century as well as the issues immigrants confronted in their new home.

In the late 19th century, the United States was a rising world economic power and sought to expand its influence, both economic and diplomatic, in Latin America. The U.S. government encouraged business investments there, hoping they would stabilize the region and promote U.S. influence. Consequently, by the end of the 19th century Mexican President Porfirio Díaz, with substantial financial support from U.S. investors, pursued a plan to modernize the nation’s railroad network. He wanted to improve the country’s trade prospects and consolidate his regime’s control over the country. However, the construction of railroads caused many people to be displaced from their land, and Mexico simultaneously experienced consecutive years of drought and high unemployment. When a revolution against the Díaz government broke out in 1910, the railroad network it had built (with U.S. investment) made it possible for many members of the Mexican peasantry to flee the upheaval and immigrate to the United States.

During this same period, the states and territories of the southwestern U.S. (namely Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico) were in desperate need of cheap labor. New irrigation projects transformed vast tracts of previously arid land into fertile ones, making possible the rise of large-scale agribusiness. Silver and copper mines expanded all across Arizona, California, and New Mexico. Labor was needed to cultivate crops and to extract the region’s resources, and Mexicans, both geographically close and eager for work, were recruited for the tasks. Men generally performed work in the mines, but in agriculture Mexican women (and oftentimes children) worked alongside men in the fields. Agricultural workers tended to migrate from job to job, following the planting and harvesting of different crops, rather than staying in one place. This made it difficult for Mexican field laborers to band together to demand better wages and working conditions. Mexican immigrants did establish their own mutual aid societies (mutualistas), but the need for many Mexican immigrants to migrate in search of work sometimes made it difficult to sustain these organizations.

U.S. immigration policy during this time period was increasingly shaped by nativist impulses. The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 restricted almost all immigration from China, the Immigration Act of 1891 denied entrance to immigrants deemed “likely to become a public charge,” and the Immigration Act of 1917 established a literacy test for all new immigrants. But enforcement of these conservative national immigration laws was rare in the American Southwest. Big employers there rightfully saw these new laws as direct threats to their economic interests and successfully lobbied to exempt Mexicans from them. They portrayed Mexicans as a harmless population of peasants, crucial to the economic well-being of the region. Conversely, in Hollywood and in popular culture, Mexicans were depicted as hot-blooded bandits, revolutionaries, and romantic Latin lovers. These different and often contradictory stereotypes reflect the complexity of this period of Mexican immigration.

By 1915 the increasingly large Mexican population in the southwestern U.S.—realizing both their importance to the region’s economic success and the unequal working conditions they faced compared to their white peers—began to organize themselves and strike for better working and safety conditions. In mining, many strikes concerned a pay scale tied to the price of copper (or other ore), no blasting while workers were inside the mines, and additional manpower for operating heavy machinery. National labor organizations such as the Western Federation of Miners incorporated some Mexican members, though not without controversy. Other Mexican immigrants laid the track for new railroad lines linking the Southwest to the Midwest, and once there found work on beet farms, in steel mills, and in meatpacking plants.

Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.Creative Commons License
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Background Essay on Early Twentieth Century Mexican Immigration to the U.S.,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed February 22, 2024,

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