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"Borders, Open and Closed"

In this audio slideshow, New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein discusses shifts in Mexican immigration from the 1920s through the bracero program of the 1940s and 1960s.


This is Nina Bernstein for the New York Times.

In 1917, cotton growers in the Southwest got the government to send them Mexicans to do stoop labor. Mexicans were wanted, and the back door was left open for them to come in to work all through the twenties when the front door was being closed by quotas to other groups from overseas. But during the Depression of the 1930s it all changed. As many as a million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were essentially forced or frightened into leaving, along with their American-born children. One technique that was used, called "scareheading," was to conduct a big publicized raid and warn that there would be many more to follow. That lead in 1931 to even many established immigrants gathering their families and possessions, selling their property and leaving for Mexico. Mexicans who had settled all across the country found that they couldn't get relief. They were essentially given a choice of leaving or starving, is the way one man put it.

Then in World War II it started all over again. Basically, they were once more enlisted through temporary worker programs that actually stimulated informal border crossings. You have this kind of Rosie the Riveter image of Mexican women working in factories, and men with flags that are reminiscent of the recent demonstrations. But in the 1950s once more at the end of the Korean war there is an economic slump, and lo an behold you find stories and images, again, of Mexicans as welfare seekers and illegal aliens, that resulted in the raids, roundups, warnings that they'd better leave or they wouldn't be able to take their families with them, and Mexicans went back.

At the same time the so-called Bracero program started in the 1940s, a temporary worker program, was doubled even though there were many complaints of worker abuses and exploitation. There are pictures that show workers in barracks-style sleeping quarters, and even at the end of the program which lasted until 1963 they're eating on the side of the road. A professor at NYU, Marcelo Suárez-Orozco says that this was based on a bad faith pact all along. "We can't have it both ways," he says, "an economy that is addicted to immigrant labor, but that is not ready to pay the cost."  For the New York Times, this is Nina Bernstein.
Source | Written by Nina Bernstein, and produced by Thomas Lin and Jeffrey Scales, "Borders, Open and Closed," New York Times, 21 May 2006,
Creator | Nina Bernstein
Item Type | Website
Cite This document | Nina Bernstein, “"Borders, Open and Closed",” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed November 29, 2023,

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