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ImmigrationHow crossing the U.S.-Mexico border became a crime

By Kelly Lytle Hernandez

Published 1 May 2017

It was not always a crime to enter the United States without authorization. In fact, for most of American history, immigrants could enter the United States without official permission and not fear criminal prosecution by the federal government. That changed in 1929. On its surface, Congress’s new prohibitions on informal border crossings simply modernized the U.S. immigration system by compelling all immigrants to apply for entry. However, in my new book City of Inmates, I detail how Congress outlawed border crossings with the specific intent of criminalizing, prosecuting, and imprisoning Mexican immigrants.

Author Kelly Lytle Hernandez // Source: ucla.edu

It was not always a crime to enter the United States without authorization.

In fact, for most of American history, immigrants could enter the United States without official permission and not fear criminal prosecution by the federal government. That changed in 1929. On its surface, Congress’s new prohibitions on informal border crossings simply modernized the U.S. immigration system by compelling all immigrants to apply for entry. However, in my new book “City of Inmates,” I detail how Congress outlawed border crossings with the specific intent of criminalizing, prosecuting, and imprisoning Mexican immigrants.

Knowing this history is important now. On 11 April 2017, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his plan to step up prosecutions of unlawful entries, saying it’s time to “restore a lawful system of immigration.” This may read like a colorblind commitment to law and order. But the law Sessions has vowed to enforce was designed with racist intent.

The Mexican immigration debate
The criminalization of informal border crossings occurred amid an immigration boom from Mexico.

In 1900, about 100,000 Mexican immigrants resided in the United States.

By 1930, nearly 1.5 million Mexican immigrants lived north of the border.

As Mexican immigration surged, many in Congress were trying to restrict non-white immigration. By 1924, Congress had largely adopted a “whites only” immigration system, banning all Asian immigration and cutting the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States from anywhere other than northern and western Europe. But whenever Congress tried to cap the number of Mexicans allowed to enter the United States each year, southwestern employers fiercely objected.

U.S. employers had eagerly stoked the era’s Mexican immigration boom by recruiting Mexican workers to their southwestern farms, ranches and railroads, as well as their homes and mines. By the 1920s, western farmers were completely dependent on Mexican workers.

However, they also believed that Mexican immigrants would never permanently settle in the United States. As agribusiness lobbyist S. Parker Frisselle explained to Congress in 1926, “The Mexican is a ‘homer.’ Like the pigeon he goes home to roost.” On Frisselle’s promise that Mexicans were “not immigrants” but, rather, “birds of passage,” western employers successfully defeated proposals to cap Mexican immigration to the United States during the 1920s.