Mexican Americans have always been an important ethnic component of California's population. The first of the two huge waves of Latino immigration to California took place between 1910 and 1919 during the Mexican Revolution. The second happened throughout the 1980s, when the population of Latinos grew larger in number than any other ethnic group. By 1989, Los Angeles could boast the second largest urban population of ethnic Mexicans, second only to Mexico City.
International politics played a major role in both waves of immigration. During World War II, California's agricultural industry faced a manpower shortage as the majority of able-bodied citizens were pressed into military service or wartime production. In 1942, Congress passed the Bracero Accord, which allowed California's farmers to recruit temporary foreign workers from Mexico. This program remained in effect until 1964.
Yet the strongest triggers leading to the largest wave of Hispanic immigration to California in the 20th century begin with policies emanating from Washington, D.C. In 1979, Nicaragua elected a Socialist government headed by Daniel Ortega. Early in his first term, President Ronald Reagan announced that Central America would be a primary focus of his administration's effort to curb Communist expansionism. The government trained counterinsurgent troops, gave billions of dollars in military aid, and destabilized the region. Quaker organizations and Catholic churches in California and the Southwest participated in the international Sanctuary Movement, offering shelter to undocumented Central Americans fleeing unrest and civil war in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. (California, however, was by far the destination of choice for the majority of Latino immigrants during the 1980s. Perhaps that is due to the long history of seasonal migratory workers in California's agricultural industry.)
At the same time, Mexico, burdened by international debt, imposed economic austerity measures further hurting the poorest members of its society, which caused thousands to make the dangerous trek north for economic survival. Guides who could lead families across the border to a better life in "El Norte" were nicknamed "coyotes." Signs along the northbound interstate freeway in San Diego County graphically warned motorists to avoid hitting families fleeing across the highway.
In 1985, President Ronald Reagan reframed the issue of immigration as one of national security. "The U.S.," he asserted to members of Congress, "had lost control" of its borders to an "invasion of illegal immigrants." Congress passed the Immigrant Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986. This led to increased patrols along the U.S.-Mexican border, sanctions on employers of undocumented workers, and an amnesty program for long-term undocumented residents.
More than 2.3 million foreign-born Latino residents in the U.S. took advantage of this program, leading to naturalization and green-card status. However, most foreign-born laborers did not want to give up their Mexican citizenship, preferring to work in California on a temporary basis and then return home. The IRCA required people to make a choice. Most choose to stay in the U.S. and sent for their family to join them. Under Reagan's leadership, Congress had tried to limit Latino immigration, but instead, they created incentives that would lead to its increase.
- Students analyze the economic boom and social transformation of post-World War II America. (11.8.2)