Mark Overmyer-Velázquez believes current and past debates about the “problem of immigration” have never resolved the fundamental issue underlying south-north Mexican migration: the enormous economic disparities between the two countries.
“Since the beginning of the 20th century and especially in the years during and immediately following the Mexican Revolution, U.S. immigration policy has been characterized by deep ambivalence and fragmentation,” says Overmyer-Velázquez, an assistant professor of history and associate director of the Center for Oral History.
At the core of that ambivalence are the conflicting themes of U.S. demand for labor and attitudes toward race.
“On the one hand, the rapid economic development in the United States has required Mexican labor in order to continue and thrive,” he says.
“On the other, the increased number of Mexican nationals north of the border throughout the 20th century and into the present century has driven many officials to fear for the potential contamination of the perceived race-based social and cultural purity of U.S. citizenship.”
Overmyer-Velázquez is currently writing a book, provisionally titled “Bleeding Mexico White: Race, Nation, and the History of Mexico – U.S. Migration.”
The book will provide a broad historical perspective assessing the development and impact of migratory trends and practices in Mexico and the United States from the early 20th century to the present.
Overmyer-Velázquez, who has family in Mexico, the U.S., and Canada, earned a Ph.D. in Latin American history at Yale University.
While teaching Chicano studies at Pomona College in California, he noticed a dearth of information about Mexican migration.
“It struck me there was a real absence of scholarship [about migrants] until they came into the U.S.,” he says.
He says up to 10 percent of the population of Mexico has lived in the U.S., yet their migration story has been largely neglected, and requires long-range studies using Mexican archives.
Overmyer-Velázquez says his new book will examine the reasons for Mexican migration to the U.S., including Mexican state agrarian reforms, land tenure changes in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz, and the Mexican Revolution.
A backlash occurred during the 1930s, when, he says, a “xenophobic response” in the U.S. caused problems for about half a million Mexicans and Mexican Americans, who were put on trains and buses and “racially displaced” (sent back to Mexico) against their will. The deportation/repatriation stems
in large part, he adds, from the Depression, which began in 1929.
Also emblematic of the era was an announcement in 1936 by the city registrar of El Paso, Texas, that Mexicans would henceforth be registered as “colored” in birth and death records, a radical shift from their previous designation
Conditions improved after World War II, when Mexican and U.S. policies encouraged temporary labor migration with bilateral bracero (guest worker) agreements, leading to a Golden Age of migration between 1942 and 1964.
“The modern period starts here, because people ended up staying without legal documentation,” says Overmyer-Velázquez.
| Mark Overmyer-Velazquez, assistant professor of history, speaks to a group at the Humanities Institute about his research on Mexican migration to the U.S.
|Photo by Stephanie Gagliard
The phrase “bleeding Mexico white” refers to the kind of despair and loss of honor felt by Mexican government officials, who were championing a proud new society – “which is hard to do when citizens are leaving the country,” he says.
The contemporary notion of the border between the U.S and Mexico was solidified in the 1930s, Overmyer-Velázquez says, following the development of the border patrol and designated crossings.
One chapter of his book will examine the broader impact of migratory policies on the immigrants themselves, including the development of transnational activist groups and labor groups.
Another chapter will be based on oral history interviews.
Overmyer-Velázquez is conducting interviews with migrant workers traveling back and forth between Connecticut’s “Tobacco” Valley and the pueblo of Etla in Oaxaca.
He’s working on the book full-time this semester, with support from a Humanities Institute fellowship.
He says political responses to migration are cyclical, and “very racially based.”
“Every decade or so the U.S.
federal government enacts new legislation in an attempt to reassess what is seen by many officials as the balance between labor needs and cultural and social stability,” he says.
“Different states and occasionally different municipalities develop their own regulations and relationship with migrants from Mexico and elsewhere, either altering or completely flouting national legislation.
Mexicans are the largest migrant group in the U.S., and with more coming now than ever before, despite efforts to keep them out, Overmyer-Velázquez recommends what he regards as
a more constructive approach.
“Politicians and others concerned with migration to the United States need to take into consideration this long-term context,” he says, “and realize that unless they wish to continue to place new wine in old bottles – simply recasting old arguments to solve the same problems – more committed, long-term economic structural adjustments and investment … need to be made between the two countries in a bilateral and hemispheric approach to supporting, and regulating, the massive flow of labor to the United States.”
Overmyer-Velázquez views the Kennedy-McCain immigration reform bill – which includes a provision that allows undocumented immigrants currently living and working in the United States to gain “legal” status – as a reasonable short- and medium-term fix.
He says it recognizes the importance of migrant labor to the U.S. economy and respects the dignity and economic and social potential of Mexicans.
“Legalization of these vital contributors to and partners in our society is critical,” he adds, “to avoid their further marginalization and all-too-often criminalization.”