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A Historian on How Trump’s Wall Rhetoric Changes Lives in Mexico

People walk to cross to the United States at El Chaparral crossing port on the U.S.-Mexico border, in Tijuana, Mexico, on January 28, 2019.

Source Photograph by Guillermo Arias / AFP / Getty Images

On Friday morning, President Trump declared a national emergency at the southern border, in order to access billions of dollars in funding for the construction of a wall. In doing so, Trump defied the authority of Congress, which had settled on a bill to fund the government that included limited funding for border fencing. Another major issue for congressional negotiators was the number of immigrants held in detention. While Trump has been ramping up detention numbers, including of people seeking asylum, Democrats have been pushing back. Ultimately, lawmakers agreed to fund just more than forty-five thousand beds, which would decrease the number of detained immigrants by about seventeen per cent. The debate over how many people the U.S. should detain has skirted a larger question: Why does America detain so many illegal immigrants and asylum seekers in the first place?

To discuss this question, and to get some historical perspective on U.S. relations with Mexico, I spoke by phone earlier this week with Ana Raquel Minian, an associate professor of history at Stanford and the author of the book “Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration.” During our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what the U.S. can do to create a more stable Mexico, the factors that cause net migration rates to go up and down over time, and why the U.S. did not always find it necessary to lock up people seeking asylum.

What is it about this moment in U.S.-Mexico relations regarding immigration that you think is interesting or unique?

Since 2008, there’s actually been net negative migration. So, what we see now is a lot of anti-Mexican rhetoric, for example, when Trump ran his campaign, we heard him say that Mexicans were coming in and they were probably criminals and rapists. But of course what he did not mention was that more Mexicans are leaving the country than coming in.

Mexican migration had grown steadily and increasingly since the end of the bracero program, especially undocumented migration. That was a guest-worker program that started in 1942, in which Mexican workers could come, work legally in the United States for short periods of time, and then return to Mexico. It continued until 1964. Undocumented folks were used to coming in the bracero program, and once the program ended, and they could no longer continue to come legally to the United States, they simply did so without papers. And migration continued to grow until 2008. So, in terms of what’s unique about this historical moment, in terms of Mexican migration, it’s that the rhetoric continues to be very anti-Mexican even though migration is actually in decline from Mexico.