Migrants and Refugees in the Americas: Understanding Mexican, Central American, and Global Migration to the United States
Today, over 11 of 44 million immigrants in the US were born in Mexico, by far the largest country of origin, and Latin American immigrants as a whole makes up approximately half of the entire US immigrant population. The overall purpose and goal of my course “Migrants and Refugees in the Americas” is to introduce undergraduate students to the major histories, trends, and reasons for twentieth-century migration to the US, and the ways in which those histories might inform recent and current concepts, debates, and controversies on migration today. The following exposition is meant to provide a comparative view for other activists, community members, scholars, students, and teachers engaged in education on migration, in and on Europe and elsewhere. Focusing most on course design, it takes into account global contexts and forces in the development of a liberal arts pedagogy on the processes and outcomes of migration.
While the course focuses on Mexican and Central American migration to the US over the last half century, rather than on African, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Near Eastern migration to European countries, the course offers three specific ways to view migration to the US and Europe together, and to view Europe in a global and comparative context. First, the course demonstrates how US laws on refugees derived from common global and European statements and understandings on human rights and displaced peoples during and after World War II. The works by Peter Gatrell on The Making of the Modern Refugee and Reece Jones on Violent Borders give students the necessary global, historical, and human rights contexts for comparing migration to the US and to Europe at midcentury and beyond. Their reading of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 also allows them to gain an historical understanding of common and divergent meanings of refugee status in the US compared to Europe. For example, studying these international sources alongside contemporaneous US legal statements on displacement and refugee status, and the much later Refugee Act of 1980, allows students to discern the ways global and European understandings of refugee status directly influenced the language in US refugee laws, but most substantially after long historical delays, and more in response to later US political exigencies and concerns. Discussions on these sources, connections, and comparisons allow for close investigation of how and why US immigration law and policy includes, and differentiates, refugees from other kinds of migrants, and severely limits the number of those eligible for asylum or refugee status.
The recent rise in Central American migration to the US, according to those contexts, has again made the question of refugee status central to any discussion of migration today, and for the class, raises two additional relevant comparisons to Europe that have to do with the dangers of migration. These comparisons are clearest for students through their reading of Jones’s Violent Borders, which directly compares the dangers of European and US borderlands, and the responses of European countries and the US to migrants and refugees, and Óscar Martínez’s The Beast, which tells of the dangers of Central American migration to the US through Mexico. Reading those two books, and news sources, allows students to understand and compare the different migratory paths and the varied meanings and violent realities of different borders. For example, Salvadoran migrants traveling atop trains in Mexico to the US-Mexico border, and more recently, Honduran migrants walking in caravans to that same border, experience immense violence and dangers on their passage north through the vast terrain that is Mexico. Students can compare this to Kurdish, Syrian, and Turkish migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to France, Germany, and Greece, the different dangers of travel over water versus land, the different ways states accept or deny migrants once they approach national boundaries, and the different meanings of borders in Europe compared to the US. In both cases, the migratory pathways to borders between nations may be as dangerous and violent, if not more so, than the specific political and geographical lines of demarcation between nations. However, the physical, and often militarized infrastructures at those lines designed to prevent migratory entry may contradict that assumption. Those repressive state apparatuses at borderlines also call into question the difference between paths and borders, and how paths versus borders are understood similarly and differently on the way to Europe compared to the US. A grim calculus that brings serious ethical and moral dilemmas into question derives from these comparisons: should deaths, and comparative levels of violence and danger, take into account the entire migratory path from origin to intended destination, only a spatially restricted territory near borders, or only at the specific line between nations? There is no simple or single answer, because the violence that can beset those who attempt to move may occur on, relatively close to, or relatively far from the actual border in each part of the world, often rendering geometrical and spatial definitions about what constitutes the border and what constitutes the path arbitrary, if not spurious. Reflection on the evidence may nonetheless provide students with the capacity to draw their own conclusions on how to understand the different meanings and realities of violent paths and borders separating Europe and the US from their respective neighbors of migratory origin.
The comparative violence and dangers of paths to and borders separating both places connects to wider global conflicts on who can or should be able to claim refugee status, and who is, can be, or should be described as a migrant or a refugee. These conflicts give the class its name, “Migrants and Refugees in the Americas.” One reason for these conflicts, in US terms, is that many from Central America have, as in an earlier era, begun to fight for asylum and refugee status in the US because of extraordinary violence and danger in their home countries and in Mexico. They, or their defenders, may argue that under international conventions and agreements, and in consideration of European comparisons, they should have legal rights to asylum or refugee status in the US. Recent numerical restrictions on those rights have however generated innumerable and intense ethical, legal, political, public, and other conflicts over the very names “migrant” and “refugee,” and the legal benefits and protections associated with the both kinds of status, or lack thereof. Because of the complexity, gravity, and intensity of these conflicts, most of the course traces the very specific historical reasons why current public, legal, political, and other forms of discourse on migration, and refugee status, happen the way they do. One reason, as students in the course learn from reading Mae Ngai’s Impossible Subjects, is that despite the fact that most migration to the US is legal, twentieth-century historical debates on migration framed “the emergence of illegal immigration as the central problem in US immigration policy in the twentieth century.” These historical processes and paradoxes raise unusual, and perhaps surprising, connections, including that “preoccupation has focused on the United States-Mexico border and therefore on illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America, suggesting that race and illegal status remain closely related.” This means that exploring any history of migration to the US in the twentieth-century, and attendant legal and other debates, as well as relations between historical and current changes, requires analysis and discussion of the relationships between race and migration, languages of legality and illegality, and, for the present, continual conflicts over the meanings and uses of the very terms “migrant” and “refugee.”
The course presents those kinds of changes, debates, and analyses by directly considering the relevant twentieth-century laws and historical legal contexts that forced a connection between race and migration, and that later influenced the legal and political emphasis on illegality, in relation to race, in the context of mostly legal migration. So with the aid of Ngai’s work, students directly read, analyze, and discuss the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 that responded to European and global migration with legal quotas that drew from notions of racial, ethnic, and national hierarchies of desirability, and the results of these restrictions over the next forty years. Students do the same with the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 that removed the unequal nation-based quotas, but that, as Ngai argues, imposed Western Hemispheric quotas that immediately criminalized migrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries, and “further generated illegal immigration,” all in the name of equality. Reading the laws themselves, brief and accessible enough to allow for relatively easy comprehension, rather than only summaries or commentaries on the laws, students debate Ngai’s argument, and its counterintuitive claim that the law itself historically generated illegal immigration. This work inside and outside of the classroom allows students to arrive at their own conclusions on how and why questions of race, nationality, and ethnicity mattered to legal and other debates on migration during the era of restriction in 1924-65, and how and why Mexican and other Latin American migrants faced association with proscribed forms of migration through the century. As an historical precedent for these relationships, students also read and debate the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and compare Ngai’s historical case studies on Asian migration across the Pacific, which focus on Filipino, Japanese, and Chinese migration and restriction, including Japanese Internment during World War II.
Most of the rest of the course traces the modern histories of Mexican migration to the US, which involved complex processes like the creation of the US-Mexican border after the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20, interwar deportation, and war and postwar government contract labor through the Bracero Program in 1942-64. The course also considers the Post-Bracero and Post-Hart-Celler era since 1965, when migrants from Mexico and other Latin American and Western Hemispheric nations experienced inordinate legal restriction and quotas despite the fact that this happened in the context of Civil Rights activism and victories, and languages of equality and inclusion. The course simultaneously studies the continual histories of military deployment to forcibly remove people of Mexican descent from territories that many previously inhabited as natives. With the aid of Ngai’s book, and the survey on Mexican migration to the US by Timothy Henderson, Beyond Borders, students learn of the mass repatriation campaigns in the first half of the century, and midcentury migration enforcement campaigns that explicitly adopted, adapted, and reinforced racist stereotypes like “Operation Wetback” of 1954. Students also learn about the ways in which this and other policies and laws historically stigmatized Mexican and other Latin American peoples with migratory illegality and racial, national, and ethnic subordination. These associations, historically written into the law, inscribed in political and public discourse and debate, and sometimes echoed by the scholarship that seeks to analyze or even critique the associations, urgently require discovery of and reflection on the perspectives of migrants themselves, wherever relevant resources may be found. This course therefore turns to a variety of literatures, including narrative testimony, epistolary correspondence, ethnographic studies, and investigative journalism that directly query, and try to listen to migrants.
The works of Valeria Luiselli, Óscar Martínez, and José Orozco, which present testimony of migrant children for use in US courts, the words of Central American migrants through Mexico, and writings from family members in Mexico who did not migrate to those who did, respectively, have proven most useful in this class for representing migrant voices.The work of Jason De León, which students study for their research papers because of its anthropological and theoretical value, also brings to life migrant voices, including of those who have died. For this course, those works are best for their ways of representing and engaging views and experiences of migrants that defy and complicate the previously presented debates and concepts on legal versus illegal migration, migrants versus refugees, perspectival differences between immigration, emigration, and migration, and changing nomenclature from illegal to undocumented to unauthorized migrants. They emphasize the aforementioned violent, or otherwise traumatic, experiences of those who migrate and those who do not, and the many reasons why they stay or why they go. Those reasons range from the most personal and practical to the most impersonal and impractical, and diminish the distinction between choice and force.
At one level, to vastly oversimplify complex scenarios, the more personal, narrative, testimonial, ethnographic, and culturally-specific accounts destabilize the scholarly and legal texts, and tend to demonstrate that for people who move, and for their family members who stay behind, much of the academic, legal, political, media, and public discourse on their status is either meaningless or deleterious to them. Those texts allow students to gain an understanding of the contradictions between the ways migrants see themselves versus how others see and classify them, how one view does not necessarily balance out or negate the other, and how taken together, these contradictory views do not necessarily offer a coherent perspective. On the contrary, following liberal arts, historical, and human rights methodologies, students are able to see complex, contingent, and changing conflicts rather than facile constructs, readymade explanations, or easy answers. Reflecting on narratives that attempt to represent migrant views, voices, and ways of life may also serve to humanize people who students learn have historically, and currently, suffer extreme dehumanization, and gruesome death, simply because they have to move, if only to escape worse cruelty and more certain death.
These kinds of concerns allow for even closer consideration of the major global conflicts on what it means to be a refugee, who can or should be allowed to claim refugee status or apply for asylum, and what benefits refugee status might entail or not for those who claim it. In the intertwined contexts of US-destined drug trade routes, US-fueled drug wars, US histories of intervention in Latin America, and US-originated international gangs, the recent increase of migration from Central American countries through Mexico to the US raises those questions, and the varied meanings of what constitutes forced migration and displacement. Discussion therefore turns on the variety of reasons for migration today, and its attendant violence. Well explained by Luiselli, Martínez, and De León, along with news and statistical analyses, this includes attempts to escape extreme violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the violent experiences of Central American migrants moving through Mexico, violence and death at the US-Mexico border or within the US, as well as climate change, economic collapse, and state instability. These reasons and experiences, and the threat of US legal reduction of refugee and asylum quotas, all generate concerns outside of the classroom that discussions within the classroom seek to address.
All of the resources and discussions through the semester prepare students for an understanding of the antagonistic legal, political, and cultural conflicts over immigration law and reform in the USA today, especially those that center on the meaning of “migrant” versus “refugee.” When class discussion turns to these conflicts, the earlier connections between race and migration, between migration and illegality, and between migrants and refugees, resonate and allow for history to illuminate the present. In this part of the class, students read and present in groups on selections from the voluminous immigration laws and attempts at legislation that allow for an understanding of immigration law today, and thus what rival politicians, public groups, and media representatives might mean by immigration reform. This also provides students with a glimpse of what migrants themselves are responsible for knowing as they confront a vast and complex immigration law and enforcement apparatus, hopefully, but not necessarily, with access to an immigration attorney or other legal aid. In the process, by studying these primary sources, students obtain a real feeling for the distinct and changing textures and meanings of the law.
For example, remembering the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which was only a few handwritten pages, the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which was only 18 typed pages, or the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, at a dozen pages, they notice the term “illegal” in the title of a legal reform document, but also the difficult 178 pages of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), and the over a thousand pages of a failed immigration reform bill from 2013.With aid of official summaries, congressional reports, and any resources they can find, the students gain an overwhelming sense of the immensity and complexity of legal and political regulation of migrants, and just how hard it can be to engage in real and informed discourse and debate without some basic knowledge of the law. Especially considering changes to immigration law and enforcement, and an increased emphasis on security after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the course frames the question of why it has been so difficult, and thus far impossible, for any complete or “comprehensive” immigration reform legislation to pass through congress and achieve executive approval.
The answers for the continual legislative failures over the last twenty years are historical, and require analysis of changing congressional and other political alignments, reform movements, and specific decisions by political and movement actors. Students obtain views from within movements in the account by the Reverend Walter Coleman, Elvira’s Faith and Barack’s Challenge. Coleman and his partner Emma Lozano are pastors at the Adalberto and Lincoln United Methodist Churches in Chicago and are legendary leaders of the community organizations Pueblo Sin Fronteras and Familia Latina Unida. Elvira’s Faith traces the story of Elvira Arellano, a migrant mother from the Mexican state of Michoacán, her US-born son, Saúl Arellano, and their rise to national and global prominence for taking sanctuary in Adalberto Methodist in 2006-07. In the process, they became important representatives of the US immigrant rights movement, and of the mass mobilizations of millions that year for reform, among the largest public demonstrations in US history. Coleman’s book, which also includes transcripts from Arellano, Lozano, and others, not only provides rare inside views from within a community movement fighting for reform, and the religious and spiritual dimensions of their struggles, but also the intricate national political conflicts over reform, from the 1980s to the present. Along with legal texts and news articles, students appreciate Coleman’s presentation of community perspectives to apprehend the difficulties of passing any comprehensive immigration reform law.
One of the results of this continual failure to pass any broad-based immigration reform acceptable to any legislative majority is the rise of executive authority to change immigration and refugee law. Students therefore read and discuss the brief executive orders and statements, such as those of Barack Obama in 2014, and Donald Trump in 2017 and after, that sought to legislate from above on different forms of migrant and refugee status, but that found serious challenges from the judiciary, as well as from rival politicians and parts of the public. Understanding the recent and current failures of the three branches of government to pass legislation concerning migrants or refugees satisfactory to any part of the political spectrum or the public allows for student reflection on the current divisions within US society, politics, and culture. It also allows for reflection on the capacity of migration to generate and reinforce those divisions. It may also increase understanding of the difficult struggles of those who move to improve their lives, or just survive.
Miles Rodríguez teaches Historical Studies, Latin American Studies, Global and International Studies, and Human Rights as an Assistant Professor at Bard College. He is a scholar of Modern Mexico, and of popular social movements after the Mexican Revolution. At Bard, he teaches courses on Migrants and Refugees in the Americas, Mexican History and Culture, Colonial and Modern Latin America, and seminars on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and revolution in Latin America. His teaching focuses on African, indigenous, and interracially-mixed peoples in Latin America.
United States Bills and Laws
“Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013”
“Displaced Persons Act of 1948”
“Homeland Security Act of 2002”
House Bill 4437
“Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA)”
“Refugee Act of 1980”
“Refugee Relief Act of 1953”
Senate Bill 744
“The Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005
Cochrane, Emily. “At the Border, Lawmakers See a Broken System and Little Common Ground.” New York Times. September 28, 2019.
Cole, Wendy. “People Who Mattered: Elvira Arellano, An Immigrant Who Found Sanctuary.” Time Magazine. Person of the Year 2006 Series, December 25, 2006.
Coleman, Walter L. Elvira’s Faith and Barack’s Challenge: The Grassroots Struggle for the Rights of Undocumented Families. Ann Arbor: Wrightwood Press, 2016.
De León, Jason. The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015.
Gatrell, Peter. The Making of the Modern Refugee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Gonzalez-Barrera, Ana, and Jens Manuel Krogstad, “What We Know About Illegal Immigration from Mexico.” Pew. December 3, 2018.
Henderson, Timothy J. Beyond Borders: A History of Mexican Migration to the United States. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).
Reece Jones, Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move. New York: Verso, 2017.
Luiselli, Valeria. Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2017.
———. Lost Children Archive: A Novel. New York: Knopf, 2019.
Martínez, Óscar. The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. New York: Verso, 2014.
———. A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America. New York: Verso, 2016.
Meyer, Peter J., and Maureen Taft-Morales, “Central American Migration: Root Causes and US Policy,” Congressional Research Service, June 13, 2019.
Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
Obama, Barack. “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Immigration.” November 20, 2014.
Orozco, José. Receive Our Memories: The Letters of Luz Moreno, 1950-1952. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Ortiz Healy, Vikki. “Immigration Activist Arellano Allowed to Remain in United States for Another Yea.,” Chicago Tribune. March 15, 2017.
Passel, Jeffrey S. and D’Vera Cohn. “Mexicans Decline to Less Than Half the US Undocumented Immigrant Population.” Pew Research Center. June 12, 2019.
———. “US Unauthorized Immigration Total Lowest in a Decade.” Pew Research Center. November 27, 2018.
——— and Ana Gonzalez-Barrera. “Immigration From Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador Up.” Pew Research Center. December 7, 2017.
Pew Research Center. “Unauthorized Immigrant Population Trends for States, Birth Countries and Regions.” Pew Research Center. June 12, 2019.
Shear, Michael D., and Zolan Kanno-Youngs. “Trump Slashes Refugee Cap to 18,000, Curtailing US Role as Haven.” New York Times, September 26, 2019.
Trump, Donald J. “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements.” January 25, 2017.
———. “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” January 27, 2017 and March 6, 2017. www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/27/executive-order-protecting-nation-foreign-terrorist-entry-united-states
UN, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” 1948.
UNHCR, “Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees,” 1951.
 Pew Research Center, “Unauthorized Immigrant Population Trends for States, Birth Countries and Regions,” Pew Research Center, June 12, 2019.
Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “Mexicans Decline to Less Than Half the US Undocumented Immigrant Population,” Pew, June 12, 2019.
Ana Gonzalez-Barrera and Jens Manuel Krogstad, “What We Know About Illegal Immigration from Mexico,” Pew, December 3, 2018.
Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “US Unauthorized Immigration Total Lowest in a Decade,” Pew, November 27, 2018.
Jeffrey S. Passel, D’Vera Cohn, and Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, “Immigration From Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador Up,” Pew, December 7, 2017.
 Peter Gatrell, The Making of the Modern Refugee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Reece Jones, Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move (New York: Verso, 2017).
 UN, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” 1948.
UNHCR, “Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees,” 1951.
 “Displaced Persons Act of 1948,” 1009-14; “Refugee Relief Act of 1953,” 400-07; “Refugee Act of 1980,” 102-18.
 Including, most recently, Michael D. Shear and Zolan Kanno-Youngs, “Trump Slashes Refugee Cap to 18,000, Curtailing US Role as Haven,” New York Times, September 26, 2019.
 Jones, Violent Borders; Óscar Martínez, The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (New York: Verso, 2014).
 Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), quotes in this and next sentence from pages 3, 2.
 “The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924,” pp. 153-70; Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 21-55.
 “The Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965,” 911-22; Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 227-64. Quote from page 255.
 “The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882,” 1-2; Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 96-126, 175-224.
 Timothy J. Henderson, Beyond Borders: A History of Mexican Migration to the United States (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 1-158; Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 56-90, 127-66.
 Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2017); José Orozco, Receive Our Memories: The Letters of Luz Moreno, 1950-1952 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); Martínez, The Beast. See also Martínez, A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America (New York: Verso, 2016); Luiselli, Lost Children Archive: A Novel (New York: Knopf, 2019).
 Jason De León, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015).
 Peter J. Meyer and Maureen Taft-Morales, “Central American Migration: Root Causes and US Policy,” Congressional Research Service, June 13, 2019.
 “Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882,” 1-2; “Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924,” 153-70; “Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965,” 911-22; “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA),” 546-725; Senate Bill 744, “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013,” 1-1,197.
 “Homeland Security Act of 2002,” 2135-2321; House Bill 4437, “The Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005,” 1-256.
 Walter L. Coleman, Elvira’s Faith and Barack’s Challenge: The Grassroots Struggle for the Rights of Undocumented Families (Ann Arbor: Wrightwood Press, 2016). See also: Wendy Cole, “People Who Mattered: Elvira Arellano, An Immigrant Who Found Sanctuary,” Time Magazine, Person of the Year 2006 Series, December 25, 2006.
Vikki Ortiz Healy, “Immigration Activist Arellano Allowed to Remain in United States for Another Year,” Chicago Tribune, March 15, 2017.
 Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Immigration,” November 20, 2014.
Donald J. Trump, “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” January 25, 2017.
Trump, “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” January 27, 2017 and March 6, 2017.
 As described most recently in Emily Cochrane, “At the Border, Lawmakers See a Broken System and Little Common Ground,” New York Times, September 28, 2019.
US-Mexican border in Arizona, USA – Image
Published on October 29, 2019.