Immigrants, Latin American
Immigrants, Latin American
Immigration from Latin America closely tracks several factors: U.S. foreign policy, both economic and political; U.S. domestic economic policy; and political and economic crisis in the home countries. In some cases, the arrival of Latin Americans to the U.S. mainland is less “immigration” of foreign nationals than “migration” of U.S. citizens from, for example, Puerto Rico.
U.S. economic pressures play a major role in Latin American migration. Business interests desire the low-cost labor that immigrants represent. Labor leaders, immigration-opponent organizations, and individuals argue that immigrants undercut the wages of U.S. workers and cost taxpayers in the form of public services. Immigration advocates defend their presence and advocate for the humane treatment of immigrants; they argue that without immigrants, U.S. industry would come to a standstill. Virtually voiceless are the immigrants themselves, who are unable to exert political pressure.
From the standpoint of the sending Latin American countries, emigration often represents an escape mechanism, with employment opportunities not available at home. In addition, remittances sent back to home countries through wire transfers allow individual families and communities necessities they would otherwise forego.
In terms of foreign policy, U.S. immigration policy is generally determined by whether the home country is seen as a threat to the U.S. way of life.
Social scientists have applied various theoretical frameworks to immigration. The melting pot, or assimilation perspective, in which newcomers to the country blended into one “America,” seems to have fallen short of the mark when it came to Latinos in the United States, who maintain their cultural identity even after several generations.
Another theoretical framework that gained favor in the 1970s was the internal colonization model. Subscribers to the internal colonization model noted that the “melting pot” did not apply to people of color. Mario Barrera, for example, noted that internal colonization is especially discernable in particular in areas where the colonized are in the majority, but not in control (1979).
Latino immigrants, like immigrants from other continents, often straddle their home countries and their new countries. In this pattern of settlement, sometimes referred to as “transnationalism,” immigrants maintain close ties to their homelands and, in fact, send remittances to sustain family ties. In “diasporic citizenship,” immigrants maintain such close ties to their home countries that they are able to effect occurrences there while also exercising some power in their new countries.
Mexican migration offers the most salient and large-scale story of U.S. immigration policy, due to the countries’ shared history and their common 2, 000-mile border. Mexicans made up 30.7 percent of the foreign-born persons living in the United States in 2005, the largest nationality by far. To understand the relationship of Mexican immigrants to the United States, one must consider that in 1848 Mexico lost the U.S.-Mexico War and was forced to sell to the United States for $15 million what is now California, New Mexico, Nevada, and part of Colorado and Arizona.
Mexican immigrants have felt the brunt of U.S. immigration policy changes. For instance, during the Great Depression an estimated 200, 000 Mexicans returned voluntarily to Mexico, but between 1931 and 1932, an estimated half-million people were deported to Mexico. Later, when the United States faced a labor shortage during World War II, the U.S. and Mexican governments signed an agreement for the importing of braceros, agriculture and railroad workers. The Bracero program was renewed annually, until it was terminated in 1964; in 1965, Operation Wetback deported thousands of Mexicans.
Spain conquered Puerto Rico in 1493, when Columbus landed there on his second voyage to the New World. Although the Spanish-American War of 1898 was fought over Cuba, the treaty that was signed in Paris in December 1898 also gave the United States control over some of Spain’s other possessions, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, which were sold to the United States for $20 million.
The first migration of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland lasted from 1900 until 1945, and the main destination was New York City. By the end of World War II Puerto Ricans numbered 135, 000 in New York City. A second large migration lasted from 1946 to 1964. In the mid-1960s Operation Bootstrap lured industry to Puerto Rico with the promise of low wages, tax-free operations, and duty-free exports to the mainland. Although the program was saluted as a success, one negative effect was that rural Puerto Ricans abandoned their homes for the promise of jobs in the cities. When there were not enough jobs, Puerto Ricans left home and arrived in the mainland. By 1980 more than 80 percent of Puerto Ricans lived outside of the island.
Puerto Rico has a nonvoting commissioner representing the island in the U.S. Congress. Puerto Ricans may not vote in national elections, but they are eligible to participate in party primaries. A continuing and persistent debate for Puerto Ricans is whether to continue the status quo as a possession of the United States, or to advocate for statehood, or to demand independence. The writer Juan Gonzalez notes that the Puerto Rican migrant experience is “the contradiction of being at once citizens and foreigners” (Gonzales 2000, p. 82).
The Cuban immigrant population dates back to the late 1880s, and has included waves of people who vary in educational and class backgrounds. The first groups settled in New York City, Philadelphia, Tampa, and Key West. Cuban immigrant cigar makers created Ybor City, outside of Tampa, as early as 1886.
In 1898 an explosion aboard the U.S.S. Maine in the port of Havana prompted the United States to step in on the conflict that had raged between Spain and Cuba for thirty years. Spanish forces were quickly squelched in what became known as the “Spanish-American War,” and the Treaty of Paris ending the war was signed by the United States and Spain—without the participation of Cubans. The United States governed Cuba until May 20, 1902.
The story of contemporary Cuban immigration begins after 1959, when Fidel Castro (b. 1926) and revolutionaries ousted Fulgencio Batista (1901–1973) from power. Cuba’s elite arrived in the United States immediately, expecting that the United States would oust Castro quickly. This first group of exiles supported military intercession. Thousands underwent U.S.-sponsored training in Central America, and on April 17, 1961, armed exiles invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, expecting U.S. air cover, which never materialized. Sixty-eight people were killed and the Castro government took 1, 209 exiles prisoner. They were released in December 1962 in exchange for $53 million in medical supplies, food, and money.
The Cuban exodus included more than 14, 000 unaccompanied minors who arrived between December 1960 and October 1962. After Castro announced his allegiance to communism, middle-class Cubans, fearful of the future, put their children on U.S.-bound flights to be met by relatives or, sometimes, by strangers participating in what later became known as “Operation Peter Pan.”
A third wave of Cuban immigrants came after hundreds of Cubans sought asylum at the Peruvian embassy in April 1980. Castro announced that whoever wanted to leave could do so—provided someone arrived to take them from the port of Mariel. Those émigrés came to be called Marielitos. A fourth wave, in the mid-1990s, was prompted by the continuing deterioration of Cuba’s economy. These people were known as balseros, after the small boats and homemade rafts they used to navigate the 90-mile journey to the Florida Keys. Between August 5 and September 10, 1994, the U.S. Coast Guard picked up 30, 305 balseros.
The United States, in an attempt to weaken the Cuban regime, has made considerable efforts to help Cuban immigrants, calling them “refugees” fleeing communism and making available various federal programs to smooth their adjustment. Federal funds were allocated for resettlement, monthly relief checks, health services, job training, adult-educational opportunities, and surplus food. The federal government also provided grants to Florida colleges and universities to train Cuban teachers. Other aid included a loan program for Cuban college students.
Cubans have transformed south Florida. María Cristina García (1996), referring to the strong anti-Castro sentiment, notes that residents of Miami joke that Florida is the only state in the union with its own foreign policy. At times, anti-Castro fervor has led to violence against those who want a normalizing of relations with Cuba. As the numbers of Cubans in Florida has grown, a public backlash has occurred. In Dade County in 1980 voters repealed the 1973 Bilingual-Bicultural Ordinance, so county funds can no longer be used for programs supporting any language other than English, or for promoting any culture other than that of the United States.
Most of the immigrants from Central America have come from three nations: Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The difference in the treatment of refugees from the three countries was particularly stark in the late 1980s, when Nicaraguans were fleeing a Marxist government, and the Salvadorans and Guatemalans were fleeing conservative governments and civil war: The U.S. government granted asylum to only 2.6 percent of Salvadorans and only 1.8 percent of Guatemalans, but 25 percent of the Nicaraguan requests for political asylum were approved.
SEE ALSO Assimilation; Citizenship; Cold War; Cuban Revolution; Diaspora; Immigrants, New York City; Immigration; Latinos; Mexican Americans; Migrant Labor; Migration; Operation Bootstrap; Prejudice; Racism
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Bach, Robert L. 1990. Latin America and the Caribbean. In Immigration and U.S. Foreign Policy, eds. Robert W. Tucker, Charles B. Keely, and Linda Wrighley, 123–149. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Barrera, Mario. 1979. Race and Class in the Southwest: A Theory of Racial Inequality. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Gonzalez, Juan. 2000. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. New York: Viking.
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