Since the early 1900s, Mexicans settling in the Southern United States have always straddled a line between discrimination and assimilation, but the today’s rancorous debate over immigration policy has its roots in more recent shifts.
That was the consensus of Mexican Consul General Javier Diaz de Leon and Julie M. Weise, author of Corazon de Dixie: Mexicanos in the South Since 1910, during a Sept. 29 virtual book discussion hosted by the Atlanta History Center.
In the early to mid-20th century, Mexicans were often welcomed by white planters, for instance, as a critical supply of farm labor but also as leverage in negotiations with newly empowered black workers.
“Due to racist ideas, preconception was that African Americans should be lucky to have this job, to be earning any money at all when in fact their previous status was slavery,” Ms. Weise said of white land owners. “There was deep resentment when African Americans would make demands.”
Like Blacks, Mexicans faced heavy discrimination, including “No Mexican” signs that popped up in windows of white-owned establishments across the rural South. Socially, then, Mexicans tended to stick with African-Americans in places like New Orleans and beyond.
But ironically, their status as foreigners eventually gave Mexicans more leverage in addressing these injustices than the local Black population, especially under what came to be known as the Bracero program.
Launched amid World War II, the last major bilateral immigration agreement the two countries was aimed at supplying farms in the South with desperately needed farm labor. A great urban migration had emptied the South of Black workers, who chased industrial jobs in northern cities, while the Chinese and Italian immigrant communities originally recruited to fill the gap in the fields had not stayed behind.
The Mexican government held most of the cards and secured assurances from the State Department that imported Mexican workers would be paid a minimum wage and guaranteed safe and humane working conditions and an environment free of discrimination. American farm workers wouldn’t experience those same benefits until the 1960s. By 1964, 4 million Mexican men had come to the U.S. under the program.
Of course, Mexicans’ experience on the ground didn’t always match up to the guarantees, Ms. Weise said, and they sought redress. Oral histories show Mexicans walking 50 miles to lodge complaints about working conditions and abuse with the Mexican consulate set up in Memphis, Tenn., to oversee the program.
Threats by the Mexican government to repatriate the workers had a dramatic effect on local officials’ actions on discrimination. That stands in contrast to the way the South has been a testing ground for anti-immigrant laws in recent years.
“If we go back about 70 years, we get the opposite. We get local ordinances where actually anyone who was caught discriminating against a Mexican worker would be fined. Local bar owners, restaurant owners, movie theater owners would have to sign affidavits saying we’re going to let the Mexicans come in,” Ms. Weise said. “Within the legal framework of Jim Crow they really did achieve that white status, but that didn’t change anything interpersonally.”
This tension between acceptance legally and rejection racially has led to a strange “dance” for descendants of Mexican migrants in the Mississippi Delta. Many consider themselves white, despite darker complexions and Hispanic last names, she said.
Part of that is due to the fluid nature of perception. In fact, the first waves of migration were opposed by left-leaning forces like labor organizers who feared the loss of working class jobs. Conservatives business interests in the South, meanwhile, saw Mexican workers as a boon for the economy.
In the South, that meant a “fragile peace” that led to some Mexicans experiencing greater acceptance and economic mobility in the Southeast than they had in the Southwest.
“What’s interesting is how long it hung on,” Ms. Weiss said. “In other words, this alliance between white agricultural interests and white evangelical churches with a stance of having Mexicans in town as an economic necessity really lasted until it started to break down in the early 2000s, and I believe it has likely broken down entirely now.”
The script flipped when migrants rose in number and the political power of the rural areas began to be supplanted by the suburbs in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in Georgia, said Mr. Diaz de Leon, who has spent more than 20 years as a Mexican diplomat in the United States and headed up the Institute for Mexicans Abroad, or IME in Spanish, the Mexican government’s organization responsible for safeguarding the interests of Mexican migrants abroad.
Mexicans began to take construction and manufacturing jobs, settling for longer, sending their kids to public schools.
“That probably generated a lot of that tension that was not so present before because they were not so visible,” Mr. Diaz said.
That was true in places like Cobb County, where Ms. Weise uncovered a letter-writing campaign that lobbied the government to prevent the state from becoming “Georgia-fornia,” a nod to the idea that Los Angeles had been overrun with immigrants.
That coincided with a time when immigration policy began to harden at the national level, leading to an erosion of the “circular” immigration system that had emerged, where migrants would return home after the harvest was done, Mr. Diaz de Leon said.
That meant that many Mexicans who came later did so illegally, and because of that, they stayed permanently. The perceived threat among anti-immigrant groups morphed from a fear that Mexicans would take scarce jobs to the idea that they would drain public resources and transform American culture.
It’s not that the farm lobby has disappeared from the immigration debate. The H-2A program for temporary workers, while still a cumbersome and expensive process, remains popular in the rural South, because it’s the main instrument by which farmers can get the labor needed at harvest time.
As an illustration, Mr. Diaz said he’d heard from a farmer in North Carolina who placed ads in the local newspaper for 400 openings in the fields. They yielded only two hires, who in turn left after a few days.
“For them, this is a necessity,” Mr. Diaz said of farmers.
The farm lobby still wields clout in Washington, which the speakers speculated might have meant more lax enforcement of immigration regulations in rural areas.
“I can’t recall ever being involved or aware of an immigration raid happening at an agricultural field. Most cases are happening at poultry plants or industrial factories,” he said. “That tells you a lot about the power and the muscle that the agricultural industry has in Washington.”
Even in the past when there were raids on Georgia’s Vidalia onion fields in the 1990s, for instance, the outcry from Republican legislators was swift and loud, Ms. Weiss said, adding:
“It does seem like there has been a lot of winking and nodding to agricultural interests.”
Asked by moderator Virginia Prescott of Georgia Public Broadcasting whether these issues were confined to the past for Georgia, Mr. Diaz said the consulate has a working group that meets monthly to handle complaints of mistreatment.
“Certain people, they would tell you that it’s Disneyland, that the farm is a wonderful place where everyone is happy, but there are a lot of advocates and people who are very concerned about the situation of workers in the fields in Georgia,” he said.
And it’s not limited to farms: The consulate general in Atlanta recently issued a statement on the results of an investigation into practices at an immigration detention facility in Irwin County, where a whistleblower alleged that women were forced into unnecessary surgical procedures, including unwanted hysterectomies.
The consulate said it had interviewed 18 of 21 Mexican detainees at the facility since the allegations surfaced Sept. 14; none had received hysterectomies, though one had undergone a surgery for which it was unclear whether consent had been given based on documents provided.
The imperative that the Mexican government should take care of migrants, Mr. Diaz said, is a relatively recent development that emerged as the diaspora community began making its voice heard.
While emigrants from Mexico were once looked on with a kind of disapproval back home, it’s now seen as a vital part of Mexican foreign policy to secure their rights as citizens in either or both countries, as the case dictates.
“We see a binational empowerment as part of our agenda towards them.”