The USA immigration policy and Latin America

The United States immigration policy has special importance to Latin America. According to a story by BBC on their website (link below the text), Latin Americans of Hispanic origin are 55,2 million people, 17% of the total population in the United States. Within these, 63%, or 34,7 million people are Mexicans. Among those who are not Hispanic in Latin America, the Brazilians stand out. However, it is a much smaller number, which is implied by the geography. There are estimates of over one million Brazilian people living in the USA.

The United States of America is the country that received the most immigrants in history. In 1798 the Alien Enemy Act was established, and it made foreigners liable to expulsion if they were considered dangerous, and had come from countries that were in confrontation with the United States. In the 19th century the immigrants were fundamental for the work in the newly gained territories to the West. It was an immigration fundamentally of Europeans and that was well-perceived since it was of white people. In the end of the 19th century it was industry, and not the land anymore, the main attractor of immigrants, who were brought mainly from Europe. The victory of the anti-slavery north in the American Civil War suited the European immigrants well as they were favored at the expense of black workers. Still, the mass of white immigrants coming with industrialization generated unemployment in parts of the country and the strengthening of a xenophobic feeling against their people. Therefore, not only black people (even if, evidently, because of slavery, but also its elimination, they have suffered the worst consequences of prejudice) faced discrimination, as well as white people of various origins: “(…) Higham states that the North American anti-foreigner feeling is based on three notions: the anti-catholicism, as it is understood that obedience to the Pope prevents the necessary independence to become a citizen; the anti-radicalism, by avoiding people lined to political groups considered radical; and the racial nativism, which stipulates that the nation’s origin is to be found in its Anglo-Saxon roots.” (SILVA, p. 10)

The immigration legislation after World War I is clearly racist and gives preference to Western European immigrants and those coming from the north of the continent. The objective was to maintain “racial homogeneity”. Only after 1952 it was possible to give North American citizenship to non-whites. However, Mexicans remained marginal to this policy, since they were needed in the southern agro-industry. The agro-industry made use of the Bracero Program. For North Americans the advantage was that through this program Mexicans could be easily sent back to their country. This program indicates the status of the Mexican worker in the USA: they are lured in when the economy needs their workforce and may be discarded later, if necessary. Legal and illegal immigration were encouraged until the 1950’s. Under the effects of the economic crisis and the war rhetoric, Mexicans in US soil started to be a bother and hundreds of thousands of Mexican people were arrested and deported. (SILVA, p. 12-13)

These first few paragraphs are meant to introduce the issue and attempt to understand the place of the Latin American immigrant, in which the Mexican and Central American are underscored, in the USA immigration policy. The Brazilian immigration in the USA is smaller, but also relevant. In the past decades there have been debates and there have been implemented measures, at times restricting immigration, at times trying to legalize immigrants already residing in the USA. Latin Americans are especially affected by the matter, for the USA is the “natural attractor” of residents from the much poorer neighboring countries, and, for many of them, countries with high levels of violence and criminality.

And it was in Bill Clinton’s Democrat government, 1994, that the building of the wall in the Mexico-USA border was started, the wall Donald Trump wants to enlarge and reinforce. And the Republican victory in the midterm elections in 1996 only bolstered even more the policies against immigration. From the attacks of 9/11 on, during the government of George W. Bush, security was taken up to priority number one, because of the asserted danger of terrorism, and the budget was substantially raised (a raise of 34 billions dollars at the end of 2006) for border control.

Even though very much is said about Donald Trump’s immigration policy, openly hostile to Latin Americans and Muslims, for example, the legacy of Barack Obama in the area of immigration is still controversial. Obama tried to get a reform approved in the immigration legislation (which was blocked by the Republican majority in Congress) and through DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) took action to protect immigrants without resident documents in the United States since childhood, people called DREAMERS. This last measure allowed for 740.000 young people to study and work in the United States, which also contributed to the country’s tax revenue. It is common to hear from people critical of immigration about the costs foreigners supposedly represent to the country, however, if integrated to the labor market, these immigrants would generate more revenue and taxes. The integration of these people is positive to the country’s economy that hosts them, albeit this shouldn’t be the only reason (nor the main one) to receive foreigners in the country. The topic involves eminently humanitarian issues. Less for humanitarian motives than for demographic ones, it came to be that Angela Merkel decided to accomodate in Germany the refugees coming to Europe, escaping misery and conflicts, and that in the last few years came especially from Syria, country with many talents of good technical qualification that can be absorbed by the German industry (which needs specialized technical staff).

But the Obama government also deported immigrants in record numbers and advanced in criminal actions against them, actions that aimed at serious crimes but also affected many accused of minor crimes. Between 2009 and 2016 there were 2,7 million people deported, more than any other government in the history of the USA. Many people originated in Central America and that were escaping violence, asked for humanitarian status and were not accepted in this condition. Many of these people, who wanted protection, were deported. An especially appalling aspect of the immigration policy set in the Obama government was the expansion of family incarcerations, a way to try to impede the arrival of new refugees. The incarceration of families and children, and their separation, which have garnered attention in the media during the Trump administration, occurred in the previous government with the grave psychological suffering inflicted on these people. Some argue that Obama’s hard-line policy in immigration targeted brokering a bipartisan agreement for the legalization of resident immigrants in the USA, which, as highlighted, did not happen. In any case, although it did not make use of the explicitly xenophobic language of Trump nor the former presidente was personally opposed to immigrants, Obama’s immigration policy was very hostile to the immigrants asking for a safe haven in the United States.

Donald Trump, since his electoral campaign, flaunts a rhetoric agressively anti-immigration, with a special focus on Mexican immigration. He promised a new version of the border wall, larger and supposedly more effective in what it is meant to do (even if many specialists in the issue do not believe that). The discourse is openly xenophobic, anti-latins and anti-islam, especially. Trump evokes the nativism discussed in this text, the United States as an Anglo-Saxon nation. However, as it has already been mentioned, the policy of US conservatives and liberals differed from Trump’s less than it is thought. An important difference was that there were initiatives, as the attempt, even if failed, Obama made to legalize a big number of illegal immigrants. Certainly the challenges that Trump has been delivering to the North American establishment, as a more protectionist commercial policy or his attempt to get closer to Russia, end up fanning the flames of judgment of his xenophobia.


SILVA, João Carlos Jarochinski. História das Políticas Migratórias dos Estados Unidos. Boa Vista: Textos e Debates, n. 20, p. 07-21, jan-jul. 2013.

 HIGHAM, John. Strangers in the Land – Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925. London: Rutgers University Press, 1983.

BBC. Las verdaderas cifras de los hispanos en EE.UU. y cuánto poder tienen.

The SILVA english quotes were translated from the original in Portuguese by this blog.