Julián Castro’s Grandmother’s American Dream

On Tuesday night at the Democratic National Convention, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro gave a moving speech about how his family achieved the American Dream. His grandmother, an orphan, moved at age 6 from Mexico to San Antonio in 1920 to live with relatives. Though she spent her life working at low-wage jobs, cleaning houses and babysitting, to help her family, her move eventually allowed for Julian’s mother to grow up and go to college. Eventually came Julian and his twin brother Joaquin, who grew up to go to Stanford University and then to Harvard Law School.  Notably, they followed in the footsteps of the current President.

What Castro omitted to mention last night or on other occasions where he has insisted that President Obama’s actions have benefited Latinos tremendously is that the American Dream was much more plausible for Mexican migrants in the 1920’s than it is today. There isn’t much information about the circumstances of Julian Castro’s grandmother’s migration, but according to historian Harvey Levenstein, by the 1920’s,“…half a million Mexicans were counted legally crossing the southern border. The number of Mexicans who did not bother with the immigration formalities was not known, but it was certainly not insignificant.”

Whether or not Julian Castro’s grandmother was a legal migrant, her family didn’t have to worry about her “legality,” because it hadn’t yet become an issue. It was only beginning in the 1920’s that there was an increasing drive to restrict migration from Mexico, driven in large part by the labor union AFL, headed by Samuel Gompers. Gompers and other AFL leaders, had been trying since 1919 to restrict immigration from Asia, Europe, and Mexico.  They were unsuccessful until 1924, when they reluctantly included Canada along with Mexico in the immigration bill that passed.

In fact, during the same period that tens of thousands of Mexicans were migrating at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, U.S. hostilities had been directed against Asian migrants for some time.  Chinese immigrants, brought in the mid 1800’s to work on the Trans-Pacific railroad, had outlived their usefulness for the American state. Worried that they would now compete with white American workers for jobs, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, deporting all Chinese immigrants unless they were merchants. In 1907, the US made an agreement with Japan to restrict Japanese migration. Due to many factors, including Indian agitation against the British colonial government for self-rule in the 1910’s, severe restrictions on Asian immigration were placed on East Indian and other Asian immigrants in 1917.  With the passage of the Asia Barred Zone Act—its name reveals all–migrants from India, Afghanistan, the Middle East, and the Pacific were prohibited from entering the US, unless they were students, merchants, or diplomats.  The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, along with the beginnings of restrictions on Mexican immigrants, restricted Asian immigration to 2% of the recorded Asian population in the United States at any given time.

But another forgotten fact: the southern border between the U.S and Mexico had been under contestation even after the 1848 Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, when the U.S. had successfully annexed large swaths of Mexican territory, including California, Texas, “New” Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah.  The U.S., in an ever increasing game of “drawing lines in the sand,” had given Mexican nationals residing in those areas three years to decide whether they would become U.S. citizens (along with promises that they would be able to keep their ranches and farmlands).  During those three years, and even after, despite the promises of the Treaty, there were many challenges to the ownership of rancheros’ lands, which went all the way up to the Supreme Court. The Court almost uniformly took land away from Mexicans even when they had changed their allegiances. The controversies over Mexican migration were perhaps diluted because the annexation of Mexican land—along with many broken promises–were fresh in the minds of American politicians and judges. But given the barring of Asian immigration, the US had also quietly looked to Mexico for its cheap labor, which quieted the hostilities against Mexican immigrants until the late 1920’s.

That was when deportation became an enforceable practice.  In her book, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, historian Mae Ngai points out that a miniscule number of people–about 2000 annually–were deported between 1908-1920, mostly from hospitals, asylums, and jails.  By 1924, Congress had imposed much more restrictive immigration laws, along with a newly created Border Patrol.  For the first time, “illegal entry” came with potential imprisonment and fines.  Mexican immigration became increasingly scrutinized and restricted, even as the Mexican population grew. According to Ngai, the population of South Texas doubled in size between 1920 and 1930, to 322,000, and the “ethnic Mexican population” grew to nearly 1.5 million by 1930. As well, she points out, more than 400,00 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were “repatriated” in the 1930’s. Mexicans who remained in the U.S. in the 1930’s despite the increasing restrictions were able to become a significant economic presence, and in 1943, the story changed: Mexican immigration was channeled through the “Migrant Labor Agreement,” between the U.S. and Mexico to provide cheap labor for U.S. farms, more commonly known as the Bracero program.

This is a rather broad sketch of the rich, dynamic and vibrant history of migration—and especially Mexican migration—to this country.  Clearly there is much more to this history, as well as to the moving—but selective–history that Julian Castro told last night.  Americans, including the Convention-goers have appeared to have forgotten the history of the last century. But they have also forgotten a more recent history: one in which the current Democratic Administration has deported over 1.2 million undocumented migrants during the previous four years—many more so than its Republican predecessor.

It is true that the Obama Administration has recently reversed its position on the deportation of undocumented migrants, if they fit certain requirements, like being under 30 and having migrated with their parents before they were 16. But the reversal, which occurred less than 5 months before the November election, is not an executive order—it’s a provisional suspension of the policies of Department of Homeland Security. As such, the durability of this reversal is in serious question, along with its timing. It occurred near the end of a term in which the war on migrants was harsh and unrelenting, and “defers action” for 2 years for approved applicants on the matter of deportation. Will it last after a potential re-election of the President?

If Julian Castro’s grandmother had been orphaned in Mexico today, would she have been able to immigrate to the United States to live with her relatives? And if, by some miracle, she had migrated but without papers, would she have been able to stay? Would she have been able to be proud of her Ivy League-educated twin grandsons?  To say the least, her status would have been affected by the vicissitudes of the President’s inclinations and re-election prospects—not to mention her age, whom she arrived with, and a host of other uncontrollable circumstances. One wonders whether the American Dream would be possible for Grandmother Castro today. I suspect not.

The unspoken lesson that we can draw from Julian Castro’s story is that the American Dream was in reach for his family—not only because they worked hard—this is true of many families—but because their ability to migrate wasn’t in question. But the American Dream has already been unrelentingly prohibited for the many families deported and broken apart under the Obama Administration. Maybe we should take a long hard look at that history and ask ourselves whether the President will prohibit the Dream again, if elected for another term.

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