I study the history of U.S.-Mexican relations and immigration. My book manuscript, entitled Risking “Immeasurable Harm”: The Diplomacy of Immigration Restriction in U.S.-Mexico Relations, 1924-1932, analyzes the United States’ effort to place a quota on immigration from Mexico during the late 1920s and early 1930s. That controversial quota raised important questions about how domestic policy debates over immigration had international consequences, primarily the ways in which racist justifications for immigration restriction threatened to undermine U.S. relations with Mexico. I argue that debates over immigration restriction shaped American foreign policy by forcing U.S. leaders to consider the negative effect a quota would have on U.S.-Mexico relations.
Risking “Immeasurable Harm” follows the quota debate from its origin in 1924 to its conclusion in 1932. Several congressmen, some of whom played a key role in orchestrating the pathbreaking Immigration Act of 1924 (which placed a quota on European immigration), wanted to see a similar form of immigration restriction placed on Mexico. Several key moments drive the narrative, especially during congressional consideration of quotas, and the Mexican and U.S. Department of State’s responses.
The book manuscript approaches the debate over immigration restriction at a time when U.S.-Mexico relations were still tenuous from the Mexican Revolution, as conflicts over mineral rights (oil) were boiling between the two nations, and before a time when both nations would negotiate plans to allow the temporary immigration of Mexicans northward. Mexico had economic reasons for supporting a curb on its migration northward, but the racist tone of the quota debate in the United States offended Mexican nationalism and played a large part in precluding mutual support for restriction between the U.S. and Mexico.
Chapter 1 of Risking “Immeasurable Harm” opens with a brief treatment of Mexican immigration from 1890 to 1923, in order to give a context to the changes and continuities of that migrant stream preceding the quota debate of the 1920s. It then describes how Mexicans gained increased visibility within U.S. society as other immigrant groups were restricted. This heightened visibility played a part in stirring the effort to extend the restrictive immigration quota to Mexico. Chapter 2 shows how racism drove the quota debate, and introduces a recurrent theme to the book: the U.S. State Department’s opposition to the quota scheme. American diplomats opposed the quota because they believed it would be bad for relations with Mexico, especially since it rested on arguments of Mexicans’ alleged racial inferiority to Americans. Chapter 3 describes how Mexico viewed two international conferences—the Sixth Pan-American Conference and the Second International Conference on Emigration and Immigration (both held in spring 1928)—as venues to encourage bilateral negotiations with the United States over the immigration issue. The Mexican effort to encourage talks, and the U.S. State Department’s rejection of such a plan, is a recurring subtheme of the quota debate. Chapter 4 discusses how the State Department worked to devise a solution to the Mexican immigration problem after a bill to restrict Mexican immigration started making its way through Congress in December 1928. The State Department’s proposed solution came to be known as administrative restriction, which allowed American consular officials in Mexico greater discrimination in turning away applications for immigration visas to enter the United States. Chapter 5 highlights how Mexican observers of immigration offered solutions to the “immigration problem” and decried the quota as a slight against Mexicans and evidence of Americans’ racism. This chapter culminates in the Senate’s passage of the Harris bill in May 1930, which was a measure that called for a quota on Mexican immigration. Chapter 6 shows how enthusiasm for the quota effort quickly diminished after the high water mark of May 1930. The Great Depression, which had begun the previous October, and the quick effects of administrative restriction worked to diminish the rate of Mexican immigration to such an extent that those who fought to place a quota on Mexico saw their calls increasingly fall on deaf ears. The twin pressure of the Great Depression and administrative restriction reduced the presence and, more importantly, the visibility of Mexicans in U.S. society, and ended the quota effort against Mexico by early 1932.
Few historians have addressed how the prospect of immigration restriction affected diplomatic relations. While scholars of U.S.-Mexican relations have addressed the history of immigration and how it influences relations, most of these works focus on recent decades. None of them analyze in detail the period before World War II. I contribute to the scholarly debate by correlating immigration restriction and foreign policy. Also, I offer a detailed treatment of the quota debates of the 1920s, whereas many scholars only give cursory analyses of the quota proposals for Latin America before the 1960s. Finally, I provide an understanding of the Mexican perspective on U.S. attempts to restrict Mexico’s immigration during the late 1920s and early 1930s.
While my scholarship focuses on understanding how immigration shaped the history of U.S.-Mexico relations, my research is relevant to current political debates about immigration. Indeed, in the process of my work I have found it striking how the rhetoric of 2016 surrounding immigration restriction has resembled the rhetoric of 1928. I will continue to show how immigration influences diplomatic history. And in so doing, my work will help inform lasting and equitable solutions to the “immigration problem” in U.S.-Mexico relations.