‘Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration’ Traces America’s Racism

Undocumented Lives masterfully demonstrates a part of the harrowing historical timeline that brought society to today's racist position.

Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration
Ana Raquel Minian
Harvard University Press
Mar 2018

The publication of Ana Raquel Minian‘s Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration is necessary and timely. She examines the late ’60s and ’70s’ political and economic policies that spurred able-bodied Mexican men to migrate to el norte to find work to support their families. Minian uses legislation, archival sources, and interviews to centralize the migrants’ experiences.

Expertly, she also includes consideration of those who stayed behind, primarily women and gay men. As millions of men crossed the border, the US government enacted aggressive anti-immigration policies that sacrificed the migrants’ humanity, jeopardized their economic situations, and imposed dangerous geopolitics. Sounds familiar, right? By unearthing 50-year-old narratives, Minian’s draws a straight line to today’s racist and acerbic anti-immigration policies in America. Undocumented Lives masterfully demonstrates a part of the harrowing historical timeline that brought society to today’s racist position.

To understand her specific time period, Minian begins with the necessary historical and social context. She includes a brief discussion of the Bracero Program‘s termination, an initiative that “issued over 4.5 million guest-worker contracts to Mexican men to labor temporarily in the United States” (3). Afterward migration became more challenging and dangerous yet Mexicans still sought work in the US despite the illegality. Minian contends the migrant’s path was never linear, but circular “because the overwhelming majority of migrants choose to cross back and forth across the border” (5).

This circularity was due to both the US and Mexico developing contrasting immigration policies. Mexican male migrants “were reminded that they were expected to go to el norte to make money (77) while in the United States “the same individuals now insisted that they return home to be with their families (78). As societal pressures came up against draconian immigration policy, Minian’s informants overwhelming reported feeling “ni aquí, ni allá, neither here, nor there” (5). When classified as “illegal aliens” they were regularly deported but their families and communities continuously encouraged them to find work.

Throughout, Minian adroitly unpacks the lives of Mexican migrants and centralizes the dehumanization process. She confronts Mexico’s silence towards the migrants’ economic reality and the United States’ view of migrants as chattel. Regardless of their categorization as illegals, aliens, or surplus labor, Minian strives to exhibit the migrants’ humanity. She returns to her thesis that Mexicans migrants were ‘neither here nor there’ since both Mexico and the United States saw potential migrants as “an excess population that could not be incorporated into the nation” (49). It was this disconnection that fueled and concertized anti-immigrant ideologies and practices. Ultimately “illegality became a proxy for the racial hostility many Americans felt” (67).

Interestingly, Minian documents the fear of the impact of Mexican migrants on employment was not only felt by white society. According to her research “the NAACP continuously demanded that policymakers curtail undocumented migration. Ebony magazine published articles claiming that ‘illegal aliens’ were a ‘big threat to black workers'” (59). She mentions civil rights activist Bayard Rustin as the outlier who advocated for creating an alliance between African-Americans and migrants. He believed that racial subjugation turns a blind eye to ambiguities of place. A message contemporary society needs to remember.

Minian maintains an intersectional approach throughout Undocumented Lives. She includes the political and economic relevance of gender, sexuality, and age, but specifically discusses the impact on queer men. She found that queer men chose to stay in their hometowns, which is rather surprising considering the “depictions of small-town Mexico as conservative and sexually repressive” (92). This, however, is not entirely accurate. One respondent suggested “‘a gay man had more doors open to him. People don’t mistrust gays as much” (92). Especially in the service sector, traditionally considered women’s work, gay men found employment since they lost the privilege associated with being heterosexual. More so, the threat of abuse experienced during border crossing posed an unmitigated difficulty.

Throughout, Minian is careful to research the two major spheres informing Mexican migration. She first scrutinizes the legislative and judicial policies informing the two countries’ stances on migration. The second is the Mexican socio-economic standpoint and the connection to community and family narratives. Minian acknowledges that from afar these two spheres seem distinct, however “it is only by examining these separate worlds together that we can understand each of them fully” (7). Whereas she uses oral histories and interviews to supplement her policy research, the text splinters under the legal and judicial jargon. More so, Undocumented Lives feels disjointed at times as her writing doesn’t imbricate the legal against the social. The text is rigidly organized with each chapter either undertaking one sphere at a time. Threading more of the oral histories among the legalese, or vice versa, would thoroughly authenticate both spheres and demarcate their overlap.

It’s horrifying to read about ’70s-era American culture and realize that so little has changed. In one section, Minian describes how migrants constructed mental maps to avoid INS because they feared “being caught by INS and sent to Mexico” (86). Change that acronym to ICE and you have the contemporary problem. Hence, Undocumented Lives is a valuable text to consider alongside the current fight for DACA, the border concentration camps, and the unending rhetoric dehumanizing Mexican migrants. Minian’s text doesn’t provide answers for how these oppressive policies maintain their stronghold. Instead, she provides a deep historical understanding of racism’s trajectory.

RATING 7 / 10