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Defining Documents in American History: Immigration & Immigrant Communities (1650-2016)

Speech on Mexican Immigration

Date: 1928

Author: John C. Box

Genre: Speech

Summary Overview

Although the English-speaking colonies shared, from the earliest times, a border with Spanish and later Mexican territory, there was remarkably little migration from those lands into colonial America or the later United States. In fact, the largest “migrations,” if someone who does not move can be said to have “migrated,” were the residents of the Louisiana Territory who became United States citizens following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and those Mexicans living in the lands taken from Mexico after the hostilities of the 1840s. The discovery of gold in California in 1849 brought some north into the state and the adjoining areas, but by 1900 only an estimated 100,000 Mexicans entered the United States, an average of only 1,923 per year since the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848. Nearly all of these settled in the former Mexican areas of California, Texas, and the intervening territories that became New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada.

The magnitude of Mexican immigration began to change in the first two decades of the new century when new irrigation projects undertaken in response to Republican President Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation programs opened large new tracts to agriculture, providing jobs for agricultural workers. Though low by American standards, pay for these jobs was appreciably higher than that in Mexico. The beginning of World War I in 1914, and later U.S. entry in 1917, increased the demand for farm products and thus the demand for agrarian labor.

Defining Moment

An estimated 31,000 Mexicans entered the United States between 1901 and 1910, only 3,100 per year, but that was a third more than the previous average. The major influx began after the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 that dragged on for the next decade. The availability of better paying jobs north of the border combined with those attempting to escape the lengthy violence of the revolution to increase Mexican immigration to nearly 500,000 between 1920 and 1929, an average of 46,900 per year or more than fifteen times the annual average for the previous decade.

The rising tide from south of the border led to creation within the Department of Labor of the United States Border Patrol in 1924 charged with preventing illegal entry along the Canadian and Mexican borders. Despite this official interest in border security, American immigration policy remained open to Mexicans. The Immigration Act of 1917 required that all immigrants pass a literacy test and pay a head tax before being admitted, but these were waived for people from Mexico. In the same year Congress established a Guest Worker Program. The immigration acts adopted in 1921 and 1924, though enacting serious restrictions on Southern and Eastern European immigration, placed no such limitation on those from Mexico or any other portion of the Western Hemisphere other than implementing an $8 head tax and a $10 visa fee. No doubt the stereotypical view of Mexican immigrants as docile and the belief that most would eventually return to their native country contributed to this more open attitude despite the prevalent theories of eugenics and Social Darwinism notwithstanding. Yet some of this good feeling began to fade with the Cristero War pitting Catholics against the Mexican government from 1926 to 1929. The war prompted a new movement of Mexicans north, but this time a large number were politically motivated and began to organize protests in the United States against Mexico. Some even accused them of running guns across the border. American openness to Mexican immigration, especially in Texas and the other states sharing a border with Mexico, began to dim leading to calls for closing the southern border.

Author Biography

John Calvin Box was born in northern Houston County, Texas, in 1871. After attending an institute aligned with the United Methodist Church and becoming a Methodist lay minister at age eighteen, he later joined the Freemasons and read law with E. J. Mantooth, being admitted to the Texas bar in 1893. Pursuing a career in politics, he became a judge (1896-1901), was elected mayor of Jacksonville as a Democrat (1902-05), and served as a member of the Democratic state committee (1908-10). One of the original foundering trustees of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, he served as the chair of its Board from 1913 to 1918.

Box gained election to the United States House of Representatives in which he served from 1919 through 1931 where he was known for his interest in immigration issues, publishing Selection of Immigrants at the Source. A Brief Submitted by Hon. John C. Box. Printed for the Use of the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, House of Representatives (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1923). Becoming increasingly concerned with the naturalization of Mexicans in Texas which gave them the right to vote, Box warned his fellow-representatives that because Mexicans were often of mixed racial ancestry they would most likely intermarry quite readily in the United States leading to a “distressing process of mongrelization.” After failing to be re-nominated in 1930, he practiced law in Jacksonville until his death in 1941.

Historical Document

Every reason which calls for the exclusion of the most wretched, ignorant, dirty, diseased, and degraded people of Europe or Asia demands that the illiterate, unclean, peonized masses moving this way from Mexico be stopped at the border….

The admission of a large and increasing number of Mexican peons to engage in all kinds of work is at variance with the American purpose to protect the wages of its working people and maintain their standard of living. Mexican labor is not free; it is not well paid; its standard of living is low. The yearly admission of several scores of thousands from just across the Mexican border tends constantly to lower the wages and conditions of men and women of America who labor with their hands in industry, in transportation, and in agriculture. One who has been in Mexico or in Mexican sections of cities and towns of the southwestern United States enough to make general observation needs no evidence or argument to convince him of the truth of the statement that Mexican peon labor is poorly paid and lives miserably in the midst of want, dirt, and disease.

In industry and transportation they displace great numbers of Americans who are left without employment and drift into poverty, even vagrancy, unable to maintain families or to help sustain American communities….

The importers of such Mexican laborers as go to farms all want them to increase farm production, not by the labor of American farmers, for the sustenance of families and the support of American farm life, but by serf labor working mainly for absentee landlords on millions of acres of semiarid lands. Many of these lands have heretofore been profitably used for grazing cattle, sheep, and goats. Many of them are held by speculative owners.

A great part of these areas can not be cultivated until the Government has spent vast sums in reclaiming them…. Their occupation and cultivation by serfs should not be encouraged….

Another purpose of the immigration laws is the protection of American racial stock from further degradation or change through mongrelization. The Mexican peon is a mixture of Mediterranean-blooded Spanish peasant with low-grade Indians who did not fight to extinction but submitted and multiplied as serfs. Into that was fused much Negro slave blood. This blend of low-grade Spaniard, peonized Indian, and Negro slave mixes with Negroes, mulattoes, and other mongrels, and some sorry whites, already here. The prevention of such mongrelization and the degradation it causes is one of the purposes of our laws which the admission of these people will tend to defeat….

To keep out the illiterate and the diseased is another essential part of the Nation’s immigration policy. The Mexican peons are illiterate and ignorant. Because of their unsanitary habits and living conditions and their vices they are especially subject to smallpox, venereal diseases, tuberculosis, and other dangerous contagions. Their admission is inconsistent with this phase of our policy.

The protection of American society against the importation of crime and pauperism is yet another object of these laws. Few, if any, other immigrants have brought us so large a proportion of criminals and paupers as have the Mexican peons.


Absentee landlord: A person who owns land but does not live upon it; a person who rents out land or hires someone else to manage it.

Mongrelization: The interbreeding of differing strains; a person of mixed or uncertain ancestry.

Peonized: Being reduced to the status of a peon; that is, an unskilled agricultural worker. Colloquially, a person of low status.

Semiarid: A region characterized by light annual rainfall, between ten and twenty inches by scientific definition.

Serf: In a feudal society, an agricultural laborer who is bound to the land and subject to the will of the owner of the estate.

Vagrancy: Literally, the habit of moving about from place to place. As a legal term it refers to moving about with no means of employment or financial support.

Document Analysis

Representative Box begins his speech by immediately equating Mexican immigration with the recently restricted groups from Southern and Eastern Europe. The tactic was of course aimed to convince his Congressional colleagues that if the latter had been restricted for the same reasons then the former ought to also be regulated.

Chief among his reasoning are economic arguments. Just as the circumscribed groups of the New Immigration from Europe had been painted as unskilled masses who drove down wages, Box argued that Mexicans similarly lowered the wage scale for labor in America, and consequently the standard of living of working Americans. In making the argument he provides no data or other supporting evidence and appears, similarly to the arguments for the earlier restrictions, to reason that if people live in poverty they do so by choice rather than of necessity.

The economic argument continues with the familiar refrain, heard before and since, that immigrants were taking jobs away from Americans who are then left in dire circumstances unable to support their families. In this same manner Box claims that Mexican agricultural laborers are harming independent American farmers and using land that was previously available for the grazing of livestock. In all of this he blames the immigrants, not the owners of the land and the commercial farming enterprises except to note that many of them are absentee owners. Interestingly, in view of President Theodore Roosevelt’s support for irrigation projects to reclaim the land for agriculture, Box asserts that the government has spent “vast sums” to reclaim the land only to see it used by “serfs.” Could it be that Box, a Democrat, was also using the opportunity provided by his speech to criticize the Republican Roosevelt?

From economics Box turns to racism, arguing that Mexican immigration must be restricted to protect the “American racial stock from further degradation or change through mongrelization.” With a decidedly un-Christian spirit, the Methodist minister proceeds to denigrate Spaniards, indigenous people, and those of African heritage as “low-grade” people whose intermixture results in “ mongrelization” that is a threat to the purity of the American race. This threat, he further argues, is only multiplied by his view of these immigrants as illiterate, ignorant, unsanitary, diseased, and otherwise undesirable.

Essential Themes

In his speech, Representative Box echoed all of the primary arguments used to establish the earlier restriction of Southern and Eastern Europeans—illiteracy, disease, lack of cleanliness, unfamiliarity with democracy, and a negative impact on the U.S. economy and working people. All of these arguments were used to great effect by supporters of the Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924 that greatly restricted arrivals from Southern and Eastern Europe. Based largely on the flawed reports of the Dillingham Commission, the stereotypes of poor, illiterate, diseased masses threatening American purity was a frequent topic in popular literature of the era.

Box’s two major themes are economics and racism. The former was an early argument used against immigration from Europe throughout the 19th century, and especially in the last two decades of that century when promoted nationally by the American Federation of Labor and the Immigration Restriction League. The latter became increasingly important with the rise of the eugenics movement and Social Darwinism, both of which promoted the idea that some people were more “fit” than others and led inevitably to the argument that the “unfit” must be prevented from coming in contact with the superior people less these be degraded.

In its essence, Representative Box’s speech against unrestricted Mexican immigration only restates the same arguments used successfully earlier in the decade to control immigration from specific regions of Europe.

Bibliography and Additional Reading


Richard Griswold del Castillo and Arnoldo de León, North to Aztlán: A History of Mexican Americans in the United States (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996).


Harvey A. Levenstein, “The AFL and Mexican Immigration in the 1920s: An Experiment in Labor Diplomacy,” Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 48, no. 2 (May 1968), 206-19.


Carey McWilliams and Matt S. Meier, North from Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States (New York: Praeger, 1990).


Matt Meier and Feliciano Rivera, Mexican Americans/American Mexicans (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993)


Julia Young, Mexican Exodus: Emigrants, Exiles, and Refugees of the Cristero War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Citation Types

MLA 9th
"Speech On Mexican Immigration." Defining Documents in American History: Immigration & Immigrant Communities (1650-2016), edited by S. Pula James, Salem Press, 2017. Salem Online,
APA 7th
Speech on Mexican Immigration. Defining Documents in American History: Immigration & Immigrant Communities (1650-2016), In S. P. James (Ed.), Salem Press, 2017. Salem Online,
CMOS 17th
"Speech On Mexican Immigration." Defining Documents in American History: Immigration & Immigrant Communities (1650-2016), Edited by S. Pula James. Salem Press, 2017. Salem Online,