Community Organizing Across Borders: How Local Advocates and Officials Aided and Policed Latinx Migrants during Twentieth-Century Moments of “Crisis”

Solicited by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS) Endorsed by the OAH Graduate Student Committee, HES, and the WHA

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 10:30 AM - 12:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Immigration and Internal Migration; Latino/a; West


Historical scholarship on immigration and asylum has uncovered important findings about the myriad forms of violence and exclusion suffered by migrants seeking entry or safety at U.S. borders, particularly those in the west. This panel adds to the established immigration historiography by examining how middle-class and upwardly-mobile advocates, religious leaders, and secular grassroots organizers attempted to provide care and protection to Spanish-speaking migrants during the so-called “migrant and refugee crises” of the mid- and late-twentieth century. It also looks at how local advocates and officials attempted to solve the moral, social, and economic dilemmas provoked by the growing presence of Latinx people in the U.S. West. These dilemmas included the supposed “strain” Mexican migrants and their children placed on U.S. social safety nets, the causes of Latinx juvenile delinquency, and the consequences of refugee and foreign policy for asylum-seekers from Central America. Operating from a deep commitment to learn from an accurate and accountable history of the present, this panel assesses the lessons gained from twentieth-century grassroots advocacy campaigns aimed at providing care to Latinx migrants in order to safeguard their livelihoods, prevent delinquency, or secure their safety in times of “crisis.” These lessons will illuminate both the advantages and pitfalls of well-meaning social advocacy on behalf of migrants and ethnic minorities, as well as community-driven models of rhetorical strategies, policy approaches, and civil disobedience tools from history with which to address the plight of migrants today.

Papers Presented

An Alternative to Legal Belonging? Debating Responsibility for Migrant Youth and Piloting an Inclusive Welfare State at Mid-Century

Between the 1940s and early 1960s, migrant Mexican children faced a myriad of legal and social challenges that jeopardized their educational access, health, and welfare as they crossed state and international borders with their families for farm work. This paper pieces together the story of how rural reformers in southwestern migratory streams countered claims of a migrant “crisis” and addressed migrant children’s educational deprivation, labor exploitation, poor health, and exclusion from the formal welfare state. Spearheading this effort was the National Council of Churches (NCC) and a coalition of educational and migrant health advocates that piloted special healthcare, schooling, and cash assistance programs to help safeguard migrant families’ welfare. This unofficial social safety net transcended the boundaries of local and national citizenship by permitting broad access to its services, unencumbered by legal status and territorial belonging. It experimented with the possibility of an inclusive, grassroots welfare state in which local providers furnished material assistance to all migrants regardless of legal residency. These efforts relied on critiques of legal status requirements and culminated in the passage of migrant labor and educational bills included in the War on Poverty. This history adds to the scholarship on Mexican labor migration, particularly in borderlands areas, by highlighting the influence of childhood and grassroots organizing on the development of national social policy, as well as providing insight into modes of belonging that eschew legal status.

Presented By
Ivón Padilla-Rodríguez, University of Illinois at Chicago

Policing “Our” Delinquents: Community Outreach as Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Policy in Mid-Century San Diego

The practice of policing youth is traditionally thought of as the exclusive role of law enforcement or other state actors. This approach ignores the role of community organizers and leaders in crafting and weaponizing the state’s jurisdiction over youth. Beginning in the 1940s, the border town of San Diego began a series of experiments in addressing and managing youth across the city. Early programs excluded community leaders and organizers and had limited success in the city’s attempt to address a growing panic over youth crime. By the 1950s, San Diego shifted this approach and began to use community outreach and community driven ideas about youth crime to write public policy. This paper examines this partnership between community groups and the city as it strove to rewrite juvenile delinquency policy and impact the lives of the youths, and their families, which San Diego’s vocal white middle class deemed delinquent. The policy, formalized in the 1955 pamphlet, “How San Diego Prevents Juvenile Delinquency,” was the outcome of a yearlong campaign by the city to consult with communities, churches, and parents to explore what the nature of delinquency was in their respective neighborhoods and schools. However, what these town halls, and the resulting policy, revealed was a push by white conservative San Diegans to target Latinx/Spanish-speaking youths, as well as their families. By examining the relationship between the city and these active, but most definitely not representative community leaders, the interconnected nature of policing as a public and state partnership is better understood.

Presented By
Doris Smith Morgan Rueda, Stanford Law School

“Sanctuary Universities: California Campuses and Student Organizing in the Mid-1980s”

As sanctuary spread to congregations across the United States in 1984, the Graduate Student Council at the University of California (UC), Riverside made its own declaration. The council voted to make the university the first sanctuary campus in the U.S., providing refuge to an undocumented Central American refugee, defying the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Graduate students explained sanctuary as a way to demonstrate their outrage at U.S. government policies in Central America. This paper examines the multi-year push for sanctuary beginning at UC Riverside and expanding to other campuses across the state in the mid-1980s. Cross-campus organizing led to the declaration of sanctuary at UC Irvine and UC Berkeley in 1985. Students—graduate and undergraduate alike—from other UC campuses, California State University campuses, and private colleges became invested in providing sanctuary. The paper argues that students moved sanctuary away from originally houses of worship towards higher education. Sanctuary was therefore no longer associated only with religion, but was an instrument of civil disobedience that could be adapted on another scale. Students harnessed sanctuary as an attempt to transform U.S. foreign policy in Central America.

Presented By
Nathan Ellstrand, Independent Historian

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Lora Michelle Key, Journal of Arizona History
Lora Key received her Ph.D. from the University of Arizona with an emphasis on twentieth century American West, Mexican American History, and military history. She is currently working on her manuscript, tentatively titled Performing Patriotism: Mexican American Identity, Gender, and Culture and the Fight for Civil Rights during World War II and Beyond. She currently serves as the managing editor of the Journal of Arizona History and adjunct professor of history at the University of Arizona History.

Presenter: Nathan Ellstrand, Independent Historian
Nathan Ellstrand is a PhD Candidate in History and Arthur J. Schmitt Fellow at Loyola University Chicago, and a Visiting Student Researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. Among various topics, he is interested in United States-Latin American transnational history, ideology, and borderlands. He is currently writing his dissertation on the political activities of the Unión Nacional Sinarquista, a right-wing Mexican Catholic organization, in the United States during World War II. His work for his Masters in Latin American Studies at the University of California, San Diego covered women's leadership in the Partido Liberal Mexicano while the party was in exile in early twentieth century Los Angeles. Nathan has also conducted research and presented on the sanctuary movement of the 1980s.

Presenter: Doris Smith Morgan Rueda, Stanford Law School
Doris Morgan Rueda is a doctoral candidate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in the Department of History. Prior to UNLV, she completed her B.A. in Criminology, Law & Society at the University of California, Irvine in 2013 and her M.A. in History & Digital Media from California State University, San Marcos in 2016. Her research focuses on the development of juvenile justice systems in the American Southwest with a special interest in international juvenile justice, pop culture, and race in the 20th century. Her most recent work includes a forthcoming article in the Journal of San Diego History and a chapter in the edited volume, History & Crime: A Transdisciplinary Approach (Emerald Publishing, 2021).

Presenter: Ivón Padilla-Rodríguez, University of Illinois at Chicago
Ivón Padilla-Rodríguez is the Bridge to Faculty Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Department of History. She is currently working on a book manuscript that historicizes child-centered mechanisms and consequences of U.S. immigration exclusion. Her research has received generous support from the Ford Foundation, Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation, American Historical Association, Immigration and Ethnic History Society, and the American Society for Legal History, among others. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Time, NACLA, and the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Her most recent work includes a forthcoming article in the Journal of American Ethnic History and a chapter in the edited volume, Modern Frontiers: Essays on the American West in the Twenty-First Century (University of Nebraska Press, 2023). Outside of the academy, she has conducted research on child and family migration for the federal government and non-profits in the U.S. and Mexico.