Brantley on Minian, 'Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration'

Ana Raquel Minian
Allyson Brantley

Ana Raquel Minian. Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018. 336 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-73703-7.

Reviewed by Allyson Brantley (University of La Verne) Published on H-California (July, 2018) Commissioned by Khal Schneider

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Ana Raquel Minian’s Undocumented Lives opens with an intimate, but haunting, image. Its cover photograph—taken by Alex Webb in 1988—features a “border town scene” wherein a father and his two children are frozen in a loving, playful embrace.[1] This family, photographed thirty years ago in an unnamed town, provides a striking counterpoint to stories of migrant families separated or incarcerated in 2018. The juxtaposition of this anonymous trio with current images prompts the question: just how did we get here?

Minian, an assistant professor of history and comparative studies in race and ethnicity at Stanford University, offers a nuanced, complex answer. Her book focuses primarily on migration from Mexico to the United States between 1965 and 1986. In this period, unauthorized migration increased by 3,000 percent (p. 4). In 1965, one year after the Bracero Program expired, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, instituting quotas on migration from the Western Hemisphere. That year, over fifty-five thousand Mexican citizens were apprehended in the United States. In 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), increasing border enforcement and offering migrants a path to legalization, apprehensions reached nearly 1.7 million. Minian explores the roots of, experiences within, and responses to this spike, arguing that policymakers in the United States and Mexico have either ignored or misrepresented the experiences of these millions of migrants. Reducing migrants to numbers and stereotypes, Undocumented Lives reveals, has led to inhumane and ineffective policies.

Through rigorous archival research and over 250 oral history interviews, Minian humanizes unauthorized migrants and their communities, focusing on their efforts to navigate and challenge restrictive policies. Migrants carved out “cartographies of belonging” in communities that stretched across local, state, and national boundaries.

Focusing on the interplay between these communities and national politics, Undocumented Lives develops across “multiple subplots” (p. 6). The first unfolds in high-level meetings in Mexico and the United States. In chapters 1 and 2, Minian highlights policy developments in the 1970s, as Mexican officials began to view emigration as a necessary safety valve and, at the same time, US officials portrayed Mexican migrants as threats. Mexican men lost out in both nations, as well as in their home communities. Underdevelopment in rural Mexico made it difficult to earn a living; migrants’ families thus encouraged emigration as one remedy. Additionally, the end of America’s post-World War II economic growth framed migrants as job stealers. Cast out and unwelcome, migrants belonged neither at home nor abroad.

The second “subplot” explores the effects of this “triple exclusion” (p. 6). The next four chapters, extensively rooted in Minian’s oral history work, highlight loves, losses, frustrations, and resistance as migrants worked to affirm their value to home communities, Mexico, and the United States. Working with data from an astounding cache of interviews (as well as personal documents and census records), Minian balances synthesis and specificity. She extrapolates common experiences and themes across multiple communities while also highlighting unique stories. Insights from this research will no doubt provide numerous leads for future researchers. Hopefully Minian will be able to share some transcripts or notes from these interviews for this purpose.

In this second subplot, Minian details pressures that migrants and nonmigrants faced in their hometowns. Gender and family expectations shaped emigration patterns, pushing married men northward while discouraging the migration of women and queer men. (Importantly, Minian’s research reveals that queer men were not compelled to leave home and thus emigrated at a much lower rate than their married male counterparts.) Those who did migrate built translocal communities, forging ties with fellow migrants and their hometowns through baseball teams, churches, and hometown associations and clubs. By financially supporting families and friends from afar—functioning as actors in an “extraterritorial welfare state” (p. 126)—migrants recast themselves as indispensable. Additionally, some migrants fought for recognition and protections in the United States, organizing in America’s factories and fields and allying with Mexican Americans in legal battles.

In the final two chapters of Undocumented Lives, these two subplots come together as Minian explores policy shifts and their effects in the 1980s, focusing on the much-maligned IRCA. Once again, politicians misunderstood the “the messy complexity of lived experience” for migrants and their communities (p. 206). IRCA reshaped migrants’ lives, as some legalized their status and others, unable or unwilling to naturalize, became trapped in the United States. But migrants also resisted the new immigration regime, continuing to migrate and build community across international boundaries. IRCA failed to address the underlying roots of migration patterns and, therefore, unauthorized migration (and binational debates over it) continued.

Undocumented Lives is an ambitious book that transcends disciplinary boundaries. It will appeal to scholars, undergraduates, policymakers, and activists alike. By bringing congressional debates and migrants’ love letters together in a study of policy changes and their ramifications, Minian intervenes in the fields of US and Mexican political histories, social history, race and transnational migration, and the study of gender and sexuality. (This approach has its limitations, however, and may leave readers wanting more on topics that receive only brief mention, such as migrants’ alliances with Mexican American activists in the 1980s.)

This book also makes an important contribution to the growing body of scholarship on the 1970s and 1980s. Undocumented Lives reveals migrants and nonmigrants’ efforts to navigate economic crises and neoliberal restructuring—the same currents that splintered the American working class and altered the trajectory of rights activism. Migrants striking in citrus groves, along with white secretaries organizing 9to5 in Boston, black men and women unionizing at a DC-area department store, and Chicanx immigrant rights activists in San Diego, represent a diverse wave of leftist activism in this period.[2]

One of the greatest successes of Undocumented Lives, then, is that it casts migrants as active agents in broader political, economic, and social currents. To ignore these voices and stories, as Minian demonstrates, can have far-reaching, detrimental effects—both in the 1980s and the present.


[1]. See Alex Webb, Crossings: Photographs from the U.S.-Mexico Border (New York: Monacelli Press, 2003).

[2]. For more, see Lane Windham, Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); and Jimmy Patiño, Raza Sí, Migra No: Chicano Movement Struggles for Immigrant Rights in San Diego (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

Citation: Allyson Brantley. Review of Minian, Ana Raquel, Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration. H-California, H-Net Reviews. July, 2018. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.