Risking Immeasurable Harm


Risking Immeasurable Harm

Immigration Restriction and U.S.-Mexican Diplomatic Relations, 1924–1932

Benjamin C. Montoya

344 pages
9 tables, 1 graph, index


May 2024


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April 2020


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April 2020


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April 2020


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About the Book

The debate over restricting the number of Mexican immigrants to the United States began early in the twentieth century, at a time when U.S.-Mexican relations were still tenuous after the Mexican Revolution and when heated conflicts over mineral rights, primarily oil, were raging between the two nations. Though Mexico had economic reasons for curbing emigration, the racist tone of the quota debate taking place in the United States offended Mexicans’ national pride and played a large part in obstructing mutual support for immigration restriction between the United States and Mexico.

Risking Immeasurable Harm explains how the prospect of immigration restriction affects diplomatic relations by analyzing U.S. efforts to place a quota on immigration from Mexico during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Benjamin C. Montoya follows the quota debate from its origin in 1924, spurred by the passage of the Immigration Act, to its conclusion in 1932. He examines congressional policy debate and the U.S. State Department’s steady opposition to the quota scheme. Despite the concerns of American diplomats, in 1930 the Senate passed the Harris Bill, which singled out Mexico among all other Latin American nations for immigration restriction. The lingering effects of the quota debates continued to strain diplomatic relations between the United States and Mexico beyond the Great Depression.

Relevant to current debates about immigration, Risking Immeasurable Harm demonstrates the connection between immigration restriction and diplomacy, the ways racism can affect diplomatic relations, and how domestic immigration policy can have international consequences.

Author Bio

Benjamin C. Montoya is an associate professor of history at Schreiner University. He is the author of A Diplomatic History of U.S. Immigration during the 20th Century: Policy, Law, and National Identity and a coeditor of Beyond 1917: The United States and the Global Legacies of the Great War.


"Risking Immeasurable Harm draws on significant research in both US and Mexican archives to provide original analysis of an early and little-known episode in the history of immigration as an issue in the relationship between the two countries. . . . For historians of US foreign policy, this book also provides a fascinating early case study of an executive branch effort to avoid having constraints placed by Congress on its ability to conduct foreign relations."—Halbert Jones, Hispanic American Historical Review

"Montoya has written an elegant study of the deep historical roots of immigration policy and the challenges of asymmetric diplomatic engagement. His ability to weave together U.S. and Mexican diplomatic sources is exemplary. This analysis will surely be enlightening for students, scholars, and policymakers alike."—Aaron W. Navarro, Southwestern Historical Quarterly

"Taking an expansive view of immigration policies and practices beyond immigration law, this book is a valuable contribution to specialists interested in the history of immigration into the United States. It shows the complexity of the internal debates in the United States over immigration policy, as well as the role of Mexican diplomats and agents in these debates."—Jurgen Buchenau, Pacific Historical Review

“In his rich and nuanced study Montoya examines immigration both as a transnational phenomenon and—critically—as a diplomatic issue between states. Rigorously researched, this timely history shows that immigration policy is best addressed not with walls but through diplomacy.”—Julia F. Irwin, author of Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening

“This carefully researched and elegantly crafted book provides timely lessons on the importance of building and sustaining bilateral diplomatic relationships across the Mexico-U.S. border. Montoya’s new analysis of early twentieth-century legislative practices reminds us that marginalized immigrants have always been central to the discourses and practices of state sovereignty and nation formation.”—Mark Overmyer-Velázquez, editor of Beyond la Frontera: The History of Mexico-U.S. Migration

“Timely and pathbreaking. . . . With a focus on diplomacy and politics from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, Risking Immeasurable Harm sheds new light on U.S.-Mexican diplomatic developments as they relate to controversies over quotas, racism, sovereignty, and immigration restriction. This important book reveals how and why diplomacy factored centrally in the failure of congressional attempts to restrict Mexican migration, even as the United States implemented draconian cuts to overall immigration.”—Christopher McKnight Nichols, author of Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. The Basis for the Quota Drive against Mexico: Winter 1924–Fall 1927    
2. Singling Out Mexico for Restriction: Winter 1927–1928
3. International Pressure against the U.S. Effort to Restrict Mexican Immigration: Spring 1928
4. The Advantages, Disadvantages, Risks, and Rewards of Immigration Restriction: Fall 1928
5. The U.S. Senate Passes a Quota on Mexico: Winter 1929–Spring 1930
6. Administrative Restriction, Repatriation, and the Demise of the Quota Effort: Summer 1930–Winter 1932

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