A History of U.S./Mexico Immigration Practices

Why U.S. anti-immigration proponents focus on Latinos

By Jim Estrada
Published on LatinoLA: October 10, 2011

A History of U.S./Mexico Immigration Practices

Immigration is an issue in the United States that could greatly influence the election of our nation's next president. Not because an estimated 10-million undocumented Latino immigrants can't vote, but because the registered voters who are part of the 40-million U.S.-born and naturalized Latinos can!

Why are so many U.S. Americans opposed to comprehensive immigration reform? What is the root of their anti-immigration mania that that seems to gripping our nation?

Despite a history that has boasted of immigrants' economic contributions, many U.S. Americans say their disenchantment is driven by practicality, not racism. They feel the nation simply cannot afford to pay for the medical, educational, jailing and numerous other costs related to undocumented immigrants. Economic analyses have shown the estimated 11-million undocumented immigrants --Asians, Blacks, Latinos, and Europeans -- pay gas, income, property and sales taxes that offset their use of taxpayer supported services, yet negative attitudes toward Latino immigrants continue.

A brief review of our nation's past show us these feelings of animosity are not new. They have existed in our nation's fabric for quite some time. In contrast to most other early immigrants to the USA, Latinos were not "tempest-tost" like the millions of white European immigrants who crossed oceans and seas in their quest for freedom and opportunity. Latinos did not have to make long-distance sea voyages; the USA delivered itself to the doorsteps of Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba -- homelands of the three major U.S. Latino subgroups -- by expanding its geographic and political boundaries through military force and religious rationale.

Imperialism is defined as the policy of "forcefully extending a nation's authority by territorial gain or through the establishment of economic and political dominance over other nations." Usually, it occurs when a larger, economically or militarily powerful group forces its will on a smaller, less powerful one. The territorial expansion of the USA into Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba are considered prime examples.

In 1819, Spain settled a long-standing dispute with the USA over its southern border. In return for Florida and the Gulf Coast territory east of the Mississippi River, the U.S. ceded its claims to the Texas territory. Soon thereafter, Mexico's War of Independence with Spain resulted in the end of Spain's rule over Mexico. Following the second of two wars, the newly established Mexican Republic began granting tracts of land to U.S. citizens and European immigrants on the condition they farm the land, convert to Catholicism, learn Spanish, and become Mexican citizens.

Most of the white European immigrants were farmers who came to Texas as independent single families instead of groups. These early "Texians" adapted to their Mexican surroundings, yet few ever complied with the Mexican government's conditions of immigration: becoming Mexican citizens, converting to Catholicism and learning Spanish.

Ultimately, tensions arose between the Mexican government and the growing number of Texians concerned with issues like the lack of government services and conditions of citizenship. The Mexican government responded by restricting immigration inducements and making it "illegal" for U.S. citizens to settle in the Mexican territory of Tejas.

Similar to current anti-immigration sentiments being expressed in the USA, white settlers, farmers, ranchers, merchants and mercenaries kept coming to Tejas and ignored Mexican laws related to immigration. Mexico's subsequent ban of slavery further infuriated Texians wanting to expand the lucrative cotton industry into Texas. Mexico's anti-slavery stance fueled the flames of rebellion and prompted a call to arms for an independent Texas.

In December of 1835, a declaration of independence was ratified and established the Republic of Texas. It was signed by Mexican citizens and Texian immigrants and enacted on March 2, 1836. (By 1836, there were 38,000 settlers in Texas; most of them second or third generation white Europeans who took up arms against the Mexican forces. Four days later, March 6, 1836, the 13-day siege of the San Antonio de Valero mission -- the Alamo -- ended as Mexican military forces overran the Catholic mission-turned fortress.

Norteamericanos were attracted by affordable (and unprotected) land and since three-fourths were from the agricultural South, they were familiar with tending the land. In a matter of years legal, educational, and religious institutions patterned after those in the USA flourished and prevailed. Texians also took control of the social, political, legal and economic affairs of the territory. It was quite easy to claim title to Tejano lands in the courts and have such judgments enforced -- and defended -- by white law enforcement staffs.

Expansion into and occupation of the coveted territory -- and the accompanying armed invasions -- were often justified by claims of U.S. American "exceptionalism" (the attitude expressed to other countries or cultures, based on a notion of being distinct and superior). In the book "Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxons," U.S. author Reginald Horsman wrote about the Commander-in-Chief of the Texas militia Sam Houston, who saw the struggle for Texian independence "as one between a glorious Anglo-Saxon race and an inferior Mexican rabble."

Horsman wrote that by the mid-1800s, the concept of the U.S. as a nation of "God's people" underwent a major transformation. He wrote that white Anglo Saxons in the U.S. saw themselves as the "chosen people," imbued with a spirit of egalitarianism. But by the mid-18th century "concern with egalitarianism" had been replaced by "justification of slavery," "extermination of the Native American people" and "stripping of lands from the Mexican people."

According to Horseman, the whites believed they were superior and that "inferior races" were in peril as the nation's government formed foreign and domestic policies on the basis of color. The fostering of this "superiority complex" was evident during debates in 1845 over the annexation of Texas. Secretary of State James Buchanan (who 12 years later would become the 15th president of the USA) declared, "Our race of men can never be subjected to the imbecile and indolent Mexican race."

It doesn't require a quantum leap to conclude that the seeds of racial discrimination were sown and openly supported as a just cause by individuals occupying the highest and most credible offices of political and military influence in the nation. U.S. and Texas history books (not to mention myths and folklore) would lead most U.S. citizens to believe the Mexican-American War was fought over basic freedoms and democratic principles. In retrospect, it appears to have been about territorial expansion and individual gain -- justified under the guise of divine or natural law.

Yet despite publicly espoused attitudes on the part of prominent U.S. politicians, Hispanos, Mexicans and mestizos stayed true to their Catholic faith and principles. Among the more notable of these was Proverbs 25:12: "If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee."

Many historians and sociologists believe this citation to be the basis of the popular Mexican axiom: "Mi casa es su casa." To this day it remains a Latino cultural value to provide a safe haven to those in need and give food and shelter to those in need; a Christian tenet that was viewed by many white Europeans as a sign of submissiveness by Mexicans and mestizos that took root during the U.S. westward expansion of the mid-1800s.

Many of the Texians who took up arms against the Mexican army at the Alamo were in Tejas to acquire land Mexico had distributed by the hectare to white U.S. immigrants as incentives to settle and develop Tejas -- then Mexico's northernmost region. Tejano combatants at the Alamo were so committed to "local rule," they chose to fight alongside immigrants Davy Crockett, William Bowie, Jim Travis and a substantial number of filibusteros -- mercenaries who engaged in unauthorized military expeditions into a foreign country to foment or support revolutions. The term filibuster is commonly used today to describe a parliamentary procedure used to obstruct a vote, but it is rooted in Spanish as the word to describe a pirate or plunderer.

On the eve of the war with Mexico in 1845, and following the annexation of Texas by the United States, writer John L. O'Sullivan coined the term "manifest destiny" when he wrote: "‘«™ the fulfillment of our manifest destiny [is] to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions."

Prior to that time, U.S. westward expansion had not extended much beyond the Mississippi River. This "divine mandate" captured the imagination of politicians and commercial interests alike and it was used it to rationalize unchecked "illegal" immigration and expansion into the western territories -- ultimately leading to war with Mexico.

Early U.S. military victories in Texas prompted calls for the annexation of the entire country of Mexico. Many U.S. politicians argued that bringing Mexico into the Union was the best way to ensure peace during the nation's westward expansion. This notion of taking the entire country created considerable controversy. Advocates of manifest destiny maintained U.S. laws should not be imposed on people against their will, and the complete annexation of Mexico would be a violation of such principles. It also meant extending citizenship to millions of Mexicans.

John C. Calhoun -- the former U.S. Vice President (1825-1832), U.S. Senator from South Carolina (1832-1843 and 1845-1850) and U.S. Secretary of State (1844-1845) -- had supported annexation of Texas, but opposed a full takeover of Mexico for racial reasons. In a speech to Congress on January 4, 1848, he made his views quite clear: "I know Sir, that we have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race -- the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind, of incorporating an Indian race, for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. ‘«™ I protest against such a union as that! ‘«™ Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race."

The debates that followed brought to the forefront major contradictions of manifest destiny. While the supremacist theme inherent in its concept suggested Mexicans (as non-whites) were a lesser race and not worthy to become "equal" citizens of the USA, the noble "mission of spreading democracy" implied they would be improved by being exposed to the practices of U.S. democracy. To many historians manifest destiny was more of an attitude than a public policy that was used primarily to justify the annexation of large areas of land, among them the territories of Louisiana, Texas, Oregon and northwest Mexico (today's U.S. Southwest).

By the end of the U.S.-Mexico War Mexicans, indigenous tribes and mestizos in the Southwest found they were again relegated to yet another caste system, similar to the one faced by their ancestors under Spanish rule. Based on appearance -- and public sentiment by an increasingly WASP-dominated population -- Spaniards, Mexicans, indigenous natives and mestizos were denied access to the social and economic mainstream of yet another major world power. Hispanos and fair-skinned mestizos considered to be socially, economically or otherwise acceptable were allowed limited access to U.S. white European society, alongside other immigrants who had elected to shed their foreign cultures and languages in attempts to blend into the USA's "melting pot."

Next to the War of Independence and the Civil War, the U.S.-Mexico War was perhaps the most important conflict in establishing the foundations of the USA as a modern world power. The war was controversial at the time and the political maneuvering surrounding it are echoed in many modern debates over two remaining and critical government issues: immigration policy and presidential war powers.

What was once a considerable part of Mexico's national footprint (one with a common culture, language, economy, and political systems) had been split. The appropriated territory and discovery of gold in California in 1849 heightened the attraction of the western frontier by white U.S. citizens and European immigrants that resulted in high levels of migration into the newly acquired southwestern territory.

Wave after wave of immigrants, settlers and businessmen had used manifest destiny as a lever to pry political and economic control of the land from Spaniards, Mexicans, indigenous natives and mestizos. Life under the Stars & Stripes in the southwest proved to be the beginnings of yet another clash of cultures; this one between Hispanos, Mexicans and mestizos on one side, and an unceasing flow of white European immigrants on the other.

In this prolonged process, both sides have created impressions of and attitudes towards one another that persist to this day. It is obvious that racism and its related discriminatory practices -- not practicality -- are part of our nation's social and class-based values that has been handed down from generation to generation for so long that the current majority still accepts the need to discriminate against Latinos as a God-given right.

Excerpted from "The ABCs & ??: Essays on America's Cultural Evolution" by Jim Estrada.

About Jim Estrada:
An expert in marketing communications, with over 30 years of corporate, public, and entrepreneurial experience; he founded Estrada Communications Group in 1992, to provide Hispanic Consumer Market counsel and outreach to Latino communities across the USA.
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