News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Monday, August 18, 2008

The first illegal immigrants in Texas

The flow of illegal immigrants into Texas began as a trickle. Within a decade, the area was awash in foreigners. The newcomers spoke a strange language, lived in separate enclaves, paid no taxes and ignored the traditions of the local citizens. The mayor of Nacogdoches, Richard Dill, wrote: “There is a number of people coming in to the country and settling between this place and the river Sabena on the Ayish Bayou and its adjacent waters without any kind of leave or permission whatever.” Dill wrote these words in 1822 to José Martínez, governor of the Mexican province of Tejas, today known as Texas.

Truth is, the first illegal immigrants into Texas came mostly from Tennessee. Families from Arkansas, Kentucky and Missouri also added to the flood of Americans who rushed into Mexican territory without legal authority beginning in the 1820s. By 1835, there were ten times as many Anglos (and their slaves) as Mexicans in Tejas.

This massive land grab spurred the Mexican government to send a military expedition to expel the squatters—or at least get them to pay the back taxes they owed. The first place the newcomers decided to make a stand against the Mexican army was at a defunct Spanish mission called The Alamo. The rest of the story is what most Americans are taught in school.
Does the unlawful Anglo migration into Tejas during the 1800s justify today’s illegal immigration into the USA? Certainly not. All the same, it’s galling to hear the Know-Nothings of today rant about how their ancestors were “legal” immigrants. (Who issued green cards to the Pilgrims, by the way?)

We are not going to solve the dilemma of roughly 12 million undocumented residents by trying to portray them all as criminals. Just as it was in the nineteenth century, the causes driving human migrations are much more complicated than today’s self-appointed moralists would have you believe. The family from Oaxaca crossing into Texas in the twenty-first century wants nothing more than the family from Tennessee who crossed the border into Tejas two centuries earlier.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez

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