Immigration History 101
We are the real immigrants
By Russel M. Page, CMC ’13
On April 23, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law. While the bill marks the Arizona state government’s attempt to fight the problems of our nation’s broken immigration system, it problematically gives law enforcement the ability to racially profile. With over 10 million undocumented immigrants, mostly from Latin America, living in the United States and no uniform strategy for preventing illegal border-crossings, many Americans fear that Spanish-speaking immigrants are slowly taking over the nation; they seek to stop the invasion of illegal immigrants and drug cartels. While Washington must address comprehensive immigration reform, Arizona residents need only look to the east to see that Mexican and Spanish cultures have long been ingrained in American culture.
Perhaps the best place to look for a counterexample to Arizona is its neighbor to the east, New Mexico. The Spanish established themselves in New Mexico long before the Pilgrims ever touched Plymouth Rock. People of Spanish or Mexican descent arrived in the continental U.S. and rooted their culture into the land as early as the 16th century. Long before Lewis and Clark ventured out to Oregon, explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led a Spanish expedition to the modern Southwestern U.S. in 1540. The cities of Saint Augustine, Florida (1565) and Santa Fe, New Mexico (1608) have been around for just as long or longer than the outposts we usually associate with the beginnings of America. For reference, Jamestown, Virginia started up in 1607; the Pilgrims’ Plymouth Colony was founded in 1620.
When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1810, the nation owned a vast territory of land that included all the modern states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Colorado, and Nevada, and parts of Oklahoma and Wyoming. When the first Americans (Texans) began to move into Mexican territory, they faced a liberal immigration policy that welcomed settlers of non-Mexican and non-Spanish heritage. In return, they declared their independence and warred with their Mexican hosts. They forced General Santa Ana to sign the Treaty of Velasco, which stripped control of Texas from Mexico, and also claimed territory South to the Nueces River.
To gain all of the modern Southwest (including Claremont and the rest of California), President James K. Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to travel into disputed territory along the Rio Grande and provoke a Mexican attack. The Americans eventually dominated the Mexican military and seized half its territory.
Most Americans have a skewed view of this history – they believe this land was sparsely populated and wide open for many white settlers to rush into. They typically forget, however, that over 80,000 Mexican citizens resided in the land the U.S. took over. Per the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, these Mexican citizens received American citizenship, continued to speak their native Spanish language freely, and continued to hold their land legally.
In practice, the treaty’s provisions failed to come true outside New Mexico. When white settlers rushed into Texas and California to take advantage of oil and the gold rush, the Mexicans became minorities. Stripped of their land and possessions, Mexicans received similar treatment as blacks in the post-slavery South with Jim Crow-type systems of discrimination. By the 20th century, Mexicans and Hispanics were treated like foreigners in a land they called home.
The state of New Mexico took much longer than the rest of the former Mexican territory to gain statehood, largely because it is the only one that remained predominantly Mexican/Hispanic even after White settlers migrated into its borders. As now, individuals feared the large Hispanic (and Catholic) population’s influence on the multicultural state. Upon receiving statehood in 1912, the New Mexico constitution made both English and Spanish official languages. It also guaranteed equal rights and education to all New Mexicans regardless of language, religion, or race.
Today, the state is very racially mixed and is demographically the only minority-majority state. As the minority, and especially Hispanic, population continues to grow, the state’s demographic makeup is looking more and more like the future projections for America.
New Mexico also has the largest Native American population left in the United States. Their presence is testament to their claims to the land. From the majestic pueblo ruins of Chaco Canyon to the site of Clovis Man (where humans lived in Eastern New Mexico over 13,000 years ago), ancient ruins dot the New Mexican landscape, clear proof that people have sought to pursue their version of the American Dream in the continental U.S. long before the Europeans got around to discovering and stealing the land for themselves.
Many immigrants have gone back and forth across our borders looking for work and opportunities. Just as other immigrant groups (like the Irish, Polish, Chinese, Japanese, Africans, and many others) had been in the past, recent immigrants from Latin America have been met with hostility, nativism, and fear. Yet every immigrant group so far has contributed much to our nation’s culture; each generation of immigrants has built on the one before, and Latino culture has long been an important part of our collective American identity. No question should arise as to whether they belong in our nation. They have just as much right as groups of immigrants who came before them to reach for the American Dream.
The federal government must reform the immigration system to make the goal of legal immigration more attainable for the millions of immigrants with purely noble goals in entering our nation. While we must make sure that the border is secure enough to protect the nation from criminals and violence, we must not close ourselves off from the great culture and contributions that Latino immigrants can bring.
Really, when we think about it, from the perspective of those who were here first, we have all come to this country via some form of illegal immigration. Who are we to try to stop the next group of future Americans from trying to pursue their dreams in this land?