Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Immigration in the American west

The headline reads: “Border State Governor Issues Dire Warning about Flood of Undocumented Immigrants.” And here’s the gist of the story: In a letter to national officials, the governor of a border state sounded another alarm about unchecked immigration across a porous boundary with a neighboring country. In the message, one of several from border state officials, the governor acknowledged that his/her nation had once welcomed immigrants from its neighbor, but recent events taught how unwise that policy was. He/she insisted that many of the newcomers to his/her state were armed and dangerous criminals. Even those who came to work threatened to overwhelm the state’s resources and destabilize the social order.

Indeed, unlike earlier immigrants from the neighboring nation who had adapted to their new homeland and its traditions, more recent arrivals resisted assimilation. Instead, they continued to speak in their native tongue and maintain attachments to their former nation, sometimes carrying their old flag in public demonstrations. Worse still, the governor admitted that his/her nation seemed unwilling to “arrest” the flow of these undocumented aliens. Yet, unless the “incursions” were halted, the “daring strangers,” who are “gradually outnumbering and displacing us,” would turn us into “strangers in our own land.”

Today’s headline? It could be. The governor’s fears certainly ring familiar. Indeed, the warning sounds a lot like ones issued by Governor Rick Perry of Texas or Jan Brewer of Arizona. But this particular alarm emanated from California. That might make Pete Wilson the author of this message. Back in the 1990s, he was very vocal about the dangers that illegal immigration posed to his state and the United States. As governor, Wilson championed the “Save Our State” ballot initiative that cut illegal aliens from access to state benefits such as subsidized health care and public education. He campaigned on behalf of the initiative (Proposition 187) and made it a centerpiece of his 1994 re-election campaign.

Wilson, however, was not the source of the letter cited above. In fact, this warning dates back to 1845, almost 150 years before Proposition 187 appeared on the scene. Its author was Pio Pico, governor of the still Mexican state of California.

The unsanctioned immigrants about whom Pico worried were from the United States. Pico had reason to be concerned, especially as he reflected on events in Texas. There, the Mexican government had opted to encourage immigration from the United States. Beginning in the 1820s and continuing into the 1830s, Americans, primarily from the southern United States, poured into Texas.

Map of  CA, NV, UT and western AZ when they were part of Mexico"California1838" by DigbyDalton - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Map of CA, NV, UT and western AZ when they were part of Mexico, “California1838”, by DigbyDalton. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

By the mid-1830s, they outnumbered Tejanos (people with Mexican roots) by almost ten to one. Demanding provincial autonomy, the Americans clashed with Mexican authorities determined to enforce the rule of the national government. In 1836, a rebellion commenced, and Texans won their war of secession. Nine years later, the United States annexed Texas. And now, claimed Pico, many officials of the United States government openly coveted California, their expansionist designs abetted by American immigrants to California.

In retrospect, the policy of promoting American immigration into northern Mexico looks as dangerous as Pico deemed it and as counterintuitive as it has seemed to subsequent generations. Why invite Americans in if a chief goal was to keep the United States out? Still, the policy did not appear so paradoxical at the time. There were, in fact, encouraging precedents. Spain had attempted something similar in the Louisiana Territory in the 1790s, though the territory’s transfer back to France and then to the United States had aborted that experiment. More enduring was what the British had done in Upper Canada (now Ontario). Americans who crossed that border proved themselves amenable to a shift in loyalties, which showed how tenuous national attachments remained in these years. From this, others could draw lessons: the keys to gaining and holding the affection of American transplants was to protect them from Indians, provide them with land on generous terms, require little from them in the way of taxes, and interfere minimally in their private pursuits.

For a variety of reasons, Mexico had trouble abiding by these guidelines, and, in response, Americans did not abide by Mexican rules. In Texas, American immigrants destabilized Mexican rule. In California, as Pico feared, the “daring strangers” overwhelmed the Mexican population, though the brunt of the American rush did not commence until after the discovery of gold in 1848. By then, Mexico had already lost its war with the United States and ceded California. Very soon, men like Pio Pico found themselves strangers in their own land.

Featured image credit: “Map of USA highlighting West”. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *