The Original “Undocumenteds”

They crossed the United States-Mexico border in clear and undeniable violation of the existing immigration law. They came though they knew that they were banned from entering the country. Eventually, the government gave into reality and relaxed the rules—letting those present stay in the country and settle, to become part of its economic development. However, even giving them entry under specific restrictions, did nothing to slow their steadily increasing numbers. They came and ignored the rules set down for their entrance; they refused to assimilate in the prevailing culture and kept the traditions, especially some of the certain particular institutions of the homeland. The national government again attempted to shut off their immigration into the country. It sparked anger and violence.

Think you know what is being written about? You may think so, but what you are probably thinking this article is about is NOT what it is about. the wrong thing. This is not another article about the entry of undocumented Mexican nationals into the United States in the 20th and 21st ceturies. The history being discussed in about the entrance of American nationals into Mexico, specifically into the northern most state of Coahuila y Tejas from about 1820 to 1836(from the start of Mexican Independence to the formation of the Republic of Texas or the “Lone Star Republic” which eventually became the current US state of Texas.

In the formative years of the Mexican nation in the 1820s, the national government had little money to spare for the military, so settlers were empowered to create their own militias to help control hostile tribes such as the Apache and Comanche. The border region of Tejas(population approximately 3500) faced frequent raids. In the hopes that an influx of settlers could control the raids, the government liberalized its immigration policies, and settlers from the United States were permitted to move to Mexico.

The state governments were made responsible for responsible for implementing the General Colonization Law, the Mexican statute allowing foreigners to immigrate to the country which was passed by the national legislature in August 1824. Officials in Saltillo, the capital of Coahuila y Tejas, were soon besieged by foreign land speculators who wanted to claim land in Tejas. The state passed its own colonization law in 1825(again an eerily familiar modern parallel). Over 3400 land grant applications were submitted by immigrants and naturalized citizens, many of them Anglo-Americans. Only one of the twenty-four empresarios, Martin De Leon settled citizens from within Mexico; the others came primarily from the United States.

From the time Mexico became independent from Spain, there was public support for abolishing slavery. Fears of an economic crisis if all of the slaves were simultaneously freed led to a gradual emancipation policy. In 1823, Mexico forbade the sale or purchase of slaves and required that the children of slaves be freed when they reached fourteen. Any slave introduced into Mexico by purchase or trade would also be freed. Many of the colonists in Tejas being from the southern United States, however, owned slaves which they had brought with them when they moved to Tejas. In 1827, the legislature of Coahuila y Tejas outlawed the introduction of additional slaves into the state and granted freedom at birth to all children born to a slave. The new laws also stated that any slave brought into Texas should be freed within six months. Slavery was officially outlawed in Mexico in 1829. This led to murmurings of revolt within Tejas, and the governor of Coahuila y Tejas wrote to the president to explain the importance of slavery to Tejas’s regional economy, and the importance of the region to the development of the entire state(again, something with a modern parallel). Texas was temporarily exempted from the rule. The exception was reversed within a year, and the state was ordered to comply in full with the emancipation law. Many colonists attempted to become creative and converted their slaves to indentured servitude with a 99-year term. This attempt to get around the emancipation law was outlawed in 1832.

As the number of Americans living in Tejas grew, Mexican authorities became apprehensive that the United States might wish to annex the area, possibly using force, though the other American republic had given up its claim to the area in 1819. On April 6, 1830, the Mexican government passed a series of laws restricting immigration from the United States into Texas. The laws also canceled all unfilled empresario contracts and called for the first enforcement of customs duties. Implementation of the new laws angered colonists in Tejas(but didn’t stop continued ‘undocumented’ immigration from the US), and in June 1832 a group of armed settlers marched on the military base at Anahuac and deposed the commander. A second group forced the surrender of another Mexican military commander at Velasco. This small rebellion coincided with a revolt led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna against the centralist policies of Mexican president Anastasio Bustamante. Tejans aligned themselves with Santa Anna’s federalist policies.

Settlers in Texas continued to press for changes in Mexican law. In 1833, they requested separate statehood, going so far as to draft a proposed state constitution. In March 1833, the capital of the state was transferred from Saltillo to Monclova, which was closer to Tejas. Shortly thereafter, civil war erupted as the federal government moved away from federalism and towards a more centralized government. As fighting erupted, residents in Saltillo declared that Monclova had been illegally made the state capitol and selected a new governor. Tejans in Saltillo recommended establishing a provisional government in Bexar during the unrest to strengthen the autonomy of the region but were forced to postpone it when Mexican troops advanced in the direction of Tejas.

In 1835, Santa Anna, now the Mexican President, revoked the Constitution of 1824 and began consolidating his power. In various parts of the country federalists revolted, and in May 1835 Santa Anna brutally crushed a revolt in Zacatecas. Fearful that the President would march against them next, the federalists in Coahuila y Tejas, including the state governor, disbanded the state legislature on May 21, 1835 and moved to set up an office in a different part of the state. The governor was arrested by federal troops as he traveled to San Antonio. After escaping and reaching Tejas, citizens of the region refused to recognize him as governor. Santa Anna abolished all state governments in October 1835, replacing them with administrative divisions from Mexico City. The people of Tejas, both Anglo settlers and native-born Mexicans revolted the same month. By April 1836, the revolt was over, and the region became the independent Republic of Texas.

It is not likely that we will see this dramatic a change in the geopolitical situation as the issues surrounding the current “undocumenteds” are addressed at the national level in Washington, D.C. and across the United States in the coming years. But it is a good thing to reflect back on the “originals” so that when the debate reaches its most emotional and accusations are made by those supporting changes to current U.S. immigration law of racism against those who want to enforce the current laws or talk about the need to have secure borders, perhaps cooler heads will prevail by remembering a time when the “shoe was on the other foot”.


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