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History of the Texas-Mexico Border


EL PASO, Texas – The Texas Border Coalition, which represents communities from El Paso to Brownsville, has published a white paper titled Texas Borders, History, Policy and Management.

TBC hopes the white paper “will spur a robust national debate that results in bipartisan, incremental reform of the U.S. immigration system during the lame duck session of Congress.”

The new TBC chairman is David Stout, an El Paso county commissioner.

“TBC is pleased to publish this paper detailing our views on immigration and border management – key issues that divide the nation today,” Stout, said. 

“To begin, however, it is important to understand the history that brought our state and nation to this point today. Much of what people know to be true may not be historically accurate.”

Specifically, the paper focuses on the history of immigration and enforcement on the Texas-Mexico border beginning with the Republic of Texas through the modern-day. 

Here is the history part of the document:

Texas Border Coalition White Paper – History


Before there was Texas, there was Tejas, a Spanish province of colonial New Spain from 1690 until 1821. Before there was Tejas, the region was home to a variety of native tribes ranging from those on the coast, such as the Karankawa, to the high plains, including the Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche.

The first Spanish mission was established in Paso del Norte, now the twin border cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, in 1659 in the jurisdiction of Nuevo Mexico. The native tribes frustrated Spain’s first effort to establish a mission in east Tejas in 1690, causing the missionaries to return to Mexico. Returning in 1716, Spain sought to establish a buffer to New France’s Louisiana, constructing Nuestro Padre San Francisco de los Tejas and other missions, as well as a presidio. Civilian settlers arrived in 1718, at San Antonio.

Following the Mexican Revolution, which established the independence of the United Mexican States from Spain, the State of Coahuila y Tejas was created under the 1824 Constitution. Hooker maps from the period show the border between Tejas and Tamaulipas to be the Nueces River, not the Rio Grande.

After the 1836 Texas Revolution established the Republic of Texas as an independent nation, the boundary between Mexico and its new neighbor was disputed. Texas sought to expand its territory to the West – claiming all lands north of the Rio Grande from the Gulf of Mexico to its headwaters in present-day Colorado – and Mexico insisted on the historic border of the Nueces River.

As an internal border, there had been no enforcement of the line between Tejas and Tamaulipas by the United Mexican States. Following Texas independence, the ambiguous border region saw multiple raids by Mexican armed forces seeking to reestablish its authority. In September 1842, Mexican troops took control of San Antonio, north of the Nueces, but Texan militiamen forced a Mexican retreat following the Battle of Salado Creek.

Following the annexation of Texas by the United States, the disputed territory became the site of two 1846 battles between U.S. and Mexican forces at Palo Alto on May 8 and the Resaca de la Palma on May 9. American troops prevailed in both battles, beginning the Mexico-United States War. When the war ended, both governments compromised on the mid-point of the Rio Grande as the borderline between Texas and Mexico.

The end of the war made defending the new dividing line a top priority for Texas and U.S. leaders. Enforcement efforts looked both north and south. Historian Alice Baumgartner estimates between 3,000 and 5,000 slaves fled south across the border to freedom on Mexican soil despite government efforts to keep them in the U.S. A year before the Civil War, dual citizen Juan Nepomuceno Cortina and his crew were involved in cross-border banditry and were met by Texas Rangers, volunteers organized to protect the frontier and disbanded when a mission was accomplished. 

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee arrived in 1860, threatening war unless the raids ended, which they did. The fighting depleted the disputed border region of much of its population as many of the ranches were abandoned. They would later develop into a more structured force around the turn of the century, with a history of extrajudicial violence on the borderlands. 

The 1860s featured a Civil War in the United States and a French conquest of Mexico. The end of the U.S. Civil War and the ascendance of Maximillian I of Mexico began nearly a half century of relative peace on the border, occasionally interrupted by raids and banditry, as well as characterized by land disputes in which Anglos took possession of Spanish land grants; both were sources of ethnic and class tension. As during the preceding three decades, the border itself was enforced indifferently by Mexican and American authorities operating, often in cooperation, on both sides of the frontier.

The early history of U.S. border enforcement was more about the collection of tariffs (taxes) on imported goods than about excluding people. In 1807, Congress and President Thomas Jefferson enacted legislation banning the importation of slaves. At the time, Congress and the U.S. legal system struggled to balance the dual status of slaves as ‘people’ and as ‘property.’ Ineligible for citizenship until the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1868, slaves were not considered immigrants.

Prior to the 1880s, no federal limitations on immigration were written into law. The U.S. economy needed immigrants to grow, to work in its factories, mines, fields, and to build the transcontinental railroad. From 1850 to 1882, nearly 333,000 Chinese immigrants came to the U.S., many to work constructing the railroad.

With the completion of the railroad came the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law limiting immigration based on race or national origin, attempting to close the door on Chinese immigration. Having recruited Chinese labor for more than three decades, the U.S attempt to ban immigrants from China was ineffective, and many Chinese immigrants found crossing the border from Mexico – especially at El Paso – easy compared to landing in California ports. The growth of a human smuggling industry along the U.S.-Mexico border led many other ethnic groups who were considered ‘undesirable’ by the American government to try to enter the United States through Mexico.

The Chinese Exclusion Act marked the first of what would become many immigration policy failures, based mostly on a lack of alignment between immigration policies and the economic and social realties of the time. After having been welcomed when the U.S. wanted labor to build up its infrastructure and manufacturing, immigrants seeking to reunite their families or improve their lives were hardly to be denied by an act of Congress. Likewise, the new restrictions on the movement of people did not impact the movement of goods or capital.

When immigration patterns are driven by structural social or economic factors like labor market imbalances, attempts to limit immigration often have more influence on how people migrate rather than stopping the movement of people. When restrictive immigration policies force more immigrants to enter the U.S. by illegal means, such as with the help of human smugglers, the methods become self-perpetuating in defiance of policy and the law. These factors help explain why immigration policies that ignore economic and social realities tend to have only a limited effect on real-world migration trends.

The flow of immigration across the Texas-Mexico border escalated when increasingly autocratic Mexican President Porfirio Diaz threw his reelection challenger Francisco Madero into jail in 1910 and forcibly ended the contest. Madero and his supporters generated a popular uprising from jail, beginning a decade-long civil war.

An estimated one million Mexicans crossed the border into the United States during the civil war, seeking work and refuge. The influx of Mexican labor further strained the political and economic status of Mexican American residents in Texas, stirring a new debate over whether to restrict Mexican immigration. No limitations were enacted.

The U.S. entry into the First World War in April 1917 brought about severe restrictions on immigration from Europe, which created a need for other immigrants to join the U.S. agriculture workforce. In May 1917, the U.S. implemented the first Bracero program helping farmers to recruit Mexican workers. When the program ended in 1921, Mexican workers continued to seek work in the U.S., often crossing the border outside the legal ports of entry, proving again that policies that fail to acknowledge social and economic reality are unlikely to succeed. In response, the U.S. Border Patrol was organized in 1924, beginning the ineffectual activity of pursuit, capture, and escape that has been a feature of immigration policy on the Texas border with Mexico ever since.

In 1921, Congress and President Warren Harding enacted the Emergency Quota Act reducing immigration and limiting the number of immigrants from any country to 3 percent of the residents from that country counted in the 1910 Census. The limitation did not apply to migrants from Mexico or Latin America.

Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, and the Great Depression, led many Americans to identify Mexican immigrants as a cause of Anglo unemployment and to advocate for their deportation. The federal Bureau of Immigration organized raids to identify and remove deportable aliens. The highly publicized raids removed many U.S. citizens, including thousands who were forced onto deportation trains that left downtown San Antonio for the border. An estimated one million Mexicans and Mexican Americans were deported or left the U.S. out of fear for their safety.

The Second World War again reversed the tide as America had an intense need for labor. In 1942, the U.S. and Mexico reached agreement on the second Bracero program, again mainly intended to fill the U.S. agricultural labor shortage. The program continued for 22 years, eventually employing 5 million workers in 24 states.

The program was highly successful in filling the labor needs of American agriculture, but the rights guaranteed to workers by the program were rarely enforced. The ascendancy of the civil rights movement and the leadership of United Farm Workers’ César Chavez created a backlash against the program, and it expired in 1964.

In the modern era, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act created a new system of visas based on immigrant skills and family relationships. The act limited immigration from Mexico and Latin America for the first time. But after the bill was enacted, the largest number of immigrants came to the U.S. from Mexico, as opposed to Europe and Canada prior to the bill’s passage, further illustrating the incompatibility of the social and economic realities with the federal immigration laws.

President Ronald Reagan enacted the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, providing amnesty to some immigrants in the U.S. without authorization, tightening border security and sanctioning employers of undocumented immigrants. Three million immigrants were legalized, but the enforcement and sanction provisions were still misaligned with the social and economic realities of the day and failed to stop new undocumented entries into the U.S. 

In 1996, President Bill Clinton sought legislation to reduce the level of illegal immigration. While his immigration reforms failed in Congress, he signed legislation that increased spending for border security.

In 2006 and 2007, President George W. Bush pushed bipartisan immigration reform as a key priority, including a guest worker program and a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants. The proposed reforms were predicated on the implementation of enforcement measures on the border with Mexico and an employment eligibility verification system. The bill died in June 2007 after losing four votes on the Senate floor to end debate and failing to advance the legislation to final passage.

In 2013, the Senate passed a bipartisan reform bill based on many of the features included in the 2007 Bush legislation and supported by President Barack Obama, but Speaker John Boehner refused to bring the bill to the House floor for a vote. Instead, he promised to pass many of the legislative provisions one-by-one, a strategy that never materialized.

In response, President Obama issued an executive order deferring immigration enforcement for “Dreamers,” individuals who came to the U.S. as children, have been in the United States at least since June 2007, and do not have criminal records.

President Donald Trump made immigration a central issue of his 2016 election campaign and his term in the White House, emphasizing a reduction in legal immigration and finishing a border wall on the border with Mexico. Early in his administration, President Trump was offered full funding for the border wall by Democratic congressional leaders in exchange for his support of immigration reform measures, but he refused. President Trump shut the government down to force Congress to approve border wall funding, which did not happen, and the shut-down concluded without new border wall funding. On some policy initiatives, public opposition forced President Trump to reverse direction, such as deportation protections for Dreamers and the zero-tolerance policy that caused thousands of young immigrant children to be separated from their families.

President Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocol (also known as Remain in Mexico) policy continued an effort dating back to President Reagan of using Mexico as a refugee buffer zone, especially regarding Central Americans. Recent years have seen an uptick in immigrants and asylum seekers from Central American countries like Guatemala and Honduras, as those countries experience social and economic turmoil. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, factors that contribute to migration from Central American countries include violence, insecurity, and famine in their home countries, exacerbated by crop failures and drought related to changing climate patterns.

The U.S.-Mexican immigration bargain, first struck in the Reagan Administration by then-Secretary of State George Shultz and his Mexican counterpart Jorge Castañeda, led Mexico to fortify its southern border to stop Central Americans from travelling north to the U.S. In return, the U.S. at the time agreed not to fortify its southern border or prevent Mexican migration to the U.S., an important factor to a Mexican economy struggling with high unemployment.

The global COVID-19 pandemic provided President Trump with new opportunities to curb travel and immigration to the United States. Based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control to limit the pandemic spread, the Trump Administration halted many asylum procedures under section 265 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code. Under this policy, migrants seeking to make claims for asylum were expelled back to Mexico or their home countries without the opportunity to present their asylum claims.

President Joe Biden sought to terminate the policy in May 2022, but a federal judge blocked his action. During President Biden’s presidency, more than 2 million apprehended migrants have been expelled to Mexico or their home countries.

Over the past several years, border wall construction and immigration curbs have disrupted migration from Mexico as much as from Central America, leading Mexican enforcement of its southern border to fluctuate. This in turn contributed to the recent increases in the total number of migrants seeking to cross into the U.S. from Mexico. The results show again the mismatch of immigration policy with economic and social reality, giving rise to outcomes contrary to the intent of U.S. immigration policy.

President Joe Biden came to power in 2021 seeking to reverse most of the policies of his predecessor, but initially maintaining most of the restrictions related to the pandemic. When President Biden has sought to restore asylum processing, his efforts have been frustrated by the Supreme Court, although he won a Supreme Court challenge to his policy to unwind President Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocol.

The Biden Administration’s work to reunite families separated under President Trump’s zero tolerance program has been successful only on the margins. In June 2022, the American Civil Liberties Union estimated that more than 1,000 children who were taken under President Trump’s family separation policy still have not been reunited with their families.

President Biden has also sought immigration legislation similar to proposals advanced by Presidents Bush and Obama, but a sharply polarized and narrowly divided Congress has stymied progress on the initiative. Working with his Mexican and Central American counterparts, President Biden has sought to attack some of the root causes of migration, including poverty and political corruption in the region. It is a long-term solution unlikely to provide immediate results.

Immigration policy and border enforcement is a powerful political issue, provoking strong polarization among political partisans, both Democratic and Republican. Many seek to oversimplify complicated, intertwined issues that involve sovereignty, human rights, community, economic and law enforcement. Often overlooked is the human impact on migrants who are vilified by some for political gain.

The unresolved nature of the issues has strengthened multi-national crime organizations, much as it has through history. The intense political rhetoric has spurred extreme hate crimes, including the massacre in El Paso on August 3, 2019. The lack of an effective, orderly immigration and asylum process has led to violence among criminal organizations and spiking crime rates in Mexico, as well as exploitation of migrants. Meanwhile, communities on the U.S. side of the border remain generally safe, with crime rates below the state and national averages. Finally, anti-immigrant rhetoric has led to local communities taking on the task of treating migrants with dignity through processing centers, as the federal government focuses its resources on enforcement over other components of the immigration situation.

The Texas Border Coalition believes an understanding of the Texas border history is essential to solving border challenges today. Effective solutions need to reflect the social economic realities of today. Equally important, partisanship should play no role in solving our immigration and border management problem. In fact, partisanship has made solving the problem vastly more difficult than it needs to be.

Editor’s Note: The above commentary is the first in a four-part series documenting a Texas Border Coalition white paper titled Texas Borders, History, Policy and Management. Part Two, focusing on economic and social reality, will be posted in our next edition. 


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