On April 21st, 1836, Sam Houston of the Texas Republic mounted a surprise attack on Mexican General and Dictator Santa Anna near Galveston Bay. Santa Anna was captured and forced to sign documents surrendering his army and recognizing the independence of the Republic of Texas. Thus ended an independence movement that had grown out of a careless immigration policy enacted a decade before.
The immigration problem that Texas posed to the Mexican government in the 1830s is instructive to us today and serves as an excellent reminder of the central role of demographics in the maintenance of sovereign societies.
Mexico’s northern frontier had always been a problem for Mexico. Having a small non-indigenous population and an incessantly unstable political environment, Mexico found it very difficult to populate the northern provinces with their own citizens. To alleviate the problem, the Mexican government decided that it would open the areas in what is now Texas to immigration from the United States. Immigrants were required to adopt Mexican citizenship and (although rarely enforced) to respect the 1824 Mexican ban on slavery.
Immigrants from the United States poured into the area, and by 1835, over three-fourths of Mexican citizens in what is now east Texas were of American origin and largely Protestant as well. The Mexican government had attempted to stop the flood of immigrants in 1830 by halting immigration and setting up administrative districts to impose new customs duties. The halt in immigration was largely ineffective however, since Mexicans of American extraction were numerous enough to control many of the local institutions and did little to prevent further immigration. The end result was a small minority of Catholic and Spanish-speaking citizens in the region by the time Texas declared its independence in 1835.
The example of Texas is so useful because it clearly shows us that when dealing with issues of immigration, the point in time in which it becomes clear that immigration is a problem, it may already be too late. As the "American-Mexicans" of the 1830s showed us, it can prove exceedingly difficult to enforce any meaningful immigration policy when the machinery of government is controlled by those who stand to gain from even more unlimited immigration.
The Mexican government should have really known better than to swing the doors open to Protestant and English-speaking Americans when they couldn’t even begin to populate the area with anyone hailing from any parts of New Spain. It didn’t take long before Mexico’s open borders policy had produced a situation where almost 23,000 of the 30,000 people in Texas were more interested in being a part of the Protestant-Anglo society of the United States than in being a part of Mexico’s Catholic and Hispanic culture. It took little more than the demographic shift to make Texas an independent country, and then a part of the United States.
The implications for our own immigration policies 170 years later are obvious. Unless efforts are taken to ensure that American citizens partial to an American way of life (which admittedly contains many valuable Hispanic influences) are kept in the majority, the American Southwest may prove to become our own Texas problem in another generation.
Now some of you may undoubtedly say that such a prospect would serve us right for having stolen Mexico’s northern frontier in the first place. While the annexation of Texas and the related war with Mexico in the 1840s was quite possibly America at its militant worst, it does not make sense for modern Americans who are not responsible for America’s missteps 150 years ago to simply forfeit their own control of local democratic institutions because of an historical debate. The fact of the matter is that Texas and the American Southwest are currently American regions that practice a way of life that has little resemblance to the Mexican way of life. This is not a question of one culture being superior to another, but one of the foolishness of abandoning control of one’s own society.
The Mexicans freely admit that they were foolish to call in Americans to settle a region of Mexico that they were not able to settle themselves. It is difficult to understand, therefore, why so many Americans fail to see that the effects of immigration are real, long lasting, and unpredictable. Surely, had the Mexican government foreseen the effects of immigration into Texas, they would have stopped it. Why are we so unwilling to learn from their misfortune and err on the safe side?
It appears that in the modern immigration debate, the Mexicans are the only ones who know what they are doing. They certainly appreciate the lessons of the past and know that local control of the politics in the Southwestern United States can have far reaching effects for Mexicans still in Mexico. It is the politics of Manifest Destiny revisited, except this time, the joke’s on us.