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An earlier immigration crisis at the Mexican border

Ned Jilton II • Dec 19, 2018 at 11:57 AM

I was online looking for a history lecture when I came across one of those politically correct “sensitivity” classes dealing with immigration.

One of the poor souls stuck in this class began recording on a cell phone camera. Speaking was a man with a very thick Mexican accent saying, “Those men at the Alamo, you call them heroes. We call them criminals and murders. And they were illegal aliens.”

Sorry, my friend, but you are wrong. The immigrants from the United States to the northern territory of Mexico, then called Tejas, were not illegal aliens. They were there at the invitation of first the Spanish, then the Mexican government.

The Spanish government was looking to develop the sparsely settled northern areas of its Mexican territory by giving land grants to immigrants who would move there. Approximately 3,400 land grant applications were made. The first accepted was to Stephen F. Austin, who arrived in 1822 with 300 immigrants from the U.S., who settled in the area between present-day Houston and Dallas.

When the Mexicans won their independence from Spain, the new government ratified the Spanish grants, including the one to Austin, confirming their status as legal immigrants.

In 1824, the Mexican government took things a step further with the General Colonization Law, granting one square league, 4,438 acres, of land to immigrants. A second league would be granted to those bringing cattle.

The Mexican law required all immigrants to practice Catholicism, learn Spanish, have a craft or useful profession and to report to the nearest Mexican authority for permission to settle. However, the new immigration law set no limits as to the number of people allowed in the country.

The floodgates opened and immigrants from the U.S. streamed into Mexico. Austin received a second grant to settle 100 families near Nacogdoches and then another to settle 800 families in the region. Many others, like Austin, were bringing in families by the hundreds.

The government, the church and the native Mexicans were not ready for the onslaught and were overwhelmed.

Catholic priests scrambled to convert large groups of settlers, there were insufficient schools to teach Spanish and the government offices were few and far between. Many settlers became squatters while waiting for government approval that was needed to get the land they came for.

So overwhelmed were the government services that laws were passed to stem the flow of immigrants from the U.S.

But it didn’t work. It was estimated that by 1834 there were more than 30,000 U.S. immigrants in Tejas compared to approximately 7,800 Mexicans.

One of the laws passed by the federal government was that colonies that did not have at least 150 inhabitants would be canceled. One of the affected colonies was the Nashville Company run by Sterling C. Robertson.

Robertson and his Nashville Company of 50 immigrants from Tennessee arrived at Fort Tenoxtitlan only a short time after the new laws restricting immigration had passed. Instead of sending the group back to the U.S., the garrison commander sent to the Mexican government for advice.

Three months later, word came back from the Mexican federal government ordering the immigrants to be expelled by the garrison commander. The commander ignored the federal government, and Robertson Colony became the equivalent of a modern sanctuary city.

When Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna became president of Mexico, his government attempted to address some of the Texans’ concerns.

Several immigration reforms were put into place, including changes that legalized Robertson Colony and establishing English as a second language. In addition, the possibility of Mexican statehood for Texas was being considered.

The immigrant population swelled to more than 46,500. Anglo Americans were appointed to positions of influence, and English-speaking communities grew into municipalities.

Many in the Mexican government begin to fear the loss of the Texas territory due to the large Anglo American population. They urged Santa Anna to seize power from the territories and states and centralize it within the federal government.

Santa Anna would eventually agree and we would be on the road to the Alamo. But, by Mexican law, the Anglo Americans were legal immigrants.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net.