TPM Cafe: Opinion

Trump Has It Backwards: White Criminals Stole from Mexicans

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Greg Allen

Such anti-Mexican sentiments have a long history in American culture and politics. Indeed, many of Trump’s recent comments echo quite closely a 1928 speech delivered by Texas Congressman John Box. Box was arguing for including Mexican immigrants in the newly passed Quota Acts, the nation’s first immigration laws to apply to most arrivals, and extended the same white supremacist xenophobia that had produced the Quota Acts to his subject: “Every reason which calls for the exclusion of the most wretched, ignorant, dirty, diseased, and degraded people of Europe or Asia,” he began, “demands that the illiterate, unclean, peonized masses moving this way from Mexico be stopped at the border.” After moving through familiar complaints about stolen jobs and racial “mongrelization,” in his closing two paragraphs he expressed the precise litany of fears and prejudices we’re hearing again these days:

To keep out the illiterate and the diseased is another essential part of the Nation's immigration policy. The Mexican peons are illiterate and ignorant. Because of their unsanitary habits and living conditions and their vices they are especially subject to smallpox, venereal diseases, tuberculosis, and other dangerous contagions. Their admission is inconsistent with this phase of our policy.

The protection of American society against the importation of crime and pauperism is yet another object of these laws. Few, if any, other immigrants have brought us so large a proportion of criminals and paupers as have the Mexican peons.

Thanks to the rise of national immigration laws that began with the Quota Acts, Trump can now add “illegal aliens” to his list of attacks; otherwise, the rhetoric is identical.

There are lots of ways to push back against this anti-Mexican xenophobia and bigotry, but the most salient is that it gets the history not only wrong, but precisely backwards. For one thing, most of the continent has had a Mexican (initially Spanish) population for far longer than an Anglo or U.S. one. There’s a reason why Florida’s St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the continental U.S. Or why the first Anglo settlers in Texas were invited there by the Mexican government. Or why a city like San Diego had been a Spanish and then Mexican community for more than a century by the time of the annexation of California and the first Anglo arrivals. The story of European exploration and settlement in what would become the United States has been inextricably tied to Hispanic communities at every moment.

Moreover, the story of the American Southwest and West is defined by a long series of Anglo crimes against Mexican landowners and communities. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican American War guaranteed U.S. citizenship and legal protection for those hundreds of thousands of Mexicans already inhabiting the numerous territories that were changing hands. But in practice, those protections were time and again denied to Mexican landowners, in favor of Anglo squatters and thieves who took the land they desired and bent the laws to support their crimes. Novelist María Amparo Ruiz de Burton captured this forgotten history in her epic The Squatter and the Don (1885), while Indian reformer Helen Hunt Jackson noted the parallels between the U.S. treatment of Mexican and Native Americans in the West in her own epic Ramona (1884).

Our modern immigration laws and system are fraught and broken, and there are no simple solutions or next steps. But echoing and amplifying the kinds of anti-Mexican sentiments that long permeated our communal conversations certainly won’t help. And neither will arguing that Mexican arrivals are either a new American community or a group of criminals taking over our existing communities—indeed, as our shared history reveals, both those descriptions fit Anglo arrivals far better.

Ben Railton is an Associate Professor of English at Fitchburg State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.