This year, as we gather for the feast, I am giving thanks for illegal immigrants.
I have a particular group of illegals in mind, but I confess that my gratitude to them does color my view of most other illegals.
I refer to the liars, debtors, opportunists and criminals who flooded into Texas in the first half of the 19th century, and then wrested the land from Mexico.
Their story is told in A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and Its War with the United States. The author, Timothy J. Henderson, earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas at Austin and his doctorate at one of those well-regarded institutions back East.
He is now a professor of history at Auburn University Montgomery.
Best of intentions
So he brings both experience of Texas and an academic distance from it.
Stephen F. Austin, who brought many Anglo families to Texas, is not numbered among the illegals. Henderson describes him as “likable, handsome, hardworking, and well educated, with cultivated manners, a moderate temperament, and a sometimes unfortunate tendency to assume the good intentions of others.”
He traveled to Mexico City to negotiate a pact under which he pledged to bring Anglo settlers into Texas according to rules set out by Mexican authorities.
Austin, writes Henderson, “from the outset made plain his intention to do everything by the book, and for most of his adult life he never wavered from his commitment to be a good citizen of Mexico.”
He negotiated a generous deal. A head of an immigrant family would get 4,438 acres for farming and another 177 acres for livestock. For every 200 immigrants he or other impresarios brought in they would receive 66,774 acres.
There were a few rules. They had to pledge loyalty to Mexico. If they weren’t already Roman Catholics, they had to convert.
Despite Austin’s best efforts, Henderson says, Anglos came pouring in and most “had no intention of abiding by their end of the bargain.”
Mexican law, for example, stipulated that any slaves would be free as soon as they entered Texas.
Anglo immigrants “elected to assume that this referred only to the buying and selling of slaves and did not apply to slaves brought by colonists for their own use,” writes Henderson.
One Mexican general wrote that the colonists “commit the barbarities on their slaves that are so common where men live in a relationship so contradictory to their nature: they pull their teeth, they set dogs upon them to tear them apart, and the mildest of them will whip the slaves until they are flayed.”
Some illegals came to escape debts or domestic obligations. Some were simply adventurers.
Some were fugitives from justice, “sporting brands on their faces marking them as miscreants.” (Think gang tattoos, only not voluntary.)
Some of these, not surprisingly, continued their criminal careers in Texas. Colonists who caught them at it considered the Mexican prohibition of the death penalty to be inconvenient and carried out executions.
These immigrants not only entered illegally or violated the terms of their legal entry, but rather than keep their heads down and try to fit in, they lived in active defiance of the law.
So much so that the Mexican government in 1830 passed a law barring all new American immigrants from entering Texas.
Among the illegals violating that particular law were David Crockett, William B. Travis and Sam Houston.
For the fact that tomorrow we celebrate the particularly American holiday of Thanksgiving in Texas, we owe them and the thousands of other illegals whom they joined our enthusiastic gratitude.
I also give thanks for those illegals who have worked hard to clean up the Galveston area in the past weeks, and have shown no interest in importing slaves or overthrowing our government.
Our history shows that immigrants — even illegal ones, especially when laws are out of whack — often make things better.
You can write to Rick Casey at P.O. Box 4260, Houston, TX 77210, or e-mail him at [email protected]