August 10, 2006


THE IRONY OF AMERICAN HISTORY: Are Illegal Immigrants Pioneers? (Eduardo Moisés Peñalver, Commonweal)

Breaking the law is a terrible thing, except when it isn’t. [...]

[D]uring the first half of the nineteenth century, the federal government hoped to use its vast Western territories to pay off the national debt by auctioning the lands to the highest bidders, typically Northeastern land speculators. Settlers making their way west to start a new life considered this policy to be a serious injustice. Speculators often held land off the market for years, waiting for prices to increase. While federal law made it a crime to enter publicly owned land slated for auction, hundreds of thousands of squatters disregarded the law and trespassed on federal land (and also absentee-owned private land) to farm it illegally. Federal troops forcibly removed some squatters, but the illegal occupants usually reclaimed the land once the soldiers were gone.

Politicians, many of whom dabbled in land speculation, condemned the squatters’ lawless “usurpation” of public lands and “audacious defiance” in the face of Congress’s will. They accused squatters of being “greedy, lawless land grabbers who had no respect for law, order, absentee ownership of property, and Indian rights.” On December 12, 1815, President James Madison issued a proclamation warning “uninformed or evil disposed persons...who have unlawfully taken possession of or made any settlement on the public lands...forthwith to remove therefrom” or face ejection by the army and criminal prosecution. But that didn’t stop the settlers. In 1838, Henry Clay, expressing a widely shared sentiment, dismissed the squatters as a “lawless rabble.”

Once the squatters managed to sink down roots, though, the federal government found it difficult to remove them from the land. Accordingly, by 1837 Congress had, on thirty-nine occasions, enacted retroactive amnesties for squatters occupying federal lands over the objection of people who argued that these amounted to a reward for lawlessness. These limited amnesties permitted squatters to purchase the land they occupied at a low price. Ultimately, the process of moving from occupation to landownership was fully legalized. The 1862 Homestead Act granted free title to settlers who met the statute’s five-year-residency and improvement requirements. In one of the great ironies of American history, the lawless squatters underwent a dramatic image makeover to become, in the gauzy romanticism of our collective memory, heroic settlers.

The parallels between the controversy over illegal squatting by the ancestors of many white Americans and the current arguments over illegal immigration from Mexico and Latin America are significant. In both cases, poor people struck out for a new land to take for themselves the economic opportunity they believed they needed in order to provide a better life for their families. And in both cases, they willfully disregarded laws that got in the way of their plans. Although willingness to flout the law is always cause for concern, the mere fact of lawbreaking should not keep legislators from making an independent assessment of the justice of the aspirations that push people to (nonviolently) engage in illegal immigration. Similar concerns did not stop nineteenth-century Congresses from assessing, and ultimately endorsing, the justice of the demands made by illegal squatters.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 10, 2006 4:59 PM

A good point, but there may be a difference between trekking forth to wrest the land from the not-folk and the not-folk infiltrating in order to wrest it back.

Hard-working, gun-loving Roman Catholics are a good thing. The many, many immigrants around my neck of the woods are a good thing. When we interact with them we never get the feeling that they are not of the people. We only wish there was some way we could trade them for grungy street critters.

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 10, 2006 5:47 PM

Yes, trading would be even more desirable.

Posted by: oj at August 10, 2006 6:05 PM

A fine piece of writing, Orrin.

Posted by: Dale Andersen at August 10, 2006 7:01 PM

Not me, Mr. Peñalver.

Posted by: oj at August 10, 2006 7:06 PM

The pioneers who moved westward from the Atlantic seaboard were typically pushed and pulled by the same considerations as the Micks and Dagos. They certainly were not American gentry, for the most part.

Posted by: ghostcat at August 10, 2006 8:13 PM

One of the interesting aspects of this debate here is how the "dissenters" on immigration (I'm trying to avoid infammatory language)talk so admiringly of the quintessential "legal" immigrant who patiently sits at home awaiting his turn without complaint as the Government takes its three or four leisurely years ("sorry--Mr. Jones is on holiday leave.")to process his application with all the maddening bureaucratic mazes that were food for satire about Ruritania a hundred years ago. As with the squatters, immigration law should have some relationaship to the reality of people and their families seeking a better life and an understanding of what they will do the attain the dream. Legality is indeed important, but never have I seen so many conservatives line up behind bueaucrats as on this issue. "Give me your poor, your tired..." seems to have been replaced by: "Your form 4782B is not in order--come back in September."

Posted by: Peter B at August 10, 2006 8:47 PM

Admiring until you suggest increasing their number.

Posted by: oj at August 10, 2006 9:17 PM

From the linked to article, it appears he's mostly discussing the late 18th/early 19th Century immigrants described in "Albion's Seed" as "backcountry".
These immigrants ended up "squatting" on lands the Crown had given to connected persons, many of whom never set foot in N. America.
In all of the American histories I've read, I've never heard the concept that the Federal government, from 1800 to 1850 had a policy of National debt reduction from the sale of Federal lands, especially to NE speculators.
Read pages 290-92 of Paul Johnson's "A History of the American People" , a response to linked to opinion which would seem much more factually based.
I'm certain many wealthy and connected individuals were able to game the system to their advantage, but that hardly constitutes a "policy".
Finally, I fail to see the connection so many make to today's immigration fiasco.

Posted by: Mike Daley at August 10, 2006 10:18 PM

"Legality is indeed important"

Exactly, I'm glad we are in total agreement.

Posted by: h-man at August 11, 2006 4:14 AM

Of course, that's why we're legalizing them.

Posted by: oj at August 11, 2006 8:10 AM

How come it was okay back then to let immigrants in this wonderful country of ours now, and take it away from the real owners that owened this beautiful land once,before being corralled like wild horses?????

Posted by: LRucker at August 21, 2006 8:22 PM