Mexico and The United States: Early Roots of an Uneasy Relationship

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 8.09.39 AMBy Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Anyone who crosses the border between the United States and Mexico knows it can be quite a hassle. The contrast with travel in Europe is striking. Once you clear immigration and customs in any one of the almost 30 countries that belong to the European Union, you can travel between member nations and territories without further ado.   But traveling to or from Mexico, by car or plane, entails long lines for immigration and paper-wasting documentation. Luggage is sniffed, searched, and often torn apart. The bureaucratic requirements for bringing a car to Mexico, or keeping it here, can be a nightmare.

In some of the border states in the U.S., widespread hostility to Mexicans has resulted in laws and practices that make the mere appearance of being Hispanic into a presumption of illegal entry. Even the Obama administration, which says it favors relaxing barriers to immigration, has been compelled to respond to this fervor with a doubling in the size of the Border Patrol and substantial investments in security infrastructure along the border with Mexico – even setting a goal of 100% aerial surveillance of the entire southwest border. This high level of hassle, suspicion, and budgetary expense has deep roots in the early history of relationships between the U.S. and Mexico.

From the time that Mexico won independence from Spain and became a Republic in 1824 until World War II, there were only brief periods of neighborly cooperation. Just prior to the revolution that led to Mexico’s independence, the U.S. had been negotiating with Spain over the details of the border between the U.S. and “New Spain.” The result was an 1819 a treaty signed by U.S. President Adams and Foreign Minister Onis of Spain — it defined the Louisiana Territory and Florida as part of the U.S. while Spain retained California, New Mexico (including present day Nevada, Utah, Arizona and parts of Colorado and Wyoming), and Texas west of the Sabine River. The treaty was ultimately ratified by the U.S. and the Republic of Mexico in 1831 with the added provision that the Oregon Territory belonged to the U.S. However, the provisions of the treaty were never really accepted by the residents of the southern territories, who responded with waves of migration to take control of land they felt was rightfully theirs.

By four years later, in 1935, Texas had become a hotspot of controversy. The westward trek of U.S. citizens into Texas was seen as a threat by the Mexican government, and the president of Mexico began imposing heavy customs duties on immigrants. He also declared slavery illegal, so as to discourage movement of slave owners into Texas. The immigrants from the U.S. revolted and won the initial battles against Mexican troops. Optimism was high among the revolutionary troops, and on March 2, 1836, they declared Texas an independent republic. The tide was briefly turned at the battle of the Alamo — Mexican troops surrounded this rebel fortress and attacked on March 6, 1836. Losses on both sides were horrendous; hundreds of Mexican troops were killed, and ultimately virtually all the Texans in the Alamo were killed. Under the leadership of General Sam Houston, the Republic of Texas ultimately won the war, but the cry “Remember the Alamo” became a harsh reminder of attitudes toward Mexico, and remains so to this day.

The Republic of Texas was annexed by the U.S. in 1845 as part of the doctrine of manifest destiny, an imperialistic slogan promoted by President Polk, it meant that all of North America was rightly going to be part of the United States.   Although many people in the north thought that the hidden agenda of manifest destiny was to subjugate, if not outright enslave, the nonwhite population, Polk used a brief incident between U.S and Mexican troops in Texas as an excuse to declare war on Mexico in 1846. The war raged off and on for two years with 10 major battles, all decisively won by U.S troops under the direction of generals who later became famous during the U.S. civil war– including both Lee and Grant. The war with Mexico ended in 1848 with the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty, which gave major territory to the U.S. and essentially established much of the current border. The final adjustment to the present day border was made in 1853, when Mexico territory north of the Rio Grande was purchased from the Mexican government for 10 million dollars so that a railroad could be constructed between California and El Paso, Texas.

Although the treaties provided land grants and civil rights to Mexican citizens living in the former Mexican territories, these terms were rapidly abrogated, and many Mexicans not only were forced off their lands but also were not allowed to vote in the U.S.

Over the next few decades the European invasion in Mexico and the Civil War in the United States so occupied both countries that there was little interaction of note. The US was concerned that France’s attempt to establish Mexico as part of the French Empire was a threat to U.S. security, and, in fact, France was pleased with the havoc created by the war between the states of the U.S. Soon after the Civil War ended, President Buchanan and the U.S. Congress vigorously urged France to leave Mexico, which helped Benito Juarez and his troops regain control over Mexico in 1867.

Perhaps ironically in the light of present day U.S. immigration policy, the exclusion of immigrants from China in 1882 led to a need in the U.S. for railroad workers from south of the border. A vigorous and successful attempt to recruit workers from Mexico to fill these positions resulted in over 16,000 Mexicans providing 60% of the U.S. railroad workforce by the end of the 19th century.

The rapprochement between the U.S. and Mexico came to an abrupt end in 1910 with the advent of the Mexican Revolution. The fighting, especially the battles near the border, resulted in almost one million Mexicans fleeing to the U.S. The U.S. sent troops to the border in 1911 ostensibly to prevent fighting from spilling over into the U.S. Then in 1914 after Mexican President Francisco Madero was deposed in a coup by General Victoriano Huerta and Huerto’s troops arrested several American soldiers in a Gulf of Mexico port, President Wilson sent marines to invade and occupy the port of Veracruz in retaliation. Anti-American riots erupted throughout Mexico.

Relations went from bad to worse in 1916 when Pancho Villa led his troops across the border, attacking and partially burning a city in New Mexico. In response, President Wilson sent troops across the border into Mexico in a failed attempt to search out Pancho Villa. The U.S. troops remained in Mexico for the better part of a year.

U.S.-Mexico affairs pretty much hit rock bottom in 1917 when Germany sent a telegram to the Mexican government proposing an alliance to fight together and defeat the U.S. The telegram was intercepted, leading to a very strong anti-Mexico reaction in the U.S. and precipitating U.S. entry into World War I to fight against Germany. Mexico never paid attention to the telegram and stayed out of the war.

Between World War I and World War II, the Mexican government was in a constant state of flux. The U.S., using a tactic which is commonly applied in political hotspots to the present day, provided arms to favored leaders such as Álvaro Obregón. Relations began normalizing in 1934, when the Mexican government stabilized under President Lázaro Cárdenas. He was supported in Mexico by the military and organizations of workers and peasants, and in the U.S. by the Democratic party. President Roosevelt solidified the warming relationship with his “Good Neighbor Policy,” spelling out that the U.S. would not intervene in the affairs of Latin America, and he announced various agreements involving mutual assistance and cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico.

While Mexico and the U.S. governments continue to have periodic major disagreements, relations have never deteriorated to the levels of enmity experienced up to 1917. Still, the U.S. attitude can still be summarized by the often-quoted line of the poet Robert Frost, “good fences make good neighbors,” and we all experience elements of this in our hassles at the border. No matter how relations between the two governments improve, as long as Texans and other U.S. southerners still proclaim “Remember the Alamo,” the overall climate is not likely to change dramatically. Yet, we and many of our friends would point to the first line of the same Frost poem, “Something about me doesn’t love a wall.”