The undocumented immigrants had crossed the river in defiance of the law, then escaped capture by sneaking past armed patrols in the dark. They did not have the required paperwork and were ordered to leave, but the authorities suspected the immigrants would probably defy them.
It is a scenario that happens every day on the Texas-Mexico border. But in this particular incident, the immigrants were white, English-speaking Americans who were looking for a better life in Texas. And the authorities who were trying to keep them out were Mexican.
This is one those historical ironies that offers some modern lessons:
The year was 1830, a few months after Mexico had passed a law banning almost all immigration from the United States and provided for military garrisons along its border to enforce it.
Col. Jose de las Piedras, writing a letter (in Spanish) to Stephen F. Austin, the “father of Texas,” reported that he had encountered the immigrants east of the Trinity River heading west in what was then Mexico toward Austin’s colony, not far from modern-day Houston. He checked them for passports, but they had none, so he ordered them to leave Mexico pursuant to the new immigration law. They talked the colonel into letting them tend to some business in the colony, though, by promising to return and then exit the country within 20 days.
“But in contempt of the laws of the country and of its authorities and a total disregard to my orders which they promised to obey, availing themselves of the obscurity of the night and unfrequented roads, they took off [with] their families and are now on their way to your town, as I am informed by Col. Bean, who met them on that side of the Trinity” River, Piedras wrote in the letter, which now resides at the Texas General Land Office.
“As they have come into this country contrary to law and have disrespected the authorities,” he continued, “I think they ought not to be admitted.”
It is hard to know for sure what happened to these immigrants, though some of their names match those of families who got land in an independent Texas. What is known is that thousands of immigrants defied Mexican laws in coming to what is now Texas before the Anglo settlers declared independence from Mexico and formed their own nation, which later became the 28th state.
Today there are long stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border with fences and high-tech surveillance, not to mention thousands of Border Patrol agents. In the 1830's Mexico didn't have the resources to keep out the hordes of Americans pouring into Texas.
"The Mexican government was very lax. It allowed to let things get out of hand," said Jesus F. de la Teja, director of the Center for the Study of the Southwest at Texas State University. "Since the colonists had gotten a pretty good chunk of the loaf, they wanted the whole thing.”
Their stories can be found among thousands of yellowing documents at the Land Office, where Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson — a Republican who has already announced his intention to run for lieutenant governor in 2014 — gains inspiration for his moderate views on immigration reform.
Long before President Obama’s re-election, after which prominent Republicans said their party needed to show Hispanics a gentler position on immigration reform, Patterson used Texas history to promote a softer and more nuanced view of what to do with people who have come here without work papers.
At Republican clubs around the state, he tells them that the first immigrants were white Americans — and that many of them were here illegally.
“We have a long tradition of immigration and illegal immigration, and the first illegals were folks who look a lot more like me than they did some native Tejano,” Patterson said. The commissioner, who favors an international guest-worker program, said all the issues that divide many Texans and Mexicans today — such as amnesty, cultural and linguistic assimilation, and deportation — divided them back then. But their roles are now reversed.
“The simplistic bumper sticker immigration policy is not in the best interest of the United States and we have a history that proves up that absolutes don’t necessarily work,” Patterson said.