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History’s shadow at the Arizona border

Guest Blogger

The Arizona borderlands may be the site today of a high-profile immigration battle ostensibly ignited by inaction from Washington, but the territory is no stranger to taking matters into its owns hands when the federal government is perceived to balk. As Katherine Benton-Cohen, an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, chronicles in “Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands,” President Woodrow Wilson failed to respond to Arizona's border troubles in 1917, unleashing a strong local move.

By Katherine Benton-Cohen

When the federal government ignores Arizona’s cries for help at the border, the consequences are ugly. In 1881, Arizonans sent petitions to Washington complaining that the Chiricahua Apaches used the unprotected border to flee capture. Later that year, Arizona’s territorial governor asked for a “mounted border patrol,” and blamed the feds in part for the Shootout at the OK Corral, which he saw as part of a local attempt to stop American “Cowboys” whose raids and murders of Mexican citizens were straining commercial ties with its southern neighbor.

Then came the explosive summer of 1917. For three years Sheriff Harry Wheeler of Cochise County (recently the site of the murder of rancher Robert Krentz), had sent unanswered pleas to President Woodrow Wilson for help with violence spilling over from the Mexican Revolution.

In June of 1917, a strike by the notorious Industrial Workers of the World broke out in the copper mines of Bisbee, Arizona, eight miles from the border. Wheeler requested National Guard troops. Nada. The sheriff, aided by powerful copper-mining executives, appointed 2,200 temporary “deputies.” On the morning of July 12, they stormed through town, shotguns in hand, and rounded up over a thousand suspected strikers. The captives were piled into 23 boxcars belonging to a mining-company railroad, shipped nearly 200 miles east, and dumped into the middle of the New Mexico desert.

At last, the feds appeared. An Army camp rescued the “Bisbee deportees,” as they came to be known, and housed and fed them for up to two months. President Wilson appointed a federal mediation commission, with a young Felix Frankfurter as general counsel, to come to Arizona to investigate.

The sheriff claimed he had rounded up men based on their involvement in the strike, but he also admitted to federal investigators, “How could you separate one Mexican from another?” Bisbee had long been known as a “white man’s camp,” where no Chinese could live and the mines’ printed wage scales listed two columns, for “white” and “Mexican” (the latter earning as little as half what the former made, which was one of the reasons Mexicans went on strike in 1917).

The deportees were a diverse lot. Nine out of ten were immigrants, from at least 34 nations. But the Mexicans incited the most fears. “You eastern people haven’t had much experience with Mexicans,” the sheriff told investigators, “but…we figured they might do anything.” The feds clucked their tongues, but nothing happened to Wheeler.

In 1924, the federal government finally created the Border Patrol. It was tiny, but it began to enforce long-ignored requirements for head taxes, visas, and literacy tests. Some of its members belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Illegal immigration from Mexico, unnecessary before these rules, now grew.

The border as a racial line grew more distinct. During the Depression, Mexican Americans received smaller welfare benefits than did “whites,” and some who could not prove their citizenship were sent to Mexico. But Mexican Americans fought back, using federal anti-discrimination laws and union organizing. Bit by bit they dismantled the explicit racial wage differences.

Today, many Arizonans complain again of Mexicans who lower wages and threaten public safety. They say the federal government has ignored their cries, even though there are more Border Patrol agents than ever, undocumented migrant crossings have declined, and Mexico’s drug violence has, with rare exceptions, stayed south of the border.

In 1917, Sheriff Wheeler told federal investigators it had come down to “Are you an American, or are you not?” They condemned him for a question Arizona law-enforcement officers can now ask with impunity, according to the new state law. Maybe Sheriff Wheeler’s ghost is smiling. But no one else should be.

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By Steven E. Levingston  |  May 10, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: Illegal immigration, arizona immigration law, u.s. immigration  
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Next: War fever: 1898 and 2003


Nice piece of propaganda and yellow journalism. Selective reporting and history at it's very best.

Sorry, Steve .... but, people see right through your efforts to "spin" the facts and report the data the only supports your argument.

Posted by: richard36 | May 10, 2010 6:30 PM | Report abuse

And my great grandparents were discriminated against in the British Gold Coast. What the heck does any of this have to do with tea in China?

Posted by: cleancut77 | May 10, 2010 7:37 PM | Report abuse

When a Mexican army seized a small group of American sailors on shore leave in Mexico, President Wilson demanded an apology. He also demanded that Huerta publicly salute the American flag in Mexico, which Huerta naturally refused to do. Wilson responded with force: in April 1914, he sent American Marines to take and occupy Veracruz, Mexico's primary seaport. Veracruz was taken, but eighteen Americans were killed in the battle.

Wilson also sent General 'Black Jack' Pershing on a Punitive Expedition of 5,000 U.S. Army regulars to find Pancho Villa in Mexico.

America does not respect the Mexican border. We don't mind drug violence as long as it stays south of the border. Our drug laws bring shame to our country... and so do our current immigration laws.

Posted by: alance | May 10, 2010 8:06 PM | Report abuse

This is an example of a story that cherry picks facts to support the WaPo's editorial position in support of open borders. The following statement is patent nonsense. "there are more Border Patrol agents than ever, undocumented migrant crossings have declined, and Mexico’s drug violence has, with rare exceptions, stayed south of the border."

There may be more border patrol agents but they are less effective in stopping illegal aliens from crossing the border. Too many of them are at fixed checkpoints and not on patrol looking for the large groups being brought across the border every night.

It is impossible to check whether crossings have declined. Maybe arrests for crossing have declined, but how do you know how many illegal aliens who are not caught are stealing into this country?

It is only in comparison to Mexico's horrific drug violence that drug violence has largely stayed south of the border. I live in Tucson and every day there are assaults and murders over drugs by illegal aliens and of illegal aliens. It is far from rare. But drug violence is only one part of the crime that has been brought across the border. Phoenix is the kidnapping capitol of the country. The convictions of illegal aliens for violent felonies far exceeds their proportion of the population.

The Post has lost all credibility on this issue. But a majority of American voters have seen through the nonsense. We are saying the only reform to our immigration laws that is needed is their enforcement.

Posted by: kronberg | May 10, 2010 8:40 PM | Report abuse

The Bisbee deportation was about getting rid of the labor union in the mining camp (and also helped push the state of Arizona into becoming a "right to work" state). This was much more of a labor versus management issue than an immigration issue.

Posted by: cucowboy | May 11, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

It's true that border arrests have declined. But in 2009, the Border Patrol still arrested 241,000+ illegal aliens in the Tucson Sector alone, which covers only 262 miles of the border.

For each one arrested, it's estimated that 2-3 more get through. Do the math and that turns into 1500+ each day.

Imagine if any airport in the country was allowing 10 full flights per day from another country and not one of the passengers had been checked through security or customs. The outcry would be deafening.

And not all of those entering through Mexico are Mexicans. Some are from the middle east, Europe and Asia. In fact, the number of Chinese entering the country illegally is on the rise, as they're able to pay the coyotes a lot more than their Mexican counterparts.

Posted by: washpost48 | May 15, 2010 1:26 AM | Report abuse

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