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A debate destined for defeat 

City Sage

Remember learning about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed by the U.S. and Mexico on Feb. 2, 1848? If you do, congrats — few Americans do. Most Mexicans are bitterly aware that the treaty required a conquered Mexico to cede 55 percent of its territory to its northern neighbor.

It's more accurate to describe the treaty as a surrender document. At the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, Mexico's army was broken, and American troops occupied the capitol. Remember the first words of the Marine Corps anthem? ("From the halls of Montezuma...")

The treaty called for the U.S. to pay $15 million to Mexico and to pay off certain claims of American citizens against Mexico. It effectively ratified the earlier U.S. annexation of the Republic of Texas, and handed over California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and parts of Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming to the United States.

How is this 167-year-old treaty relevant today?

The lands thus acquired by the United States were not empty and unpopulated, but settled by Mexican citizens. As the treaty was debated in Congress, two competing views of America's "Manifest Destiny" emerged.

One faction believed that we ought to annex Mexico, giving every Mexican legal American citizenship and conferring the benefits of liberty upon our defeated foes.

Another faction disagreed. In a speech before the Senate, the eminent South Carolina Sen. (and former Vice President) John C. Calhoun opposed such a course in blatantly racist terms.

"[We] have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race — the free white race," said Calhoun. "To incorporate Mexico would be the very first instance of the kind of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. ... It has been urged in a very respectable quarter, that it is the mission of this country to spread civil and religious liberty over all the world, and especially over this continent. It is a great mistake."

That speech, stripped of its overtly racist arguments, could have been delivered last month at the first Republican presidential debate. It expresses ideas that underlie American nativist sentiments (not to mention those of Europeans overwhelmed by migrants) and ridiwcules the "respectable" idealists who want "to spread civil and religious liberty over all the world."

In a frightening and disorderly world, it's easy to demonize the penniless refugee and the "illegal" immigrant. You build walls, not gates, and you keep the rest of the world out. You control change and isolate your country.

That doesn't work. The Soviet Union secured its borders to keep its citizens in and keep freedom out. Iran and North Korea do the same thing. Japan is in decline, with its low birth rate on track to cause that country's population to shrink dramatically in coming years.

Yet it can be reasonably argued that the U.S. ought to close its gates to the tired, the poor and the wretched refuse of so many teeming shores. But what about the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already here?

Consider certain provisions of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

The suddenly stateless inhabitants of Alta California, New Mexico and other forcibly annexed territories were given the choice of relocating or receiving American citizenship with full civil rights. Ninety percent chose to become U.S. citizens, retaining their lands and property.

The lands we seized from a weak and corrupt Mexico are now home to more than 100 million people. President James Polk's war of conquest created much of today's United States.

Between 1830 and 1850, America's population almost doubled, rising from 12 million to more than 23 million. Polk, an obscure Southerner who owed his election to the votes of recent immigrants, was apparently unbothered by the racial makeup and mixed loyalties of his new citizens.

It's dismaying to learn that he owned slaves.

But it's far more dismaying to realize that the Republican presidential hopefuls who will debate each other again Sept. 16 on CNN are less liberal in some respects than a Southern slave owner 167 years ago.

In his will, Polk freed his slaves. I doubt any of the GOP's top 11 will, in life or death, give the freedom of citizenship to the undocumented.

  • History repeats itself.

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