In January 1914 Pancho Villa’s army was slowly closing in on the outnumbered Mexican federal forces defending the city of Ojinaga, just across the Rio Grande from the Texas town of Presidio. Villa, the colorful Mexican revolutionary, was ruthless with soldiers and civilians loyal to the dictatorial and murderous President Victoriano Huerta, executing any who were captured. The dead littered a plateau near Ojinaga, and The New York Times described buzzards “wheeling overhead lazy on their feasts of human flesh.” A “stream of suffering humanity” traveled the “Camino del Muerto—the road of death” to a river crossing into Texas, where an El Paso physician had set up a refugee hospital. When the federal collapse came, General Salvador Mercado led 3,300 Mexican soldiers and 1,269 women and children on a march to Marfa. The U.S. government moved the refugees to El Paso, where the soldiers were interred at Fort Bliss, but the women and children were allowed their freedom in the city.
“I hope the world will understand,” General Mercado said, “that our flight was on the grounds of humanity, to save the lives of women and children as well as soldiers who ran out of ammunition. The rebels would have killed us. What is to become of us? I do not know. We shall wait and see.”
Mercado’s men and women were not the only refugees from the Mexican Revolution to make their way to Texas. A wagon train of almost 1,000 people stopped in Beeville, where local farmers put the men to work clearing fields. U.S. citizens living in Mexico fled the violence by boat and landed in Galveston.
Tens of thousands of immigrants have come to Texas to escape persecution or political violence, and Texans have often offered their hearts, lands and money to the dispossessed. What has changed that makes it so easy for Governor Greg Abbott to declare Texas closed to Syrian refugees fleeing the murderous violence of ISIS and other rebel factions in their homeland? (Of course, Abbott cannot keep Syrian refugees out of Texas, but he can make certain the state does not cooperate in their re-location.) I spent a few minutes searching old newspaper archives to see how Texas handled refugees in the past.
When Russia began a purge of Jews in 1888, a Texan named J.B. Brown offered to give 100 acres of land to each Jewish family who wanted to relocate to Motley County on the plains of West Texas. Similarly, in 1939, a search was made around Texas for land that might be purchased for the relocation of European Jews. The city of Plainview notified Governor James Allred that 46,000 acres could be made immediately available if needed. There’s no evidence that any families took these offers, but the offers were at least made.
In 1956, when Hungarians revolted against oppressive Soviet control, people in Dallas welcomed refugees. Eighty-seven were greeted at Love Field by a local delegation, with the Southern Methodist University band playing the Hungarian national anthem, and the Lone Star flag of Texas joined by the national flags of the United States and Hungary. As The Dallas Morning News reported: “Refugees from blood-drained Hungary representing such diverse occupations as laborers, musicians, teachers, knitters and typists, Saturday will land in hospitable Dallas—their peaceful haven after bloody riots.” However, one group of six refugees had refused to come to Dallas because they believed the city was still the Wild West that they had seen in Hollywood movies. It was our violence they feared, not us fearing theirs.
(Indeed, Dallas continues to exhibit its welcoming spirit. The Morning News reported yesterday that Mayor Mike Rawlings said “he didn’t see what authority any mayor or governor had to keep legal U.S. residents out of a city or state. He said no one has contacted him about Syrian refugees but, if they did, it would be ‘the spirit of Dallas’ to help in a crisis.”)
When Cuban refugees started arriving in 1961, Texas Methodists, Baptists and the Catholic Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth organized to find them new homes and new jobs. “No church is too small to help meet the refugee problem,” the Texas Methodist wrote in an editorial. Will the churches of Texas be as welcoming to the Syrians now?
Similarly, Texas Quakers and Catholics in 1982 organized an underground railroad to help those fleeing violence in El Salvador find refuge in Texas by going around federal immigration officials. At one point, it was estimated that 25,000 Salvadorans were living illegally in Houston alone. Both sides in El Salvador’s civil war engaged in terroristic acts and death squads. Nothing could guarantee that some terrorists had not entered the country, nothing except the belief that most, if not all, of these people simply wanted to live their lives in peace, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In the 1970s, Texas welcomed 27,000 refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia.
The only instances I could find in the archives of Texans rejecting refugees both occurred in 1981. The city of Big Spring objected when the federal government moved 99 Haitians to a detention facility there. In East Texas, people complained that they didn’t want 2,000 Cuban refugees from the Mariel boatlift. Most of the refugees who still needed placement were young, single men, and East Texas leaders said there were not enough jobs. But, as now, there was an element of fear because Fidel Castro was known to have released criminals from prison to join the boatlift. In the end, the Cubans were relocated elsewhere.
Abbott’s rationale in a letter to President Obama for rejecting refugees from Syria is based on fear of a repeat of the Paris attacks. “American humanitarian compassion could be exploited to expose Americans to similar deadly danger.” Abbott went on to say:
“The threat posted to Texas by ISIS is very real. ISIS claimed credit last May when two terrorists gunmen launched an attack in Garland, Texas. Less than two weeks later, the FBI arrested an Iraqi-born man in North Texas and charged him with lying to federal agents about traveling to Syria to fight with ISIS. And in 2014, when I served as Texas attorney general, we participated in a Joint Terrorism Task Force that arrested two Austin residents for providing material support to terrorists, including ISIS.”
The two men killed in the Garland incident were both born as U.S. citizens. One was from an Illinois suburb called Westmont, and the other from Dallas. They were roommates in Phoenix when they became radicalized and travelled to Garland to attack an anti-Muslim group. The Iraqi-born man arrested in Mesquite was trying to join ISIS in Syria. As for the two Austin men arrested on charges that they were recruiting fighters for ISIS, one was a naturalized citizen from Bangladesh and the other was native-born in Houston. Both were sentenced to prison earlier this year, one will be free in six years and the other in ten years.
The most stunning act of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism was Major Nidal Hasan’s attack at Fort Hood that killed 13 people and injured 30 others. Hasan was a native of Arlington, Virginia.
What these cases prove is that home-grown terrorists can be as big of a threat as foreign refugees. All the Paris terrorists were home-grown except possibly one. Nothing can guarantee our safety or guard against someone sneaking into the refugee pipeline, but most of these refugees are victims of war and many are escaping Muslims who are killing other Muslims for not being strict enough in their faith or for following alternative Islamic teachings. As with the Cubans of the Mariel boatlift, the Syrians can be held in detention until screened, and while that is not perfect, it provides some assurance we’ve tried to weed out infiltrators.
Rather than living in fear, perhaps we could find inspiration in the Dallasites who 60 years ago welcomed the Hungarian refugees in the spirit of humanitarianism.