Who Owns the Land, Anyway?

If you go to YouTube and run a search on "UCLA Mexico immigrant," you can watch a video of Steve Gochez, a high school history teacher, giving a fiery speech on the UCLA campus urging the crowd to rebel against the U.S. and free its portion of "occupied Meh-hee-ko." Mr. Gochez is right insofar as the Southwest used to be Mexican territory. But it has been part of the United States for 162 years.

Following the Mexican War (1846-1848), the United States annexed one-third of Mexico's territory. If you count Texas, whose admission to the union in 1845 largely precipitated the war, we took well over half of Mexico. That would include Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah. So who holds title to any part of this planet we humans live on for a spell, this place we call home?

To start with the American Southwest, let's assume for the moment that the irredentists are right and that it should be ceded to Mexico. What gives the Mexican government a claim to this portion of the earth? This was Mexico for a mere 27 years -- just a single generation. In 1821, one could argue, the Mexican colonists stole New Spain from the Spanish, who had claimed title to it for nearly three centuries. So maybe it should revert to Spain? But wait: The Spanish took it from the Indians, or Native Americans, or indigenous peoples, or aboriginal inhabitants of North America. Ah, but which tribes should receive which parts?

The Indian tribes were not static, moving across great stretches of the continent over the millennia. To take just one example, today, people are most likely to associate the Cheyenne with Wyoming, but the tribe first appears in the historical record in the mid-seventeenth century at the French Fort Crevecoeur, near present-day Chicago. They were a sedentary and agricultural people, growing corn and beans, when pressure from the Assiniboine pushed them into what is today Minnesota and North Dakota. There they began hunting buffalo, but pressure from the Lakota and Ojibwa pushed them farther into the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Colorado.

I am fascinated when historians speak of a tribe moving due to "pressure" from another tribe. "Pressure" is simply a euphemism for "conflict," "warfare," "conquest," or the threat thereof. We may say that much of the movement of Native Americans was ultimately caused by pressure from Europeans. In fact, revisionists are busy painting the Americas before the advent of the white man as an earthly paradise (see, for example, Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise [1991]).

But there is plenty of evidence that tribes put pressure on each other long before Europeans arrived. Take, for example, the situation that Columbus found on Hispaniola, the first island he colonized. The dominant group on Hispaniola was the Taino, who subjugated the Ciboney, a docile people, using them for slave labor and pushing them to the western edge of the island. The Taino, in turn, were raided from the south by the Caribs, a fierce people originating in South America. The Caribs, being cannibals, were greatly feared by the Taino. Now the revisionists claim that the Caribs learned their warlike ways from the Spanish, but in fact, the Tainos and the Caribs were fighting long before the Europeans arrived (see Paolo Emilio Taviani, Columbus: The Great Adventure [1991]).

Take, for another example, the conquest of Mexico. How did Hernán Cortés manage to vanquish Tenochtitlán, a city of 200,000 and an empire of several millions, with just a few hundred men? There are many reasons, but an important one is that several of the tribes subjugated by the Aztec allied with Cortés. Why would they do that? The Aztec yoke was not light, and their way of war was not to kill in battle, but to capture their enemies alive and haul them back to the pyramids, where priests dressed in capes of human leather cut open their victims' breasts and tore out their still-beating hearts -- sacrifices carried out by the tens of thousands. By the way, the Aztecs did not learn that practice from Europeans, either. Such was the idyllic paradise of the New World before the advent of the white man (see Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture [2001]).

But let's grant, for argument's sake, the assertion that the U.S. should cede the Southwest to Mexico. If that is the case, then we should cede Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and the other original colonies to England, and all of us should migrate to our home countries. In my case, that would be England, with one leg going to Germany. But the English, mostly descending from the Germanic tribes of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, should cede England to the Celts and return to Denmark and Germany. The Celts, in turn, would also have to retire to the Continent, relinquishing the British Isles to the Picts and the Scots, if any could be found. And the other descendants of the Germanic tribes (the Dutch, Belgians, French, Germans, Austrians, Danes, Norwegians, Icelanders, and Swedes) should return to the Caucasus or Central Asia or wherever they originated. Eventually we should all have to return to east Africa.

In short, human history is the story of groups of people moving across vast distances, laying claim to territory, killing or subjugating the earlier inhabitants, intermingling with them, and moving on. The right by which any group lays claim to a piece of land is ultimately enforced by -- force.

So let's hear no more burbling about how "America is a nation of immigrants." The president said it again in his press conference the other day. The statement is as vapid as declaiming, "The waters of America -- our rivers and streams, our lakes and swamps, our bays and marshes -- are...are...wet!" Immigrants? I defy anyone to name a country, just one, of the 35 in North and South America that is not "a nation of immigrants." Is there one in Europe? The world? As far as I know, every country is "a nation of immigrants." So next time you hear someone say "America is a nation of immigrants," just laugh at him.

Then there are those who say, "What about your earliest ancestor? Did he come here on a visa?" No, he did not. Not an H1 or an H2 or an H4 or an F or an M or a B1 or a B2 or an H-1B or an L1 or an L2 or an O-1 or a P-1 or a P-3 or...well, no visa of any kind. He didn't have a driver's license, either. Looking at seventeenth-century immigration through the lens of twenty-first-century laws is as ignorant as asking if he cooked his food in a microwave, or declaring that "we are a nation of immigrants."

Coming back to the problem of U.S. borders and immigration, our present, de facto policy is deeply racist, for it allows practically unlimited immigration from one country while severely restricting access from the other 190 nations on this planet. My son-in-law is from India, and his sister cannot get a visa even to visit. I guess the government is afraid she would go underground and open a landscaping business. Then again, she is a lawyer, and maybe they feel the U.S. has too many of those. Actually, I feel that way, too.

Why does everyone want to come here? Money. Sure, freedom is a factor, but if we had the freedom of Switzerland and the per capita income of Somalia, it is safe to say that few would be banging on our gates for entry. No, it is money: The U.S. has 5% of the world's population but generates 20% of the world's economic activity. The vast majority of Americans are wealthy by global standards. To take just one measure of standard of living, the average American enjoys about 900 ft2 of living space, the average Briton or Frenchman less than half that, about 350 ft2 -- and the U.K. and France are first-world countries.

Even our poor are wealthy by world standards. We have 35 million people living below the official poverty line, yet the average American poor person lives in 430 ft2 of living space, again more than any Europeans except the Norwegians. That's the average German, Briton, and so on, not the average poor German or poor Briton. In fact, nearly half of the poor in this country own their own homes; most of them have at least one car, TV, refrigerator, stove, microwave, washer and dryer, stereo, air conditioning...the list goes on. Incidentally, these are U.S. government statistics, collected by the Census Bureau, Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, and so on.

So let's treat everyone the same: If you can get here, welcome. Let them all in, from each of the 191 other countries on this planet. Our population would soar from 300 million to -- 600 million? 900 million? 1 billion? 2 billion? Long before we reach such numbers, the present disparity we enjoy vis-à-vis the rest of the world will have long since disappeared. How many would volunteer to live in the 100 ft2 that the average Indian or Chinese lives in today? If you would, don't wait: Move your family into a single room dwelling. Now. Just do it. After all, we're all better off when we spread the wealth around. And that should lead to the "more just, verdant, and peaceful world" that the Macarthur Foundation ads on NPR keep chirping about.

Henry Percy is the nom de guerre for a technical writer living in Arizona. He may be reached at saler.50d@gmail.com.