Jon Michael Haynes
Excerpted Wrom: UCDDJBLVLMHAALPTCXLYRWTQTIPWIGYOKSTT
Saying We're Sorry? New Federal
Legislation and the Forgotten Promises of the Treaty of Guadalupe
Hidalgo , 3 Scholar: St. Mary's Law Review on Minority Issues 231-264,
232-236 (Spring 2001)(221 footnotes omitted)
Recently in Texas, Mexican-American families have begun to fight for
the return of their ancestral lands, lands taken from them throughout
decades of injustice at the hands of
predominantly Anglo courts. In fact, the
entire Southwest has seen a slow but steady rise in the number of active
voices calling for accountability and compensation for the theft of land
formerly granted under Spanish and Mexican rule.
Only a handful of these claims have resulted in successful outcomes for
Mexican Americans; and of these, none were based on the seemingly
forgotten promises of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was ratified in 1848, ending the war
between Mexico and the United States and effectively handing over
control of the modern Southwest from Mexico to the United States. Under
the terms of the Treaty, Mexican property holders were to retain full
enjoyment and protection of their property as if they were citizens of
the United States. Furthermore, where there existed any doubt as to
whether property was validly owned or not, the laws under which these
grants of land were made were to control. Thus, where there was an issue
concerning the title to real property, Spanish or Mexican title should
have been sufficient to prove ownership according to the terms of the
Treaty. However, as claims began to arise citing the protection of the
Treaty, the United States government and judiciary continually managed
to deny these claims through a combination of legislation and judicial
Due to the Treaty's unenforceability and an historic inability to
adjudicate claims in American courts under other existing legal
those bringing land-related claims under the Treaty have recently turned
their attention to the federal legislature.
To date, there have been only a small number of bills introduced in
Congress that examine the validity of these claims and propose some form
of restitution to dispossessed landowners and their descendants.
In 1997, House Resolution 2538 sought to create a presidential
commission to determine the validity of these claims.
Additionally, a bill introduced before the Senate in 1998 proposed to
acknowledge these property claims outright and to develop a method to
compensate the dispossessed families.
Neither of these potential measures ascended beyond bill status.
Nevertheless, their existence evidences a measure of hope for
dispossessed landowners and their descendants as it demonstrates an
increasing acknowledgement of the history of these lands by the United
States government. Such proposed legislation also signifies the overdue
recognition that citizens of the United States have been denied rights
guaranteed to them for a period exceeding 150 years. Finally, in 2000,
Senate Bill 2022 was introduced in the 106th Congress.
In drafting the proposed legislation, Congress *234 made findings
which recognized that the loss of property subsequent to the war with
Mexico has had serious repercussions in the Mexican-American community
in the southwest United States. In
addition, the proposed legislation specifically questioned whether the
United States fulfilled its obligations under the Treaty.
Congress acknowledged that actions taken by the federal government as
well as the Territory of New Mexico in the mid to late nineteenth
century were central to the dispossession of Mexican American
landholders. The findings also indicated
a disparity in the outcomes of land grant adjudications in New Mexico
when compared to California. Although
not directly placing blame, the legislation questioned whether
adjudications in New Mexico were fairly and equitably administered.
Instead of squarely addressing the issue, however, the bill concludes
with a nebulous promise to remedy any "lingering injustice"
from the failure of the United States to meet its obligations under the
Treaty. The legislation provides that
alternative methods will be prepared and the President shall then submit
to Congress recommendations to resolve these claims within six months of
the submission of the GAO report.
The notable caveat is added that "[i]n no *235 event shall these
recommendations include the divestiture of private property
While the proposed legislation represents a long overdue
acknowledgement of the problem, it does not sufficiently address the
root of that problem. The proposed legislation fails to mention the
United States' blatant failure to adhere to the provisions of the Treaty
and only touches on the long history of social and economic oppression
that Mexican Americans have suffered as a result.
In addition, it is significant to note that Mexican
Americans are the only minority group in the United States, other than
Native Americans, to be annexed by conquest and to have their rights
allegedly safeguarded by treaty.
Therefore, while this overdue progress is necessary, there remains the
issue of accountability on the part of the federal government. It is
vital that an official apology be issued to those wrongfully and
illegally dispossessed of their property. Without this public apology,
no measure for righting the wrongs of the past can be considered
A general survey of this era in American history reveals one
constant: the United States, through an unwritten policy of territorial
expansionism via political and judicial avenues, has denied Mexican
Americans their Constitutional rights both as landowners and as citizens
in general. In addition, the history of
the Treaty and the United States' subsequent failure *236 to adhere to
the Treaty's spirit and intent reveals a microcosm of race relations
throughout United States history.
This comment illustrates one chapter of this history; a history of
accumulated injustices premised upon racist notions and fueled by
self-serving political and judicial institutions. In doing so, this
comment demonstrates the United States government's culpability for the
dispossession of Mexican- American landholders. More specifically, this
comment focuses on the federal government's and judiciary's actions
subsequent to ratification of the Treaty and
the 153 years of inequality under the law that have followed. By tracing
the political and legal history of the Southwest, this comment makes
evident the underlying force behind this era of injustice--United States
economic policy. This comment specifically illustrates the United
States' desire to acquire and control land.
The war, Treaty, federal legislation, and judicial opinions that
followed have all resulted in the dispossession of Mexican-American
landholders and the simultaneous enrichment of White America. A survey
of the relevant historical, political, and judicial actions during the
middle to late nineteenth century demonstrates that the acquisition and
control of land was the primary factor behind the disenfranchisement of
Mexican Americans at the precise moment that they became a substantial
component of the population of the United States.