Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Lessons of the Conquistadors

By David G. Young

ST AUGUSTINE, FL, April 4, 2000 --  

When French migrants began arriving north of this former Spanish colonial outpost over 400 years ago, Spain trembled at the thought of losing its political and cultural dominion over Florida. As a result, the Spanish armed forces acted with brutal efficiency. Within six months of the arrival of a ship carrying 600 Protestant Frenchmen in 1565, Spanish troops had hunted down and killed over 250 of them. These immigration control tactics proved successfulSpain enjoyed domination of the Florida peninsula for the next two centuries.

A similar situation faces the United States today along its southern border. Millions of Catholic, Spanish-speaking immigrants have transformed the southwestern regions of Protestant, English-speaking America in ways that make many Americans as uncomfortable as the Spanish crown centuries ago. The United States' brutal anti-immigration laws have fought this influx by denying civil liberties to millions of immigrants living on American soil1, indefinitely imprisoning immigrants facing deportation2, and hunting down migrants like animals, killing them when necessary.

Such harsh actions might make the conquistadors proud, but they have no place in a country that serves as a beacon of freedom and human rights to the rest of the world. Fortunately, a civilian group opposed to the storm trooper tactics of the Border Patrol is in a position to do something about it. The Kenedy Foundation, an organization that owns a sprawling ranch near the Mexican border in Texas, notified the Border Patrol on March 17 that it will no longer allow it to pursue migrants on its property to the the agency's violation of human rights.3

The foundation was prompted to bar the forces after a series of particularly brutal incidents. In addition to the usual cases of hunting migrants with teams of dogs and off-road vehicles, Border Patrol agents twice struck down immigrants with agency vehicles during the month of March.4 In each case, the victim survived with medical treatment, but it nevertheless proved to be too much for the Kenedy foundation directors. The Border Patrol, in a typical fascist-inspired move, has said it may seize the ranch as allowed by immigration law if the owners continue their refusal to collaborate.

Such aggressive, anti-American behavior might come close to being justifiable if it had any practical effect. But these tactics have thus far done nothing to stem the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States. All they have managed to do is terrorize the migrants as well as citizens who live near the border.

Harch immigration enforcement has indirectly led to an increase in the use of black-market migration brokers who traffic in human cargo. The brokers arrange for Border Patrol-evading transportation and jobs in exchange for a large fee -- often repaid with an agreement to work in indentured servitude. A CIA report recently leaked to the New York Times estimates that 50,000 women and children arrive in the United States each year via brokers who force them to work as slaves in brothels, sweatshops, and private households.5 These migrants have no legal recourse for their predicament as notifying authorities would certainly lead to their deportation.

Congress is considering legislation that would toughen penalties for trafficking in human cargo, but this is the wrong solution. Americans must wake up to the fact that it is repressive immigration laws that force people to take such drastic measures to seek opportunities in the United States. Relaxing immigration controls is the only way to halt the brutal measures taken by both the Border Patrol and the traffickers in human cargo.

Given the roaring economy in the United States, the time is ripe to seek a change in immigration law. Unemployment is at its lowest point in decades, lessening the often heard objection from labor activists that more immigration will take needed jobs away from Americans. If America can't afford to grant basic human rights to immigrants in an era of 4.1 percent unemployment6, then when can it?

The status quo must be abandoned. It fails to keep out immigrants, yet leads to unspeakable misery for those seeking a better life. America must choose between relaxed immigration controls that acknowledge the dignity and human rights of migrants, or even harsher penalties that emulate the horrific tactics taken by the Spanish conquistadors in St. Augustine.


  1. Young, David G., Constitutional Apartheid, March 9, 1999
  2. CBS News, 60 Minutes, March 26, 2000
  3. The New York Times, Border Patrol Steps Over the Line on Ranch, April 2, 2000
  4. Ibid.
  5. The New York Times, Vast Trade in Forced Labor Portrayed in CIA Report, April 2, 2000
  6. The Economist, Economic Indicators, March 25, 2000