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  • Saving the Nation Through Exclusion: Alien Laws in the Early Republic in the United States and Mexico
  • Erika Pani (bio)

In 1798, the U.S. Congress enacted a series of laws that affected resident aliens by restricting their access to citizenship and making those deemed to be “dangerous to the peace and safety of the Unites States” subject to deportation at the will of the Executive.1 In 1827, the Mexican government enacted the first of three laws for the expulsion of Spaniards, which ordered the removal of those born on the Spanish peninsula. In both cases, these laws went against the premises for membership that the young nations had set after independence. In both cases, it was argued that such violent measures were necessary to save the nation. As such, they suggest that even though the modern nation is often described as a subjective community, linked by horizontal bonds of solidarity,2 few mechanisms are as effective in forging an “us” than the construction of a hostile “them.”

This article explores this darker side of nation building; that which, as in these two cases, creates a domestic—and consequently more dangerous—“other” against which we define ourselves. It will only marginally address the ways in which political community was envisioned. It will not tell rich, colorful tales of how a historically inaccurate shared past—of the nation having “suffered, enjoyed and hoped together”—came to be held in common. It will not speak of a community “invented” through patriotic song and celebration, through newspapers, images, novels, maps, museums, and censuses.3 It will [End Page 217] focus instead on how, in the midst of crisis and fierce partisan struggle, politicians pushed for legal norms of inclusion or exclusion, motivated by political expediency rather than idealized visions of citizenship. It is a story in which national identity is less a way that people think about themselves than a juridical status, a bond of law between State and individual.4 Belonging to the political community is perceived as a basis for claims-making rather than for sentimental attachment.5 It is, then, a story of laws rather than of ballads; of exclusion enforced rather than of community imagined.6

We will tell this story by analyzing the efforts of two young American nations who, within a decade of setting themselves up as federal republics, sought to purge themselves of allegedly dangerous foreign elements. We will look at the United States’ alien and naturalization laws of 1798 and Mexico’s 1827 law for the expulsion of Spaniards as snapshots that freeze the nation-building process so that it can be dissected, as they allow us to explore the contentious mechanisms through which xenophobia became legitimized and institutionalized, and nativism crystallized into law. This article will examine the power play that, in the context of competitive politics, led to the particular conceptions of one of the contending parties becoming the legal norm and [End Page 218] the ways it shaped how these laws were executed. It will explore the jurisdictional conflicts that, in the context of federation, arose around the issues of citizenship and immigration and throw light on how these confrontations were resolved. The comparison between these two cases, with their differences and similarities, will clue us into why, within the broad, collective process of nation-building, different paths were taken.

If the comparative exercise is considered to be more useful when tracking similarities—rather than working with apples and oranges—comparing the experiences of the prosperous, expansive “Colossus of the North,” with those of its unstable, diminished, impoverished neighbor may seem futile.7 On paper the United States and Mexico seem close to Marc Bloch’s paradigm for successful comparisons: “societies that are at once neighboring and contemporary, exercising a constant mutual influence, exposed throughout their development to the action of the same broad causes . . . and owing their existence in part at least to a common origin,” but the chasm that separates the two realities seems too great. The “distant neighbors” have embodied, above all, radical difference, radically simplified: the opposition between Spanish and British legacies in the New World, between Protestantism and Catholicism, modernity and backwardness, American success and Mexican...