IEHS Online

Bryan Winston, “Contesting Immigration Incarceration: How the Mexican Consulate in St. Louis Worked to Free Migrants”

On December 11, 1911, a court in Johnson County, Iowa found Enrique Betancourt guilty of larceny. A week later, he was incarcerated at the Reformatory in Anamosa, Iowa, sentenced for five years. Betancourt, who only arrived in the United States in October of 1910 and worked at a quarry, might have served the sentence out had he not been a Mexican national. The Mexican embassy and consular corps intervened on his behalf, seeking information on his status. In April 1912, the Mexican consul of St. Louis contacted the Iowa Secretary of State and exchanged letters with the Iowa Board of Parole, the warden of the Reformatory in Anamosa, and with Betancourt himself. In these communications, the St. Louis consul, with the backing of the Mexican government, undertook the slow process of freeing Enrique Betancourt.

This unexpected case demonstrates how both Mexican migrants and Mexican officials initiated deportations and repatriations that operated outside the official parameters of U.S. immigration policy and enforcement. By expanding our view beyond official U.S. policies and actions to include these interventions, we can rethink how immigration policy is enforced, revealing structures of binational cooperation and highlighting how the needs and desires of migrants themselves determine the outcomes of policy. Betancourt’s case, part of my dissertation research situated in the early-twentieth century Lower Midwest, helps us center migrants themselves in our history of the last 100-plus years of U.S. immigration policy. Gaining a clearer view of migrants’ humanity, we can perhaps offer alternatives to the policies of deportation and incarceration that have become so dominant in recent years, accelerating under the Trump administration.

The intricacies of Betancourt’s case are instructive. The Board of Parole officially commuted Betancourt’s sentence on October 15th, 1913, a year and half after the initial inquiry by the St. Louis consul. Five days later, the St. Louis consul reported to the Mexican embassy that Betancourt, accompanied by a representative of the Iowa government, was in transit to Laredo, Texas. After eighteen months of negotiation, Iowa state and the Mexican consul repatriated Enrique Betancourt without any involvement from federal U.S. immigration officials. Iowa released Betancourt before he had served his complete sentence, while the federal government relinquished its deportation power to the Mexican consulate. The transnational connections initiated by Betancourt and empowered by the Mexican government offer one example of the many ways Mexican migrants contested their incarceration and U.S. federal government efforts to control migration. Mexican officials consistently monitored immigration control and intervened on behalf of Mexican citizens.

Historians of immigration have shown that migrants themselves changed and mitigated U.S. policy enforcement, finding possibilities, technicalities, and lifelines to subvert official efforts to deny the freedom of movement of migrants. Whether it was Chinese migrants who developed the paper-son system to undermine racist restrictions at the turn of the twentieth century or Mexican migrants who briefly touched land on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border to clear their immigration status during the 1950s, migrants to the United States have found a number of tactics to assert their humanity in the face of restrictive immigration policy.

As my work shows, Mexican migrants residing in the states of Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa during the early-twentieth century were often able to repatriate on their own terms or remain in the United States with support from their own community organizing and local relief services. Mexican migrants–like Betancourt–were often able to call on their government to avoid the more severe punishments associated with their status as a marginalized group. His case shows that in the historical record, there are alternatives to a hardening border and intransigent enforcement that threatens the lives of migrants, whether recent arrivals or long-term residents of the United States. When migrants and their countries of origin use their voice and power to contest official U.S. policy, outcomes other than incarceration and involuntary deportation are possible.

Today, Trump is doubling down on carceral immigration policy accelerating since the 1980s that denies the humanity of migrants. Looking into Mexican archives and the oral histories of Mexican migrants themselves shows how migrants and state officials constructed alternatives to U.S. immigration policy. We neglect these stories and alternatives at our peril.

Bryan Winston is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history at Saint Louis University. Bryan’s dissertation, “Mexican Corridors: Migration and Community Formation in the Central United States, 1900-1950,” examines ethnic Mexican mobility, cultural adaptation, and transnational organizing in the Lower Midwest during the first half of the twentieth century. For more on his research, visit his website and look for his forthcoming article, “Mexican Community Formation in Nebraska, 1910-1950,” in the Spring 2019 issue of Nebraska History. He tweets @bwins35.