Are Illegal Immigrants Pioneers?

The Irony of American History

 Breaking the law is a terrible thing, except when it isn’t. Listening to politicians call for the criminalization of today’s illegal immigrants, one would never guess that the forebears of some of those same politicians, and of many of their constituents as well, may have participated in an almost identical story of lawbreaking. Much of the territory of the United States was, after all, settled by illegal squatters, hundreds of thousands of people who disregarded federal law in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Indeed, many of the current residents of Mississippi, Alabama, Indiana, Illinois, and other states between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains trace their roots directly to those one-time criminals we now laud as “pioneers.” Squatting, on both public and private lands, was also common in California and other Western states.

As I have written in the Washington Post (April 16, 2006), during the first half of the nineteenth century, the federal government hoped to use its vast Western territories to pay off the national debt by auctioning the lands to the highest bidders, typically Northeastern land speculators. Settlers making their way west to start a new life considered this policy to be a serious injustice. Speculators often held land off the market for years,...

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About the Author

Eduardo Moisés Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subjects of property and land use law.