When Colorado Wanted To Build A Wall And Make (New) Mexico Pay
This election year, we’ve heard a lot about border security.
As Donald Trump has said: “We can do a wall, we’re gonna have a big fat beautiful door right in the middle of the wall. We’re going to have people come in, but they’re going to come in legally - and Mexico is going to pay for the wall.”
Hillary Clinton has questioned that vision, instead calling for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Yet in 2006, when she was a U.S. Senator for New York, she voted for a law to create 700 miles of border fence.
In Colorado, the idea of sealing the border isn’t exactly new. In the 1930s, Gov. Edwin C. Johnson – or “Big Ed” – wanted to build a wall of sorts between Colorado and a Mexico.
New Mexico, to be precise.
State historian Patty Limerick, who is also the chair of the board at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center of the American West, joined Erin O’Toole to shed light on the policies of “Big Ed.” Limerick is also KUNC News’ resident historian.
So who was Big Ed?
PATTY LIMERICK: He was a Democrat, [but] very opposed to the New Deal, struggling with federal authority repeatedly on many different issues. One of the ways that Big Ed Johnson rejected federal authority was on issues of immigration.
Initially, he wrote a number of letters to federal authorities saying, 'Please, you must save us from these aliens; we have aliens coming into Colorado and they’re disrupting opportunities for legitimate Coloradans to get jobs. Aliens and indigent persons, we have an invasion,’ he said – to use that kind of language.
So he wrote to the federal government, and did not get satisfaction. Did not get responses that he found to be valuable. So in 1936 — on April 18th — he said he was going to take action; he would jump right in and proclaim martial law and order the Colorado National Guard to seal Colorado’s southern border with New Mexico. Not Mexico — not the nation — but close the border with New Mexico.
He wanted to seal the border between Colorado and New Mexico? What happened?
LIMERICK: So on April 20, Gen. Neil Kimball had set up Camp Johnson near Raton Pass. He was stopping people in cars. As you came up to that camp there was a sign that said ‘Martial Law — Slow-Stop.’
He and his troops were checking people and were sending people with little money or non-citizens back to New Mexico. There were Guardsmen stopping trains and taking indigents — what they considered indigents — off the trains and having them walk back to New Mexico.
There were airplanes monitoring the state borders; Gen. Kimball also sent spies into New Mexico to anticipate the movements of these people. It’s really quite a remarkable thing.
What was the response?
LIMERICK: The New Mexico political figures were pretty smart about how they responded. They responded fast and forcefully and said they did not think this was the right thing to be doing, and the New Mexico governor took the angle of saying, ‘Well, then we’ll just prohibit imports from Colorado;’ and that, in fact, created some unhappiness on the part of Colorado farmers who had products they wanted to market. So there was this kind of fine, instant, ‘turnabout is fair play’ – okay, you want to do that to us, let’s see what it can do to you.
So by April 30 — just 10 days into this, we’ll say, experiment — Gov. Johnson lifted martial law and made a most preposterous and amusing announcement. And I’m quoting: ‘Colorado has always been a good neighbor and we must not alienate the friendship of our sister states.’ Some Coloradans were not happy with this action.
And yet it was also a time where, for instance, at that very time there was a group putting bright orange placards around the state that had the words this was a ‘Warning to all Mexican and all other aliens to leave the state of Colorado, by order of Colorado state vigilantes.’ So there certainly were people who were not only supporting Ed Johnson, but moving past Ed Johnson’s position in terms of citizen threats and citizen activism.
And in some ways this border thing has some comic opera qualities with how peculiar this is, to set up this thing between two states and then act as if it carried authority. And of course it’s not within the constitutional powers of a state to do such a thing.
The whole incident only lasted about 10 days. What happened after that – did the issue ever get resolved?
LIMERICK: Apparently not. It’s 2016 and we’re still in there, still trying to figure out how. The Supreme Court has had a couple of interesting decisions about the powers of states and localities to regulate immigration. All those questions about what local police forces can do in the way of targeting suspected illegal aliens.
I would say there’s a very clear constitutional reality that immigration is a federal domain, an area of federal jurisdiction. But the whole big question of federalism and how much power could still remain in the hands of states and municipalities and counties and so on – occasionally still just flares up. It’s still an unsettled question about what politicians responding to audible citizen complaint might try to do.
It’s nothing to go calm and accepting of saying, ‘Well that got worked out – Big Ed Johnson, April 30, 1936 – he dropped his campaign to close the border between Colorado and New Mexico and made a nice statement about being good neighbors, and that settled that.’
What it means to be a good neighbor, one state to another but also one nation to another, that – we’re still working on that.