On recent Saturdays, Garrison Avenue in Fort Smith across from the farmers’ market has been the gathering place of a growing group who advocate a harsh crackdown on undocumented immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Although I completely disagree with their message, it is every American’s right to assemble and protest.

People driving by honk to show their support for these protesters. In my view of America, anyone who admires the United States enough to see it as the land of opportunity, who is willing to contribute to the workforce, who only wants to provide a better life and education for their families, and simply seek citizenship should be welcomed into our borders.

Living conditions for millions of people coming from south of our border are intolerable. What many Americans seem to disregard is the value of those lives and what they have been through. They risk their lives to escape extreme poverty and/or violence.

At one of their recent protests, children could be heard chanting "Remember the Alamo." I agree that we should always remember what happened there, but history tells us that the events leading up to the Alamo and the goal of Texan independence included an illegal migration of American settlers into Mexican territory.

The Alamo was originally built in 1744 as a Spanish mission in what is now Texas. Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 after over a decade of war to escape a repressive government and, among other things, abolish slavery.

Soon Americans, mostly southern, started seeking opportunity in the Mexican territory of Texas. Although Mexico issued land grants to select individuals beginning in 1821, there was an estimated 3,000 illegal American immigrants by 1823. Mexico later opened its border to allow legal immigration in 1825 with the requirements that settlers pledge loyalty to the Mexican government, learn the Spanish language, and convert to Roman Catholicism. However, these requirements were largely ignored and fearing a rebellion, the Mexican government passed a law banning immigration between 1830 and 1834. During this time, American immigrants continued to illegally migrate into Mexican territory by the thousands.

Factors that led to the war for Texan independence from Mexico included many economic, cultural and religious concerns and the idea that it was America’s "Manifest Destiny" to expand its territory. One major point of conflict was that many Americans who settled there brought slaves with them in violation of Mexican law. For fear of losing their slaves, the settlers persuaded the Mexican government to make an exception in their case by calling the slaves indentured servants instead. Still fearful of losing their slaves due to the shifting political climate in Mexico, the settlers revolted and won their independence in 1836 as the Republic of Texas and joined the United States in 1845 as a slave state. Lasting only six months, the casualties of the war for Texan independence are estimated to total 2,500 Mexicans and 860 Texans. At the Battle of the Alamo alone, it is estimated that 182-257 Texans lost their lives while 400-600 Mexicans were killed or wounded.

Possibly, the protesters in Fort Smith do not realize that many early Texans were illegal immigrants to Mexico. The current Texas land commissioner, Jerry Patterson, a Republican now running for lieutenant governor, believes that Hispanics deserve to be treated more fairly in regard to immigration policy. He has studied historical land records and has come to this conclusion: "We have a long tradition of immigration and illegal immigration, and the first illegals were folks who look a lot more like me than they did some native Tejano."

There are many misconceptions surrounding the impact that immigration has on the American economy. The idea that every undocumented worker is taking a job that an unemployed American could have had is simply false. Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah have all passed strict immigration laws that have negatively impacted their state economies, most notably in the agricultural sector.

The effect of removing or scaring away undocumented workers has already had a devastating outcome: crops have been left to rot because many unemployed Americans are unwilling or unable to perform those tasks. In Georgia for instance, the strict immigration policies led to a loss of at least $74.9 million because 40 percent of the total workforce had been scared away by the anti-immigration laws. The impact of such laws, if pursued nationwide, is estimated to cost the American agricultural sector as much as $60 billion over the next five years, as well as increase food prices by 5 to 6 percent according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Also, it is commonly believed that undocumented immigrants are a drain on state budgets. In 2006, the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts conducted the first "financial analysis of the impact of undocumented immigrants on a state’s budget and economy, looking at gross state product, revenues generated, taxes paid and the cost of state services." The analysis concluded: "The comptroller’s office estimates the absence of the estimated 1.4 million undocumented immigrants in Texas in fiscal 2005 would have been a loss to our gross state product of $17.7 billion. Also, the comptroller’s office estimates that state revenues collected from undocumented immigrants exceed what the state spent on services, with the difference being $424.7 million."

Instead of slamming the door on people in a desperate situation, it would be much more beneficial to expand our guest worker program and utilize their desire to be productive members of American society. As Land Commissioner Patterson described it: "The simplistic bumper sticker immigration policy is not in the best interest of the United States and we have a history that proves up that absolutes don’t necessarily work."

Eric Black