The Specter of Compensation: Mexican Claims against the US Government, 1868–1941

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 11:40 AM
Columbia 11 (Washington Hilton)
Allison Powers Useche, Columbia University
This paper explains how Mexican nationals living in the United States used the 1923-1937 U.S.-Mexico General Claims Commission to argue that the American justice system violated international law. Although the Claims Commission was designed to de-politicize injustices carried out by one government against citizens of the other through compensating the market value of damages, hundreds of Mexican nationals turned to this international arbitration tribunal to argue that the American legal system fell short of the standard of civilization its lawyers advocated. As their denial of justice charges against the US accumulated, detailing episodes of police violence, land theft, involuntary servitude, and lack of basic legal protection, these claimants forced the tribunal to address the problem of how to deal with state actions that complied with American constitutional requirements, but violated the Law of Nations. When confronted with this question, American State Department lawyers devised a new strategy to ensure that claims like these would be disallowed. They pointed to a clause in Mexico’s 1886 Nationality Law mandating that all nationals residing in another country for more than ten years remain engaged in “productive economic activity,” and asserted that the majority of claimants against the US could not seek remedies in an international tribunal because they had lost their Mexican nationality by failing to remain economically productive while living abroad. In tracing these contests over commercial personhood, citizenship and statelessness, the presentation uncovers a forgotten moment of struggle over the limits and possibilities of international law to address structural injustices within the American legal system.
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