Following the Mexican Revolution, the United States demanded that Mexico submit to an international claims commission created to award monetary compensation for instances in which the either state had failed to adequately protect life or property within its borders. State Department officials predicted that the tribunal would limit the redistributive effects of the 1917 revolutionary constitution by mandating full compensation for all foreign property expropriated. But the creation of the 1926 United States-Mexico Claims Commission had unanticipated consequences. This talk explores how hundreds of Mexican nationals residing in the United States turned to the tribunal to charge the US government with promoting illegal forms of racial violence and labor coercion. Mexican government lawyers then used their testimony to challenge the interpretative authority of the United States over the contents of international law, arguing that the US government had consistently violated the “standard of civilization” by allowing Mexican nationals to be murdered with impunity throughout the American Southwest. The talk considers how a forum designed to impose US legal standards abroad produced an unexpected challenge to the legitimacy of the American justice system at home—one that transformed foreign policymaking at a moment when the nation was becoming a global power.
Allison Powers Useche is a Clements Fellow for the Study of Southwestern America and an assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University. She is a legal and political historian of modern North America whose work focuses on United States imperialism, US-Latin American relations, and international order. This year at SMU Allison will revise her book manuscript, Settlement Colonialism: Compensatory Justice in United States Expansion, under contract with Oxford University Press.