Border security will always be elusive

The Borderlands have long been governed by impermanent and shifting policies.

 

The border between Nogales, Arizona, and Mexico around 1898.

Reckoning with History is an ongoing series that seeks to understand the legacies of the past and to put the West’s present moment in perspective.

With their armed guards and imposing structures, American border crossings symbolize permanent frontiers. Boundaries are definitional places, lines that demarcate this side as different from that side. From a longer view, though, they look surprisingly transitory, governed by shifting policies and constantly modified and breached. Today’s incessant nationalist rhetoric concerning the border wall imagines a permanently secured boundary, but actual historical borders and policies have proven impermanent over time, a fact that should dampen expectations.

U.S. borders shifted regularly from American independence in 1783 through the first half of the 19th century, as the young, grasping nation bought, conquered and manipulated its way across much of the continent. The imperialist, racist ideology of Manifest Destiny fueled this constant border redrawing, a reminder that boundaries are neither natural nor permanent. The 1854 Gadsden Purchase added southern Arizona and a sliver of New Mexico and established the continental borders of the United States. They have remained the same ever since, though a waterway between Washington state and Vancouver Island remained in dispute until resolved in favor of the United States in 1872. Although the United States gained overseas acquisitions in the 1898 Spanish-American War, few Americans sought to extend continental territory during the last quarter of the 19th century. Once the boundaries seemed stable, Congress moved to restrict immigration, a process that changed the very nature and meaning of those borders.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act symbolized this shift. The law was the first to restrict immigration based on racial, or national, categories, in line with resurgent segregation in the American South and reservation policies in the West. The exclusion act all but stopped emigration from China. It also made deportation a policy enforcement option and led to racialized policing, a practice that hung over all Chinese communities here and created a “shadow of exclusion” or a “shadowed existence” for Chinese in the United States, according to historian Erika Lee.

By enacting this law, the U.S. government created illegal immigration and the resulting market for doctored papers and guides for illicit movement. Most illegal border crossings happened in the Northwest, sometimes through the same waters that caused the dispute between Washington and British Columbia, as members of Canada’s substantial Chinese immigrant population crossed over. By 1890, government agents estimated that 2,500 laborers a year were illegally moving from Canada into the United States. But surreptitious migration quickly grew along the southern border as well, as historian Patrick Ettinger has shown, as migrants adapted to changing conditions. Chinese laborers in Mexico learned how to cross with false papers or sneak over the border and quietly blend in. The few U.S. officials managing the southern border called for more money, more people and more technology, initiating a strategy and mantra that continues more than a century later. The federal government bulked up its border personnel and turned back many people, but by the 1920s, officials recognized their basic failure to stop illegal migrations.

During the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920, American and Mexican soldiers guard International Street in Nogales. The border marker still stands today.

The U.S. did not build its first border fence to keep the fugitive crossers out, though; it built it to stop tick-infected cattle. Ticks had infested the Western cattle industry for decades. Northern states aimed to confine the problem to the Southwest by halting infected cattle, but the insects persisted, spreading Texas fever among cattle who had not developed immunity from exposure as calves. In 1906, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a massive eradication campaign and began quarantining cattle from Mexico. In 1911, the first fence funded by the federal government went up to stop “Mexican” cattle from infecting “American” cattle. As the historian Mary E. Mendoza, who unearthed this episode, has pointed out, it took no great leap for discourse to shift from pestilential animals to pestilential people, feeding on the common rhetoric that associated foreigners with dirtiness and disease. The fences grew and changed in their purpose. “Fences previously used for cattle became tools used to control and herd humans,” explained Mendoza. By the mid-20th century, American officials saw the border as a biological barrier, a place to stop both diseased animals and people perceived as a threat. Racism and indifference fed this formula. As a result, migrants shifted to more dangerous routes, resulting in greater risks and higher death totals. The ramifications are ongoing: Over time, fences designed to prevent cattle from dying became barriers that increased human mortality. 

The first border fences built in 1911 were constructed to curb tick infestations of cattle. Pictured, cattle in Pie Town, New Mexico in 1940.

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act further transformed the legal regime for the border. Although it widened opportunities for immigration from much of the world, the law, for the first time, established quotas from within the Western Hemisphere. As a result, Congress produced a system that guaranteed more immigrants flowing outside legal channels. Immigration policy in the 20th century followed narrow nationalist frameworks and generally failed to reckon with larger contexts, according to historian Mae Ngai’s brilliant book Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004). “That nationalism,” she wrote, “resists humanitarianism and remains blind to the causal connections between the United States’ global projections and the conditions abroad that impel emigration.” Ngai points out how deeply entwined the past and present of the United States are with the rest of the world, especially with Latin America, where the U.S. has protected its own material interests for two centuries.

Occasionally, American officials have recognized the folly of border control. In 1927, an exasperated secretary of Labor, James Davis, declared, “Not even a Chinese wall, 9,000 miles in length and built over rivers and deserts and mountains and along the seashores, would seem to permit a permanent solution.” His remarks stand as a prescient assessment of the futility of “securing” the border by physical obstacles. Trying to stop movement there is much like clenching a handful of sand: The harder you squeeze, the more sand escapes. National lines of exclusion and control — represented today by steel walls — seem destined to fail in a world where capital, labor, ideas and cultural influence ping across boundaries as easily as opening an app on a smartphone. Entrenching those national(ist) walls can only lead to more dangerous and inhumane results.

Adam M. Sowards is an environmental historian, professor and writer. He lives in Pullman, Washington.

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