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Historian Rachel St. John Discusses the United States’ “Mythical” Southern Border

In a recent talk entitled “Before the Wall: Marking the U.S.-Mexico Border,” UC Davis Associate Professor of History Rachel St. John argues that the border has not always been envisioned as an “oppressive barrier to immigration.” Despite the efforts of contemporary politicians to prove otherwise, the southern border has gone unmapped and unregulated for much of its history.
Indeed, even after the establishment of an official U.S.-Mexico border with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, the border remained a region defined by the freedom of movement of its inhabitants. Mexicans, Americans, and Indians all crossed the border from either direction and for various reasons.
The U.S. government did not intend the border to be so permeable. St. John notes how “government agents have always aspired to control the border, but have always struggled to do so in practice.” U.S. border commissions attempted to map out the border using natural landmarks, but failed, in part because of the inhospitable nature of the borderlands region.
As the southwestern United States became more populated near the end of the 19th century, the federal government redoubled their efforts to solve the issue of what was essentially a nonexistent border. This in part inspired the implementation of the “reserve strip” policy, which meant that there had to be at least fifty feet or more between U.S. and Mexican properties built along the border. Even so, the border remained largely unregulated at the turn of the century.
For St. John, the Mexican Revolution represents the watershed moment where the U.S.-Mexican border became a contested and closely regulated region. In particular, Pancho Villa’s 1916 incursion into New Mexico, and the resulting civilian casualties, led many living in the United States to call upon the government to solve the apparent border crisis. It was at this point that rhetoric regarding tighter enforcement of the U.S.-Mexican border became popular, to the extent that politicians used it to acquire support. But in reality, stricter regulations rarely did anything but create logistical problems for the people living immediately north and south of the border.
Villa’s attack in New Mexico, along with other border battles of the 1910s, merged with fears of international espionage relating to World War I to create a new atmosphere of distrust that ended the “transborder” spirit between the U.S. and Mexico. And indeed, it was at this point that the first fences meant to direct human traffic were erected along the border by the U.S. government.
Since the Mexican Revolution, the United States has been increasingly militant in regard to how it regulates and responds to border movement. Tellingly, policymakers largely agree that acts to further secure the border through the use of physical and virtual barriers fail in their primary objective of preventing the arrival of undocumented peoples. As St. John points out, more people enter the United States by air or by sea than they do by land.
Thus, borders are in some sense “mythical” in nature. While the construction of a wall between the United States and Mexico might win political points, it is “the law and the perceptions of border agents” that play a larger role in determining the permeability of a border. Before the 1910s, the U.S.-Mexican border was fluid, and few feared crossover from either side. This is important to remember, especially in an era where politicians claim that borders are inherently dangerous places that must be defended and regulated at all costs.
Nicholas Garcia, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History

This page was last updated: April 10, 2017



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