This conversation was sparked by our mutual interests in the long histories of violence along the US-Mexico border, as well as our mutual efforts to understand what we as historians might be able to add to the heated contemporary discussions of a so-called border crisis. We both agree that knowing the history of how the US-Mexico border was constructed is crucial for thinking of alternatives today. This conversation took place in mid-May, first through video conference, then online, as we attempted to set down the ideas that we were bouncing off each other.
Monica Muñoz Martinez is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, the author of the award-winning book The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas (2018), and the primary investigator for the project Mapping Violence: Racial Terror in Texas. Karl Jacoby is the Allan Nevins Professor of American History at Columbia University. His works include Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History (2008) and The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire (2016).
Monica Muñoz Martinez (MMM): We are in the midst of policy debates about immigration and ongoing concerns about the harm caused by US policies. Why is it important now to take a long view of the history of border enforcement?
Karl Jacoby (KJ): I often ask myself what we as historians can add to a conversation about the border that seems so focused, and with good reason, on contemporary challenges. My answer pivots on the belief that history can help us to understand the structural reasons behind what can otherwise seem like a confusing rush of events.
The border, by its very essence, makes manifest the limits of US power. This is why it has proven such a site of profound anxiety, especially for white Americans.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War (1846–48), committed the US to preventing Indigenous peoples from crossing the new border. The US soon realized, however, that its ability to make Native Americans accept this boundary—a line that, after all, made no sense to Indigenous nations that had inhabited this continent long before either the US or Mexico existed—was minimal.
The US also confronted the unwelcome fact that thousands of enslaved African Americans, particularly in Texas, used their proximity to the border to self-emancipate to Mexico. This persistent flight across the border undermined the cotton cultivation that was key to the antebellum US economy, along with the Southern fantasy that slavery was a benign institution.
All this highlights the distortions present in the contemporary discussions about a newfound border “crisis.” First, the idea of “regaining control of our borders” reflects a fantasy that never existed. But second, the border brings to the surface some of the most enduring and problematic features of the US—slavery and settler colonialism in the 19th century or the War on Drugs, climate change, and the continuing reality of settler colonialism today.
We often want to “solve” these issues through law enforcement. But policing cannot even come close to addressing the root causes of such long-standing and complicated issues. Indeed, it often exacerbates the problems.
This is why I find your research so significant, Monica. What insights into border policing did you gain from studying the Texas Rangers and the US Army in the 1910s?
MMM: You raise important points here that remind us that histories of colonization and slavery intersect in profound ways in the US-Mexico border region. I would add that the border has been a place where—through policing and enforcement—Indigenous, Asian, Mexican, and African people were cast as un-American, foreign, incapable of being citizens, and as a threat to the nation. Racist violence was used to subordinate and control populations who refused government intervention by both the United States and Mexico. Massacres, murders, and lynchings by the US military, law enforcement, and civilians were cast as defending or protecting white Americans and their claims to property. And the border was a tool used to enable all that violence.
The Texas Rangers, for example, were created to police these racial and ethnic groups who resisted Anglo colonization, to control their movement, and to remove them from exercising any economic, political, or cultural control in the border region. Even before Texas independence from Mexico, they policed the region.
By the 1910s, racist violence targeting ethnic Mexicans was being unleashed. Mexicans had been characterized as being inherently violent, as bandits, murderers, and rapists. Politicians and the media incited a panic and called for the militarization of the border.
In reality, racist policing extended far beyond the border. Both American citizens of Mexican descent and Mexican nationals living and working in Texas were victims of racial terror. Hundreds were murdered. Assailants rarely faced arrest, grand juries regularly failed to indict law enforcement, and, as a result, crimes were not prosecuted. People who were victims of violence carried feelings of injustice for generations. This violence impacted entire communities.
Historians who celebrated these Rangers described them as saviors of Anglo civilization who battled in a race war against racially inferior populations. These glorified accounts of racist violence were then popularized in literature, film, and public history. We still have a long way to go to come to terms with the lengthy history of racist violence by law enforcement and groups like the Texas Rangers.
KJ: Your comments underscore one of the most alarming features of policing in the borderlands: the way in which the border has been allowed to function as a zone of exception where the normal rules do not apply. This notion originated, as you note, all the way back in the 19th century. From their founding in 1823, groups like the Texas Rangers exercised almost unchecked power, in large part because their targets were predominantly nonwhite and noncitizens: Native peoples, fugitive slaves, and Mexican “bandits.”
After the federal government created the Border Patrol, in 1924, these practices became incorporated into this new agency. Public Law 613, passed in 1946, empowered Border Patrol agents to arrest undocumented immigrants and to search vehicles “within a reasonable distance from any external boundary of the United States.” Yet in both cases, these arrests and seizures were permitted without the warrant that would usually be required by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
This measure begged the question of what constitutes a “reasonable distance” from the border. In 1953, without any public discussion, the Department of Justice selected a distance of 100 miles from the border. This measure applies not only to the US-Mexico boundary but also to the US’s maritime boundaries and the border with Canada. The result has been the creation of a vast zone containing some 200 million inhabitants as well as many of the US’s largest cities. Within this borderland, constitutional protections have been rolled back, not only for immigrants but also for US citizens.
We witnessed one of the consequences of this policy during the protests in the summer of 2020, when the Trump administration dispatched members of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to intimidate supporters of Black Lives Matter in DC and Portland. People in these cities were shocked at the aggressive tactics the CBP deployed. But such practices have been the norm for years along the US-Mexico border.
MMM: When I was growing up in that zone in south Texas, it was a regular part of travel to drive through internal border checkpoints. That those expansive powers have become a daily norm is alarming.
But so too is the fact that, like 100 years ago, law enforcement along the US-Mexico border enjoys a culture of impunity. The American Immigration Council found that from 2009 to 2012, in 1,255 cases of alleged misconduct by CBP (ranging from verbal abuse and theft to physical assault, sexual assault, and even running a person over with a vehicle), 95.9 percent resulted in no action against the accused officer or agent. According to a 2018 report by the ACLU, CBP officers have also been charged with abusing, assaulting, and intimidating children with physical or sexual violence while in custody. Children have reported being tased, beaten, and worse.
These abuses most often occur outside of public view, and so the burden of calling for justice falls on the victims themselves. Unfortunately, politicians and the media have successfully mainstreamed the idea that migrants and refugees are inherently criminals. Therefore, these violations—even when they do become public—don’t receive sustained public calls for reform or accountability.
More than just accountability, what Congress needs is to pass reforms to decriminalize immigration. As you previously pointed out, history shows that trying to restrict immigration by implementing racist or draconian policies does not work to curb migration; but it is expensive, it makes the journey more dangerous, and leads to abuse.
The 1929 Blease’s law (designed by eugenicists and segregationists) criminalized unauthorized entry and reentry. It did not work to curb migration from Mexico, but it did lead to 10s of thousands of Mexican migrants being arrested and imprisoned.
By the 1990s, Republican politicians were using anti-immigrant rhetoric as a campaign strategy. The media fueled the association of the border and immigrants with crime through sensational reports about a border “crisis” and the threat of Latinxs. All this set the stage for politicians, including Democrats, to act tough on border security to win elections. This had dire consequences. The Clinton administration’s “prevention through deterrence” measures, like Operation Gatekeeper, again, did not curb migration. But they did make it more dangerous, leading to more than eight thousand deaths along the US-Mexico border since the program’s implementation.
We are witnessing an era of criminal-justice reform: movements to decriminalize drugs are growing, because as a society we have come to recognize that incarceration is not a solution for addiction. We need now to realize that immigration reform and providing a legal path to citizenship for undocumented people is a commonsense solution to what people call a “crisis” at the border, not more policing and incarceration.
Just as the border is a constructed space, immigration laws and policies are also written and can be changed. Immigration reform has to be a part of broader calls for racial justice.
KJ: The history we’ve sketched out here offers a number of possible lessons. There are, as you note, policies that demand immediate reform: the War on Drugs, which has turned out to be a war on Black and brown people; the relaxation of constitutional rights along the border; Blease’s law’s criminalization of unauthorized entry to the US; the lack of a clear pathway to citizenship.
But the larger point may be that we need to rethink our concept of rights, which has been closely tied to citizenship, and instead embrace a more expansive vision of humans as possessing equal rights, regardless of national belonging. This may seem Pollyannaish. But our current arrangement—with its distinction between an idealized homeland and a borderland with reduced rights—is at perpetual risk of collapsing upon itself. Once that happens, the state of exception will become the norm, and the border will be everywhere, imperiling us all.
This article was commissioned by A. Naomi Paik.