This book explores part of the history of immigration into the United States, in particular the history of smuggling, undocumented immigration, and border enforcement on American land borders at the turn of the twentieth century. Although popularly conceived as a relatively recent phenomenon, surreptitious border crossings of immigrants into the United States date back at least as far as the 1880s. I was not looking back that far when initiating my research. Indeed, my initial research plans were considerably narrower. Broadly interested in migratory labor, Mexican immigration, and Mexican-American history—and convinced of the importance of all three to the story of the modern American West—I intended to explore the beginnings of Mexican undocumented immigration from Mexico in the early twentieth century. But as I began to investigate the development of immigration enforcement mechanisms on the U.S.-Mexican border and the coincident rise of undocumented Mexican immigration, I quickly discovered the inadequacies of my historical framing. The period, place, and personae of my study changed almost as quickly as I had begun.
First, I unwittingly found myself pulled deeper into the past. I was surprised to learn that what I had taken to be primarily a twentieth-century phenomenon, undocumented immigration, had been prevalent in the nineteenth century as well—so prevalent, in fact, that attempts to stem undocumented immigration had produced significant political passion and consumed the energies of federal authorities as early as the 1880s. Too, my research demanded that I venture northward geographically. I learned the extent to which illicit immigration had been not simply a phenomenon on the Mexican border but also an extensive one on the Canadian border as well. By the 1890s the Canadian border had become a central focus of immigration authorities, and it was along that international border, not the Mexican boundary, that American political leaders and officials first experimented with visions of "sealing" a border. Finally, although the secondary literature revealed that Chinese immigrants had been actively engaged in smuggling and illicit entry at the turn of the century, I was astounded to discover that immigrants of many different nationalities had, at one time or another, used the contiguous land borders as a way around American immigration restrictions. What I had assumed would be a work focused on Mexican immigrants instead turned into one encompassing Irish, Chinese, Italian, Greek, Japanese, and Lebanese immigrants, among others. Mexican immigrants came into the picture only toward the end of the period under study.
Disruptive and disorienting as they sometimes felt, these intellectual journeys—to the late nineteenth century, to the northern border, and into the thick of a multinational assortment of immigrants—provided me with unexpected discoveries that ultimately enriched my abilities to conceptualize and interpret Mexican undocumented entry as it emerged after 1900. Most important, they provided further evidence for what became one of the animating premises and visions of this work: defiance of immigration restrictions was a seemingly natural, almost reflexive response for some aspiring immigrants, and the determination and resourcefulness of those immigrants made border enforcement perennially difficult. The ingenuity of immigrants and smugglers, coupled with the expansive physical geographies of both the northern and southern frontiers, made undocumented entry a feasible alternative for hundreds of thousands of excluded or excludable aliens determined to reach the United States.
I began with the assumption that the institutionalization of official border-crossing restrictions on Mexicans in the 1920s had had a transformative effect on Mexican immigration, something that historian George Sánchez had noted in his study of Mexican migrants to 1920s Los Angeles. Yet knowledge of the post-World War II history of Mexican immigration—and especially the widespread practice of undocumented immigration—suggested that the power of the new border control regime was in fact less far-reaching. How much did the border itself and cross-border patterns of immigration change at that time? As I began to chronicle developments in border enforcement over the longer period from 1882 to 1930, my uncertainty over assessing the degree of change deepened. Two seemingly contradictory stories seemed to emerge.
One narrative dwelt on change. In terms of the rigor of immigration controls in place, both the Canadian and the Mexican borders changed dramatically in the years under study. They went from being virtually unguarded in the 1880s to being heavily patrolled by 1930. By 1930, highly visible, dedicated immigration inspection and patrol forces had been put in place on the nation's borders, and they enjoyed some considerable successes in enforcing immigration laws. From another perspective, however, continuities seemed to prevail, especially on the southern border. Advances in enforcement proceeded remarkably slowly, and they were not themselves clearly responsible for the declines that did occur in smuggling and illicit entry. From the perspective of American officials on the Mexican border, smuggling and undocumented entry became steadily worse problems during this period of time. Despite the ever-growing federal resources being devoted to border enforcement, preventing the passage of "undesirable" aliens remained an elusive goal even in 1930. On balance, the abilities of the U.S. government to police entry across the Mexican border increased measurably during this period, yet those abilities remained circumscribed in important ways. Border-crossing patterns changed, but practices of illicit entry survived, practices that had profound implications for the history of the twentieth-century American West. Nothing had quite prepared me to be immersed in creating a narrative in which simultaneously so much and so little seemed to change.
This history of border enforcement and undocumented immigration is an effort, then, to understand and explain how a border to which so many resources had been devoted could undergo such little fundamental change. It intersects with scholarship on American immigration policy and enforcement, Chinese and Mexican immigration to the American West, and the histories of the Mexican-American and Canadian-American borderlands.
Through the 1980s, relatively few scholars had examined the history of border-crossing policies and practices. When they did, the focus generally fell on the Mexican border in the context of Mexican labor migration. Scholars of American immigration policy took different tacks in explaining the development of the Mexican border as a flexible "backdoor" source of cheap labor, documented and undocumented, in the opening decades of the twentieth century. Looking at the issue from the point of view of labor policy, Kitty Calavita has suggested that a weakly enforced Mexican border resulted from the contradictory pressures inherent in restricting immigration in a capitalist society. As it crafted quota legislation in 1921, the U.S. Congress sought to balance the "ominous predictions of the economic and political consequences of continued mass immigration" with capitalism's demand for a surplus labor force. Congress responded by exempting Western Hemisphere immigrants from the quotas, thus permitting Mexican workers to continue to enter without an annual ceiling and encouraging the continued articulation of cross-border labor migration. Like Calavita, Keith Fitzgerald acknowledges that the United States has "never dealt effectively with migration across the border with Mexico," but he argues that the weakness of immigration enforcement on the Mexican border resulted from the particular way in which immigration restrictions developed politically from the 1880s through 1924. "The social movements that nationalized immigration policy in the United States," Fitzgerald claims, "were not concerned with the circulation of farm labor across the borders of the South and particularly the West." Consequently, "the exclusion of Mexican . . . immigration from front-gate control allowed circulatory labor migration to become an important feature of southwestern economic development."
Historians of Mexican immigration have generally depicted early border enforcement efforts and the rise of Mexican undocumented immigration in terms similar to those of Calavita. Seminal works on Mexican immigration, such as Carey McWilliams's North from Mexico and Mark Reisler's By the Sweat of Their Brow, have noted the power that southwestern industrial and agricultural leaders held in shaping immigration policy and border enforcement practices. The recruitment of Mexican workers as a source of cheap labor for that region ensued from failed efforts to employ first Chinese and then Japanese workers, especially in the burgeoning agricultural industry of California in the 1910s. Just as employers in the Southwest became increasingly reliant on Mexican workers, so too Mexican workers became increasingly reliant on the economic strategy of migratory labor. When modifications to American immigration law in the late 1910s and 1920s made border crossing more expensive or difficult for these workers, they increasingly adopted surreptitious entry as a means to preserve their livelihood.
But while scholarship on American border enforcement once centered on Mexican immigration across the Mexican border, it has broadened its focus markedly in the past two decades. New scholarship on immigration has begun to explore the complex, transnational patterns of migration that occurred across both the Mexican and Canadian international borders and to examine more closely the history of border enforcement itself. As immigration historian Erika Lee has insightfully documented in At America's Gates, Chinese migrants barred from entry by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act pioneered routes of illicit entry into the United States across the Canadian and Mexican borders in the late nineteenth century. In fact, surreptitious migration of Chinese laborers into the American West first drew attention to the peculiar difficulties of enforcing immigration laws along the international borders. Lee's work details both the border-crossing methods of Chinese immigrants and smugglers and the gradual articulation of a federal immigration bureaucracy designed to hinder their passage. That bureaucracy, Lee concludes, largely succeeded in limiting Chinese undocumented entry across the borders by 1917.
Historian George Sánchez's Becoming Mexican American offers one of the first detailed analyses of this new border control regime, particularly as it affected northbound Mexican workers. For Sánchez, the elaboration of the border control regime in the opening decades of the century—and in particular the establishment of the Border Patrol in 1924—significantly altered the practical meanings of the border. During the early part of the twentieth century, he argues, "crossing over from Mexico was transformed from a casual and easy task—with perhaps few questions asked by officials—to a tense and formal ritual of suspicion." By making entry and reentry of Mexican workers more difficult, the strengthened border caused members of the nascent Mexican-American community in Los Angeles to increasingly shift from cyclical migration patterns to settlement. A similar picture of a "modernizing," hardening border emerges from Alexandra Stern's careful study of the institutionalization and professionalization of immigrant medical inspections on the Mexican border.
Mae Ngai's brilliant sociolegal study of twentieth-century immigration policy, Impossible Subjects, builds on the understanding that "immigration restriction produced the illegal alien as a new legal and political subject." She argues convincingly that U.S. immigration policy, especially as it was codified in the 1924 National Origins Act, "remapped the nation" by establishing a "racial and national hierarchy that favored some immigrants over others." She also notes that new immigration restrictions led inexorably to a focus on building effective border controls. But Ngai largely ignores the implications for the borders of the first forty years of restrictive legislation. She suggests that the federal officials "paid little attention to the nation's land borders" before the 1920s, with the result that both borders were "soft" until World War I. She instead finds a "new sense of territoriality" born in the immigration restrictions enacted in the 1920s. Those laws, she argues, brought an "unprecedented awareness and state surveillance of the nation's contiguous land borders." While a broader commitment to border enforcement and deportation efforts did in fact arise in the 1920s, substantial federal border control efforts had existed since at least the 1890s. Anxieties about the nation's porous borders existed well before the 1920s, and a proper examination of the evolving dynamics of undocumented immigration across American borders requires a closer look at this earlier period. As we shall see, the "soft" or permeable borders that existed prior to the 1920s cannot be explained as simply the result of federal neglect.
Immigration regulation and border fortifications emerged not only in the United States but also in other areas of the globe in this period, as various nation-states introduced passport restrictions and border controls to regulate international migration. Aristide Zolberg's comparative studies of migration controls in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century detail the "the erection of a global network of barriers that successfully confined most of the world's population in their countries of birth." This successful imposition of border controls, he concludes, constituted a "remarkable demonstration of how apparently irresistible historical trends can be contradicted . . . by concerted human action." In a similar vein, scholars of the American experience such as Lee, Sánchez, and Ngai, whether focusing on borders through the prism of either the Chinese or the Mexican experience, emphasize the successful imposition of state power at the nation's international boundaries. That is, these authors accentuate the power of the bureaucratic fortifications put in place to govern border crossings by the 1920s. Without doubt, the process of crossing a border into the United States had changed markedly by 1930. This book, however, emphasizes government officials' limited ability to enforce border-crossing regulations to their satisfaction.
Part of that story has to do with human agency, exemplified in the activities of both highly organized smuggling entrepreneurs and ordinary migrants. Others who have published on the Chinese immigrant experience, including Lucy Salyer and Erika Lee, have cast the story of Chinese exclusion as, in part, one of successful resistance. Salyer has argued persuasively that excluded Chinese immigrants, when they are discussed at all, have too often been portrayed as "the defenseless victims of an all-powerful Bureau of Immigration." Her work documents the ways in which Chinese immigrants—and the powerful ethnic organizations with an economic stake in their arrival—achieved remarkable success in using the federal courts to creatively undermine the provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese immigrants, by exploiting legal loopholes, inventing relationships, and forging documents, severely constrained the ability of the Bureau of Immigration to effectively administer the exclusion laws. Lee presents a similar portrait. While the Chinese exclusion laws "marginalized and constrained generations of Chinese immigrants and the Chinese community in America," the Chinese, individually and collectively, battled the restrictions. They did so, notes Lee, "in court, in public, in the press . . . and by evading the exclusion laws altogether through illegal immigration." My study shows that inventive resistance on the part of immigrants extended beyond the Chinese, becoming a pervasive feature of the borderlands. Immigrants from around the globe—and the smuggling rings that often assisted them—used artifice and stealth along the nation's contiguous land borders to undermine the enforcement of American immigration laws.
The research for this book took place in the context of growing interest in revising interpretations of the American immigrant experience through the prism of race. In part, this has taken the form of debates over the degree to which various selected European groups (Irish, Italians) were regarded as racially different by Americans or considered "white upon arrival." But it has also emerged from attention to the experiences of immigrant groups marginalized in various ways by immigration policy and American jurisprudence. The classic work on American nativism, John Higham's Strangers in the Land, aptly addressed the role of race in the immigration restriction movement. But his larger interpretation suggested that bouts of nativism were aberrations in a national history otherwise marked by a largely benevolent openness to newcomers. More recent scholars, propelled by new scholarship on the experiences of Mexican, Chinese, Filipino, and other "nonwhite" immigrant peoples, have argued for reinterpretations of immigration history that demythologize the image of the United States as a nation offering limitless refuge. Erika Lee, for example, argues that the Chinese Exclusion Act "transformed the United States into a gatekeeping nation" after 1882. "Understanding the racialized origins of American gatekeeping," Lee writes, "provides a powerful counternarrative to the popular ‘immigrant paradigm' that celebrates the United States as a ‘nation of immigrants.'" In a similar vein, Mae Ngai uses the 1924 Quota Act and its consequences to contest "the myth of ‘immigrant America.'" "The telos of immigrant settlement, assimilation, and citizenship," she argues, "has been an enduring narrative of American history, but it has not always been the reality." Their influence has spread. In his authoritative new history of American immigration history, Paul Spickard states boldly that "race is a central, not marginal, issue in U.S. immigration history." Racial markers and assumptions permeated debates over immigration restrictions and, often, the restrictive laws themselves. Unsurprisingly, they also shaped the practice and culture of undocumented immigration and border enforcement.
As I conducted this research, immersed in the shifting perspectives on immigration history, I looked as well at the history of the border regions, particularly the Mexican borderlands. And I found myself increasingly in tune with the ideas of historian of the West Patricia Nelson Limerick, who in her influential 1984 book, The Legacy of Conquest, described the U.S.-Mexico border as a "social fiction." Limerick places the twentieth-century "border problem" of undocumented Mexican immigration in the broader context of American "frontier" history. In confronting this border problem, she argues, the United States began wrestling with the same problem that had plagued successive Spanish and Mexican regimes since the eighteenth century: how to keep self-interested individuals—traders, migrants, filibusterers, bandits—from ignoring national boundaries. Like earlier national authorities, twentieth-century immigration officials confronted the uncomfortable fact that "it is one thing to draw an arbitrary geographical line between two spheres of sovereignty [and] . . . another to persuade people to respect it."
If Limerick's conceptualization of the border resonates with my conclusions about border enforcement efforts, so too do some of the ideas emerging from scholars studying other aspects of U.S.-Mexico borderlands history. An important distillation of ideas about the modern U.S.-Mexico borderlands came with the 2004 publication of Continental Crossroads: Remapping U.S.-Mexico Borderlands History. The book's contributors examined various aspects of what editors Samuel Truett and Elliott Young consider to be the formative era of the modern borderlands (1820s-1940s), a period "marked by a simultaneous opening and closing of borders." My research represents part of an answer to the useful historical question Truett and Young pose in their introduction: "What happened when fuzzy and mobile frontiers—first of empires, then nations—gave way to more fixed national boundaries?” And my conclusions about immigration enforcement efforts around the turn of the twentieth century echo the conclusions of other scholars who state that control of the official border "was more dream than reality."
From the point of view of border immigration controls, the period saw the simultaneous drawing and erasing of the official border, its gradual articulation and elaboration in the midst of consistently successful efforts to undermine it. In effect, the practical erasing of the border began almost from the very start. For all the differences among the hundreds of thousands of individuals who participated in illicit border crossings over the five decades of this study—differences of timing, intentions, routes, and reliance on smugglers—together they represented a challenge to state power over human mobility. Year after year and decade after decade, official sources bemoaned the tremendous advantages smugglers and undocumented immigrants had over immigration officials on American land borders. Begrudgingly, but with great regularity, immigration officials on the borders from 1882 through 1930 detailed the endless creativity of immigrants bent on illicit entry. It was their tireless, pressing energy at the points of contact—most frequently, the land borders—that resulted in widespread contravention of American immigration restrictions.
The theme of ordinary individuals resisting state power resonates with much that has been written on national borders generally and on the U.S.-Mexico border in particular. As others have noted, there has "always been an enormous gap between the rhetoric of border maintenance and daily life in borderlands." "If there is one thing that has been central to all borders," write the authors of an essay on the comparative histories of borderlands, "it has been the contest about . . . rules of inclusion and exclusion and the efforts of people to use, manipulate, or avoid the resulting border restrictions." Borders are part of the visible apparatus by which states attempt to effect state power. But in their attempt to demonstrate national sovereignty, the extent to which a state's borders can "impose their jurisdiction on 'the people'" is up for grabs. In the late nineteenth century, migrants and smugglers created methods of illicit entry that kept these borders open—and border officials at their wit's end.
Astute observers of the U.S.-Mexico border, including Oscar Martinez and Jorge Bustamante, have worked with themes of resistance as well, but they have focused mainly on borderland denizens. While acknowledging the manner in which the "delineation and maintenance" of the border has affected people living in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, including the "formation of their lifestyles, attitudes, and cultural orientation," they also point to the inherent weaknesses of that border. In his portrait of late twentieth-century border life, Martinez celebrates the "creative spirit of borderlanders," especially their resourcefulness in circumventing official restrictions along the binational border and their "ingenuity . . . in getting what they want regardless of legal abstractions." As Martinez correctly notes, contemporary borderland residents who attempt to meet their personal needs by engaging in small-scale smuggling are simply "carrying on a local tradition that began in the nineteenth century." This book argues that such illicit traditions were not the sole possession of borderland residents; generations of immigrants, from Mexico and from afar, developed sets of similar traditions for circumventing U.S. immigration laws to meet their personal and family needs.
Scholars of contemporary immigration recognize the limited degree to which liberal states can effectively control immigration across their borders. Officials in the receiving countries of the United States, Canada, and Western Europe have become, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, measurably less confident in their states' abilities to "effectively regulate immigration flows." According to one study on guest worker migration in Europe, "It has been migrants and their employers—not governments—that have determined the magnitude and destination of migration flows in most parts of the world. The most that governments can do is to facilitate or impede these population movements; not to stop them." Building on this observation—that migrants enmeshed in a labor market largely determine volumes of border crossings—Wayne Cornelius has argued that governments face "severe limits” on their capacity to intervene successfully in contemporary migration flows. The ungovernability of transnational migrations, owing to the creativity of migrants and the demands of the labor market, thus appears a constant not only across time but also across space. Rereading the late nineteenth-century reports of frustrated immigration authorities on the borders, one wonders that confidence in the state's ability did not evaporate sooner than it did.
Although the course of my research led me away from a narrow focus on Mexican immigration, a fundamental interest in the twentieth-century Mexican experiences with the U.S. border lies behind this work. Arguably, no single factor exerted greater influence on the Mexican-American experience in the twentieth century than the geographic contiguity of the United States and Mexico. Throughout the course of the twentieth century, Mexican migrants and immigrants, many legal but far more undocumented, almost continuously invigorated Mexican-American communities from Chicago to Dallas to Los Angeles, renewing homeland links and creating a climate favorable to sustenance of language and cultural ties. In essence, the proximity of Mexico has allowed this continued infusion of migrants and immigrants that has marked the exceptional quality of the Mexican immigrant experience; a migration without end, it has developed complicated community formation dynamics that are in many ways unique in American immigration history. Understanding the historical development of this boundary into a permeable border is centrally important to Mexican-American history.
At the same time that the border helps explain differences between the Mexican immigrant experience and those of other national groups, it also links the Mexican experience to those of other groups. Patterns of undocumented border migration from the 1880s through the 1920s suggest Mexican immigrants have acted very much like their European and Asian counterparts when confronting immigration restrictions. Mexican undocumented immigration can only truly be understood within the larger context of smuggling and undocumented entry by Irish, Chinese, Italian, Greek, Japanese, Lebanese, English, and other immigrants. Mexicans were only the most recent—and most successful—group to use the border as a "back door" into the United States.
This book proceeds chronologically. The opening chapter details the incremental growth in anti-immigrant passions and restrictive immigration legislation in the United States up through the 1880s. By the mid-1880s the United States had begun to draw distinctions among the immigrants arriving at its shores, barring the migration of paupers, convicts, the mentally infirm, Chinese workers, and workers under contract. As experiments in the ongoing American project to define its identity—what it should and should not be—immigration restrictions on these groups naturally heightened U.S. concern with defining and defending its borders; in drawing these first intellectual boundaries precluding some from entry into the American community, national authorities were unwittingly altering the meanings of the nation's physical boundaries as well. Chapter 2 demonstrates how these efforts to restrict certain groups of immigrants from entering at American seaports led directly to the adoption of routes of entry across the Canadian and Mexican borders. By the late 1880s, significant numbers of English, Irish, and Chinese migrants were pioneering new routes into the United States via the virtually unpatrolled northern and southern borders of the United States, alarming immigration officials and restrictionists alike. The experiences with national immigration restrictions in the 1880s introduced patterns on the borders of smuggling, illicit entry, and border policing that presaged developments through 1930 and beyond. Alerted to the essentially permeable nature of these borders, restrictionists began to pressure the federal government to better enforce immigration laws on American land borders.
Chapter 3 continues the narrative by showing how the formation of the modern border control regime after 1891 was rooted both in a sense of crisis at the border's permeability and in the confident spirit that the border could be rendered impermeable. Reacting to reports that immigrants routinely evaded immigration controls along the borders, lawmakers and officials explored means of mobilizing manpower, management expertise, and technology to combat undocumented entrants on the Canadian and Mexican borders. At the same time, however, they significantly expanded the scope of immigration restrictions themselves and fostered further undocumented border entries of Greeks, Lebanese, Italians, and others. When Canadian authorities themselves began enforcing immigration restrictions at the century's end, the Mexican border increasingly became the preferred route for these barred immigrants. In Chapter 4 I turn, with the immigrants, to a principal focus on the Mexican border. Even as the United States imagined the means by which to draw an enforceable line between Mexico and the United States, individual immigrants and elaborate smuggling rings conspired to keep the border permeable in the 1900s. This chapter details some of the more effective and imaginative schemes by which migrants sought to pass through the official of ports of entry or in the vast lightly patrolled spaces in between.
Continuing chronologically, Chapter 5 chronicles how the emergence of Mexican migration patterns between 1900 and 1920 complicated efforts to enforce immigration law on the border. Beginning in the 1890s, a variety of developments in the United States and Mexico led to significant Mexican labor migration into the United States. While border officials after 1910 experienced a respite from their battles with European and Asian immigrants entering through Mexico, the flow of Mexican migrants, temporary and permanent, escalated during the 1910s. Efforts to apply immigration laws to Mexicans fell victim through the 1910s to revolutionary disorder and the labor market pressures coincident with the economic development of the American Southwest. The final chapter examines developments in the 1920s. Mexican nationals, who had become subject to restrictions beginning in 1917, turned increasingly to practices of undocumented entry in the 1920s. At the same time, a new system of national quotas imposed on European immigrants in 1921 led to a sudden renaissance of European smuggling through Mexico. With these converging patterns bringing undocumented entry to an all-time high, Congress in 1924 created a dedicated Border Patrol within the Immigration Service. By 1929, political pressure to limit Mexican immigration had led to administrative reforms that, along with the new Border Patrol and the economic crisis of the 1930s, succeeded in slowing flows of both legal and undocumented Mexicans into the United States.
The epilogue explores the degree to which this border control success after 1929 was illusory, having more to do with the effects of the Great Depression than with American efforts to enforce the border. I close with reflections on the degree to which this chronicle of border enforcement efforts and undocumented immigration can be read as a story of both continuity and profound change.