The U.S.-Mexico border: a brief history

I’m going to be writing a lot about the border in the next month as I work with No More Deaths and delve into my thesis research. I want to make this blog as accessible as possible for people, so this post is an attempt to explain the situation on the U.S.-Mexico border as I understand it and the issues I have with our immigration and drug policies. If you have no idea what I’m ranting about, start here. This post assumes you’re not already horrendously racist and/or categorically opposed to migration. If you are, you should probably stop failing at life.


(A vastly oversimplified) history
The Southwestern United States was part of Mexico until it was ceded in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War (which was basically a war where the U.S. invaded Mexico to steal land as part of Manifest Destiny). An addition chunk of land, mostly in Southern Arizona, was purchased by the U.S. in 1853 (the Gadsen Purchase) to allow for the completion of the intercontinental railroad. The effect of these two land grabs was that many Mexican nationals became part of U.S. territory overnight. There’s also an entire history of indigenous people in this area that I still don’t know a ton about and won’t get into here. But if you want a bit more detailed history, my good friend Madelyn did a wonderful summary on her blog while she was working with No More Deaths.


Migration patterns
Migration between the United States and Mexico has been happening for a very long time, with a lot of overlap between people, racial groups, etc. along the border. (For a solid history, check out this book.) Mexican nationals migrated to the U.S. in large numbers pre-1930s, often to work in agriculture. The Great Depression and the lack of work led to racism and a call for Mexicans to go back to Mexico (sounds familiar), which led to a huge exodus of workers.

Once World War II started, the U.S. began the Bracero Program to combat the labor shortage caused by so many men being off at war. Many Mexicans came to the U.S. on a contract basis to work in agricultural labor, and many were able to become naturalized during this period. The Bracero Program was popular and continued to be renewed until 1964. Many people were crossing without documents during this time as well. The border itself was relatively permeable, and many people, especially men, would come work in the U.S.  for a few years, save money to bring home, and then return to Mexico.

In part because of the horrendous labor conditions revealed on many farms using Bracero workers, and in part because of general racism and xenophobia, U.S. restrictions on immigration have tightened since then. It’s virtually impossible currently for a Mexican national to get a visa without family already in the U.S., unless they have a job skill set we’re looking for (we’re talking M.D., Ph.D. and the like). The current wait to get a visa for a Mexican national with a close relative living in the U.S. is about twenty years.


NAFTA and economic policies
The restrictions on legal immigration haven’t slowed migration to the U.S. by very much. A lot of people have blamed the tide of people crossing on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Signed in 1994, NAFTA lowered all kinds of tariffs and trade barriers between Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. One result of this was the flooding of Mexican markets with cheap, subsidized corn from the U.S., which put many rural Mexican farmers out of work, forcing them to migrate to find work.

NAFTA also pushed forward existing Mexican efforts to industrialize the border. Mexico began a border industrialization program in 1964, when the Bracero Program ended, as a way of dealing with all the unemployed young men who were coming back to Mexico. The program aimed to build factories called maquiladoras on the border. Many U.S. companies saw the maquilas as a good investment opportunity, and mostly foreign corporations built a bunch of factories in Northern Mexico right along the border.

NAFTA’s lack of labor and environmental protections continued to make investment in Mexican factories a good economic calculation for U.S. corporations. The growth of maquilashas led to an internal migration within Mexico, as people from central and southern states head north in search of work. The dismal working conditions and low pay, plus the fact that many factories prefer to hire women (they’re thought to be more pliable/compliant, and can be paid less), ends up pushing people into the U.S. as well.

There have been a lot of arguments between people who know much more about this than me about the real effects of NAFTA. Based on the research I’ve done, it seems reasonable to say that blaming NAFTA for our current wave of migration is a bit ahistorical, since migration has been such a key part of U.S.-Mexico relations for hundreds of years. However, it did push a lot of people into poverty, and accelerated existing migration patterns.


Border enforcement
Starting in 1994, the U.S. government began building sections of a border fence in Texas, with the goal of stopping unauthorized migration in urban areas. Various sections of the fence were expanded in the mid-90s, through Operation Gatekeeper, Operation Hold the Line and Operation Safeguard.

While the stated intention of these policies was to reduce migration, the actual effect was to push migration away from urban areas and into the deserts. Initially, government officials and the Border Patrol said no one would be stupid enough to try to cross through the Arizona desert. Then, they said that they accepted human deaths in the desert as a consequence of border enforcement. Policy became to funnel migrants into a few dangerous areas of desert, including the Altar Valley of Southern Arizona, where No More Deaths works. No More Deaths estimated that there are 300-800 yearly migrant deaths in the Arizona desert alone, largely from dehydration.

Since September 11, the border has been increasingly militarized in the name of national security. Border Patrol has more boots on the ground than at any time in U.S. history, and more and more fence is being built. There are now Border Patrol checkpoints throughout the Southwest—places where officers look into passing cars, make sure nobody’s brown, and ask for papers if you “look” undocumented. The language of the Border Patrol is very military and focused on gaining “operational control” of the border. Most of the people I’ve spoken to who live in and around Tucson and the border towns near it feel as if they’re in a war zone, and that was the impression I got during my last trip down here. Migrants are systematically abused while in Border Patrol custody, and many have died in immigration detention facilities.

Cynics have referred to the militarization of the border as a “Marshall Plan for Mexico.” The Marshall Plan was an economic aid package to post-war Europe that helped get the manufacturing sector back on its feet and is credited with helping to avert the worst of economic catastrophe. Ironically, the U.S. has spent approximately the same amount as the original Marshall Plan on border enforcement with Mexico.

Border enforcement has also has a number of negative environmental impacts. The desert Southwest is a key ecosystem, and serves as an ecological bridge between temperate and tropical zones. It’s also very fragile—wagon wheel tracks from the 1800s are still visible in sections of the Sonoran. Virtually all U.S. environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, which mandates environmental reviews for projects, as well as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, have been exempted within a certain number of miles of the border. Currently, there is legislation pending in Congress to extend these exemptions.

The road-building and off-road patrolling of the Border Patrol have disrupted hydrology and shrunk habitat for many endangered species in the area. The border wall itself also fragments habitat, disrupting the migration of many keystone wildlife species. As climate change worsens, animal migration will become ever more necessary, and the impacts of the wall ever-more-severe.


Undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
The stepped up border enforcement has been matched by an environment which is increasingly racist and overtly hostile to migrants once they arrive in the U.S. There have been expanded efforts to establish partnerships between local law enforcement agencies and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency which handles deportations for people in the U.S. Most notably, the Secure Communities program aims to make sure that every person arrested for any crime in the U.S. also has their immigration status checked. The stated goal is to prioritize the deportation of violent felons, but many, many more people are deported for things like petty theft and minor traffic violations.

Laws like Arizona’s SB 1070, which essentially criminalized being brown in public, have left many immigrants who have documents afraid to go out in public or drive cars. These policies end up deporting many people who have been in the U.S. for years and have children who are U.S. citizens. They also create hardships for mixed-status families.


Drugs, guns and cartels
A lot has been made of the violence along the border and the drug wars going on in Mexico. This is an area of policy I’m less familiar with. My understanding basically boils down to the following points:

  • The increased number of people, especially young men, involved in drug cartels is a direct consequence of the lack of other economic opportunities available in many parts of Mexico
  • Drug-related violence is often fueled by guns and other arms which enter Mexico from the U.S.-something our policymakers really don’t want to talk about
  • Drug cartels now have a virtual monopoly on human smuggling as well. It’s almost impossible to cross the border without paying a guide (a polleroor coyote) from a cartel thousands of dollars. Migrants are often forced to carry drugs as well.
  • Drug-related violence on the border, while a very real problem for many people, has been sensationalized and in some case overstated in the U.S. media to make a case for increased border enforcement.



By every reasonable metric—logic, fiscal efficiency, compassion, respect for human life, sustainability—our border policy is a miserable failure. People continue to die in the desert. Drugs continue to cross the line. Habitat continues to be fragmented. And outside of the military industrial complex, which profits from building and monitoring the fence, and the prison industrial complex, which profits from throwing more and more brown bodies behind bars, no one benefits from this system.

In summary, the U.S. strategy for dealing the border is profoundly flawed. It utterly fails to consider the roots of migration and drug trafficking, and refuses to examine the U.S. government’s complicity in fueling these trends. It doesn’t consider the intersections between economic policy, border industrialization, history, migration trends, and drugs. It is ahistorical and fails to consider the humanity of the people it impacts. It is fuelled by and perpetuates a racist society.

I’m going to be writing about these issues a lot more, but I hope this is helpful as a jumping off point. If you want to learn more, check out some of the links and books I’ve referenced in here.


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