The Mexican people’s reluctance to move to Mexico’s northern territories sparked the border’s first signs of life. US citizens were encouraged by Mexico to settle in the future state of Texas as a means of occupying the vast landscape. This influx of Americans stirred the border’s concrete nature. Citizens of Texas did not view themselves as Mexican, and instead typically pledged some allegiance to the United States. Overtime, Mexico’s definite Northern border transformed into an arbitrary idea that Mexico ended somewhere north of the Rio Grande.
This is a photo of an American family moving into virgin Texan land.
Heading to Texas: provided by The Bullock Museum
A southward shift of the border was encroaching swiftly. Texan reluctance to pay the increased Mexican tariffs and taxes encouraged Santa Anna, Mexico’s president, to take action against the rebels. Crossing the Rio Grande, Santa Anna was victorious at San Antonio’s Alamo Mission; yet would ultimately be captured at San Jacinto. Following Anna’s defeat, the Republic of Texas was established, though it would not be recognized by Mexico. The Nueces River would serve as the official border, but the animate border stretched to the Rio Grande and beyond. It was inexorable; lines drawn up by politicians could not prevent the controversies it would bring.
Photo displays the aftermath of The Alamo conflict
Photo Source: Frank Thompson, The Alamo (2005)
Ten years after Texas achieved its independence, US president James K. Polk annexed Texas under the terms that, "the territory properly included within, and rightfully belonging to the Republic of Texas" now belonged to the United States. This muddied description of Texan boundaries furthered the animosity between the US and Mexico. From the Nueces River, the border danced closer and closer to the Rio Grande, all the while sprinkling US influence. The United States could play make belief and extend its border because Mexico was ill-equipped to retaliate due to its political and military unrest. Seeing Mexico’s dilemma, Polk offered to purchase the disputed territory, Las Californias, and Nuevos Mexico; an offer that Mexico refused. Determined, Polk sent troops to the Rio Grande to antagonize Mexico; this occupation began the Mexican American War.
Photos altered to display Polk's Greed for American expansion.
Photo of the Rio Grande from: American Rivers
Photo of James K. Polk provided by: Wikipedia Photographer: Brady, Mathew B
Unfortunately the war was not a fair fight. The United States boasted a modern industrialist economy alongside its massive military budget; meanwhile, Mexico was still developing its industrial might and lacked economic stability. Battle after battle the border waxed and waned alongside its unequal suitors. After decisive victories at Buena Vista and Mexico City, the border descended upon Mexico City. Its tight grasp was inescapable; the only way out was appeasement to its will.
Painting displaying the conflict at Palo Alto Texas
Photo from the Library of Congress
The Border Moves South
Under the Treaty of Guadalupe, Mexico ceded its territory in California, Nuevos Mexico, and the disputed Rio Grande region. Relinquishing their territory freed Mexico from physical occupation; yet, the border would never be satisfied with a simple treaty.
This map shows the western territory acquired by the United States following the Mexican Cession.
Photo from Wikipedia provided by user Kballen
Everything was falling in place for the US expansionists. Many people living in the newly materialized border towns had family ties to Mexico or had ancestors that fought for Texan independence. A fresh new Mexican labor force now lived within the boundaries of the United States. Even the Rio Grande moved in their favor as it shifted south thus increasing American territory. These developments hardened Mexico’s stance on emigration. Mexico was not going to lie down and let the United States devour its capital.
Roldofo Acuna highlights this newfound conflict within his journal Occupied America, specifically “Greasers Go Home”. He discusses the methods in which the United States exploited the Mexican-American border in its quest for socio-economic dominance.
“All they want is a month’s labor in the United States, and that is enough to support them in Mexico for six months… In our country they do not cause any trouble, unless they there a long time and become Americanized; but they are a docile people. They can be imposed on; the sheriff can go out and make them do anything.” - John Nance Garner Texas Representative US congress, Seasonal Agricultural Laborers.
This is a photo of John Nance, a key figure in the immigration restriction debates
Foreground photo: John Nance Portrait: provided by Encyclopædia Britannica
Background photo: US Federal Government. Prayer in the Senate Chamber. Washington D.C.
The Border Defies Its Boundaries
Even with restrictive legislation, the border still existed as a volatile boundary. The reported immigration numbers decreased following the restriction, but the newfound illegal immigration provided a 1000% increase in the number border towns (Acuna 22). Migrant workers were determined to provide for their families.
This photo displays many migrants crossing the fence unopposed.
Source: Leonard Nadel's Monterrey Processing Center Collection, provided by the Smithsonian.
Industrialists Fight Back
In contrast to the border's unconfined nature, border towns were the epitome of control. Families living in so called company towns had every aspect of livelihood managed. Wages were oftentimes paid in a giftcard-esque currency called script that, "could be used only at [the company] store" (Acuna 18). These preponderant methods were used to directly combat the fluidity of the Southern border.
Background Photo: Mexican farm hands working a field
Foreground Photo: A Mexican worker paid in script
Source: Photos from the Smithsonian National Institute of American History, Photographer not provided.
Living conditions of certain company towns. Here is a typical housing unit that housed many workers in a barrack style.
Source: Nadel, Leonard. “Bracero at Camp.” National Museum of American History,
Braceros Break a Border
During the Second World War much of the working population departed to fight oversees, once again this left farmers in short labor supply. The growers once again turned their eyes South for assistance. In order to prevent gross worker negligence, the United States and Mexico drafted the Emergency Labor Program; this provided the United States with federally protected migrant workers known as braceros.
However, farmers were not happy with the benefits that they were required to provide workers. These agriculturalists pushed hard for reform of the bracero program. Unlike the previous attempt in 1929, farmers would not grovel to restrictionist demands. Backed by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), farmers convinced Congress to enact an escape clause in which, "the commissioner of immigration was empowered to lift the statutory limitations...[if] vital to the war effort"(Acuna 20).
This clause lead to gross misinterpretation and manipulation of border policy for years to come.
AFBF and FFA logos.
Thanks to the aforementioned bracero clause, the United States could open its borders at any point in the war if it felt it were necessary. Immediately after its signing, thousands of migrant workers engulfed the border without hinderance. Mexico scrambled to prevent further migration, and successfully stopped the first flow, but would not be so lucky moving forward.
Following the war, Mexico lost much of its leverage that it held over the US's labor seekers. The United States was no longer in short supply of labor; whereas Mexico was now dependent on the labor it supplied to the United States. With an underfunded border patrol and undermined constitution, the United States allowed a myriad of migrants to cross without documentation.
Was there even a border at all?
Where the border ended was now a complete mystery. The United States continued to push for an ambiguous border identity because it benefitted its farmers. The border responded by diffusing its components across border towns throughout Mexico and the United States. Time and time again this maverick moves without constraint of national identity or jurisdiction. Where the people moved it moved. The border entered a state of pure caprice.
This image shows the large supply of braceros overwhelming customs.
Braceros flooding the gates: Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library - Los Angeles Times