Border Fluidity Between the Americas By: Kingston Armstrong


Distinct boundaries are pertinent for budding relationships. They establish mutual respect for those involved, and no one is forced to do things they don’t want to do. The United States-Mexican border is the geopolitical embodiment of toxic indistinct relationships. From the anteceding disputed territories of the Rio Grande to the current convoluted migrant policy, America has used the border to accomplish its expansionist goals.

Within Rodolfo Acuna’s Occupied America, the Southern border is portrayed as a tool for powerful individuals to control capital. Politicians scrambled to control the bracero inflows as a means of maximizing profit and minimizing risk. Much like a bully holding your own bagged lunch hostage until you agree to...give him your bagged lunch, the US politicians meticulously varied border policies as leverage over Mexico. Immigration restrictions ranged from turning a blind eye by undersupplying border patrolmen to not permitting any Mexican immigrants whatsoever. Whenever and however they could lawmakers used the border to control Mexican influence within the United States.

The arbitrary nature of the Mexican-American border is the primary focus of this investigation. Border shifts effectively nationalized those living within the disputed territory as they attempted to differentiate themselves from those on the “other side”. Texans, Mexicans, and Americans all derived their identities from make-belief lines on a paper. It is the suspension of disbelief that draws me into this topic. Borders provide security for those who benefit from it and simultaneously threaten those on the opposing side. The determining factor of threat or security all depends on who draws the lines.


Photo of Braceros Attempting to Enter Monterrey Processing Center

Source: Photo provided by the Smithsonian, Photographer: Leonard Nadel

At the beginning of the 20th century, the United States had an apparent labor shortage. Many white Americans felt they were too good for farm work or mining, and looked to obtain high paying unionist jobs. Farmers in agriculturally focused economies, like Texas, suffered from this snobbish mentality as they lost a significant portion of potential harvesters. Capitalists and farmers alike could not produce at the rates they desired. In their time of desperation, these entrepreneurs did what any good hearted white American would do, turn to minorities for labor.

States on the Mexican-American border desired a strong and cheap supply of labor from Mexico. Yet, a roadblock halted their wishes: the border. For seventy years, the United States and Mexico quarreled endlessly over where this arbitrary line existed. One day it was on the border of Louisiana and eventual Texas. The next it vanished due to a US invasion of Mexico City. This symbol of separation and materialism had a pulse, a rhythm, and consistently moved in favor of one side.

Spawning A Vivacious Border

Artist Rendition of San Antonio: Raba, Ernst Wilhelm, 1874-1951

Texas Settlement

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

Texan Independence

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)

Polk's Intervention

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

Mexican-American War

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

Acuna's Border

Photo: Arizona Town on the Mexican Border

Credits: W.I. Newumann, From the National Archives and Records Administration

Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/raging-controversy-border-began-100-years-ago-180969343/#QpW6qiBWQL1XmeSc.99

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.

(Top Left) Painting of the then President of Mexico Porfirio Díaz Mori (1830-1915), exhibited in the Museum of the Temple and Ex-Convent of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, (Top Right) Mexican farm workers source unknown (see Tampa Bay Times article cited in Bibliography) ,(Bottom) Underwood & Underwood, photographer

The Mexican-American Dream

Mexico’s labor woes did not rest solely on the US’s border manipulation. As part of Diaz’s Porfiriato, a period of industrialization and centralizing the government, many Mexican farmers lost their lands to hacendados (plantation-type estate holders). This left many Mexican farmers without hard assets and sources of income (Acuna 3). Diaz’s policies pushed many Mexicans north in search of better opportunities.

The northern border personified the American dream; more appropriately it personified the Mexican dream. Crossing into its domain meant a better life, job security, and an escape from the anticlerical Mexican state for many immigrants. This imaginary line in the literal sand inspired many to chase a life that would benefit their families.

The "American" Dream

Border state farmers in short labor supply (due to Americans chasing the American Dream of industrial labor) turned their eyes South for new helping hands. Once again the border stood in their way; thankfully its presence was conditional. Given the border’s volatile nature, farmers could harvest workers from Mexico, but they needed government support.

Politicians were divided on the issue of Mexican immigration. Passing into the 20th century, the United States faced a glaring immigration situation. By 1910 the US harbored some 8.2 million immigrants (2015 Department of Homeland Security Report) and xenophobia was as tangible as ever.

“We, gentlemen, are just as anxious as you are not to build the civilization of California or any other western district upon a Mexican foundation. We take him because there is nothing else available to us.” -S. Parker Frieselle 69th California Congressman

Though many officials shared a similar sentiment with Congressman Frieselle, others viewed the immigration situation as an opportunity for political advantages. Bureaucrats from agriculturally focused states knew that if they supported the farmers plight, then they would receive guaranteed votes for reelection. Farmer supporting congressmen pushed for loose border control, while maintaining an arms length away from fully accepting Mexicans as citizens.

“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 Decides to Double Down

Trying not to be screwed over again, Mexico held a firm stance against the US exploiting its workforce. Throughout the 1920s the America and Mexico negotiated on border permeability. Mexico threatened to expropriate American oil if their workers were treated unfairly; so, a middle ground of human rights and productivity was required. Border restrictionists finally got their wish in 1929 with the criminalization of migrants entering the country without visas. Growers received a blow to their workforce due to this decision, as the number of Mexican immigrants dwindled from ~70,000 to ~40,000 (Lawrence Cardoso "Mexican Emigration...Socio-Economic Causes").

For the first time in American history, it was now officially illegal to cross an imaginary line. Consecutive points covering a land mass determined a migrant's freedom. Obviously entering another country impermissibly held consequences prior to this decree; and yet, the legislation of controlling humans was only enacted some 150 years after the US's conception. The border now held more power than ever.

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.

source: https://kneb.com/agricultural/afbf-and-national-ffa-organization-to-work-together-to-share-the-story-of-agricultural-education/

Leverage Shifts

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

A Consistent State of Pure Chaos

Photo of Honduran Migrants Entering the US:

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/02/world/americas/caravans-migrants-mexico-trump.html

Border Manipulation

Following World War 2, the United States began using its newfound leverage to open the borders at its own will. The US’s disrespect for the Mexican government is indicative of its ultimate purpose for drafting the border: to distinguish between the Mexicans it wanted and didn’t want. The border portrays both America’s desire for homogeneity and control. A longing for both isolation and exploitation. The border is America’s performance of opportunistic discrimination. It would open the border only when it was completely beneficial to the US, and shut it down if it meant crippling Mexico. This unconventional tactic allowed many undocumented immigrants to enter the United States, and effectively prevented them from ever achieving citizenship by simultaneously quoting the bracero program.

The border has sustained a nonconformist lifestyle to this day. The past 3 executive administrations failed to solidify some rigidity to the border. In order to decrease the volatility of the Southern border, we must make clear defined boundaries on what is acceptable. A healthy boundary between nations is pertinent for establishing a healthy relationship between them. The border is a byproduct of the racist society we crafted. The border is America’s masquerade, and we are the attendees.

Relevant Video

Vintage video describing the Bracero Program

Source: C-SPAN. YouTube, YouTube, 28 Mar. 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhikWfQB6SU.



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Created By
Kingston Armstrong