Imaginary Lines: Border Enforcement and the Origins of Undocumented Immigration, 1882-1930

Imaginary Lines: Border Enforcement and the Origins of Undocumented Immigration, 1882-1930

Imaginary Lines: Border Enforcement and the Origins of Undocumented Immigration, 1882-1930

Imaginary Lines: Border Enforcement and the Origins of Undocumented Immigration, 1882-1930

Synopsis

Although popularly conceived as a relatively recent phenomenon, patterns of immigrant smuggling and undocumented entry across American land borders first emerged in the late nineteenth century. Ingenious smugglers and immigrants, long and remote boundary lines, and strong push-and-pull factors created porous borders then, much as they do now.

Historian Patrick Ettinger offers the first comprehensive historical study of evolving border enforcement efforts on American land borders at the turn of the twentieth century. He traces the origins of widespread immigrant smuggling and illicit entry on the northern and southern United States borders at a time when English, Irish, Chinese, Italian, Russian, Lebanese, Japanese, Greek, and, later, Mexican migrants created various "backdoors" into the United States. No other work looks so closely at the sweeping, if often ineffectual, innovations in federal border enforcement practices designed to stem these flows.

From upstate Maine to Puget Sound, from San Diego to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas, federal officials struggled to adapt national immigration policies to challenging local conditions, all the while battling wits with resourceful smugglers and determined immigrants. In effect, the period saw the simultaneous "drawing" and "erasing" of the official border, and its gradual articulation and elaboration in the midst of consistently successful efforts to undermine it.

Excerpt

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 of 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 twentiethcentury 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 . . .

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