The Mexico-U.S. Border in the American Imagination 1

By Massey, Douglas S. | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, June 2016 | Go to article overview

The Mexico-U.S. Border in the American Imagination 1


Massey, Douglas S., Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


The border between Mexico and the United States is not just a line on a map. Nor is it merely a neutral demarcation of territory between two friendly neighboring states. Rather, in the American imagination, it has become a symbolic boundary between the United States and a threatening world. It is not just a border but the border, and its enforcement has become a central means by which politicians signal their concern for citizens' safety and security in a hostile world. It has become routine for politicians and pundits to call federal authorities to task for failing to "hold the line" against a variety of alien invaders-communists, criminals, narcotics traffickers, rapists, terrorists, even microbes.

Although the Mexico-U.S. border has long been deployed as a symbolic line of defense against foreign threats, its prominence in the American imagination has ebbed and flowed over time. Over the past several decades, however, the political and emotional importance of the border as a symbolic battle line has risen. Indeed, the border has become a central trope in current political discussions about the nation's security, a process that scholars refer to as the "securitization of migration."2 Calling for more border enforcement has become the all-purpose response to whatever threat happens to appear in the public consciousness. As a result, the symbolic framing of the border as a line of defense has become increasingly real. Walls have been built, forces mobilized, and resources deployed in its defense, with profound consequences for American society.

Here I offer a brief history of the Mexico-U.S. border as a symbolic demarcation in the American mind before discussing its rise to prominence in recent years. After documenting the concrete expression of the border's rising prominence in terms of the U.S. enforcement effort, I review the dysfunctional consequences of border enforcement as a public policy and conclude by considering why, after decades of obviously counterproductive results, defending the border continues to be such a potent political metaphor in American political discourse.

Historical Construction of the Border

The Mexico-U.S. border is a relatively new construct, both in reality and in the American imagination. At the nation's inception, it did not exist-not in 1776 at the Declaration of Independence, not in 1783 when the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War, and not in 1789 when the Constitution was adopted. In the early years of the republic, there was only an amorphous western "frontier" subject to conflicting claims by European powers with hazy boundaries between their spheres of influence. At that time, the principal threat on the frontier was Native Americans, not Latin Americans, and one of the complaints lodged against King George III in the Declaration of Independence was that "he has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions." From our earliest days as a nation, therefore, our frontiers were a line dividing us from threatening others.

In theory, the Mexico-U.S. border first came into existence with Mexico's achievement of independence from Spain in 1821, although very quickly the border was blurred by the entry of U.S. settlers into northern Mexico from southern and border states in the United States. To fill its own northern provinces with people of European origin who might provide a counterweight to people it also perceived as Indian "savages," the Mexican government in 1824 enacted a National Colonization Law whose purpose was to entice Anglo-American settlers into the Province of Texas with the promise of generous land grants. Although the settlers expressed considerable discomfort with Mexican Catholicism and its centralized governance, the Texans' most serious grievance centered on the Mexican constitution's abolition of slavery and the attempt to enforce it in Texas after 1830. …

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