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Dispatches from the Mexico-U.S. Border

In the spring and summer of 2014, reports of the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America re-ignited longstanding debates about U.S. immigration policies and their enforcement along the shared border with Mexico. As a recent New York Times report points out, the approximately 51,000 child migrants who made harrowing journeys from their homes in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador were part of an even larger surge of migrants seeking to escape the escalating violence in Central America. The arrival of so many migrants–and migrant children, in particular–sent media commentators and analysts into overdrive as they wondered what was behind this migration and how it might be stopped. Borderland observers know, however, that this migration was not entirely without precedent.

For much of the past decade, journalist Margaret Regan has documented the human costs of the recent militarization of the Mexico-U.S. border, especially that portion of the line that separates Arizona from Sonora. Regan opens her book, The Death of Josseline, with the story of the ill-fated attempt by a Salvadoran girl to reunite with her mother in Los Angeles. The story Josseline’s death in the Arizona desert provides a chilling reminder from the recent past of the human costs of border enforcement. In these two articles, Kurtis Montgomery and Francesca Speed consider Regan’s work alongside some of the historical antecedents to the heightened border security of the post-9/11 world. By connecting recent discussions of the costs and consequences of border enforcement, these two authors invite us to recall the depth and complexity of the issues surrounding these recent migrant crossings.

Professor M. Hogue, Department of History Carleton University

Another Brick in an Unnecessary Wall  by Kurtis Montgomery (B.A. student)

The United States has always billed itself as the land of opportunity, where hard work can yield personal fortune or, at least, an improved life. Yet, it seems the United States increasingly denies that opportunity to many who do not fall on the correct side of an arbitrary line. Today, the Mexican-U.S. border is discussed in terms of absolutes, something that is rigid and cannot be compromised. Was it always so? Historians like Rachel St. John suggest that, for much of its history, the Mexican-U.S. border has been extremely porous. This porous border allowed resources to be freely exchanged across it and provided borderland communities with the necessary means of making a living. As Margaret Regan’s The Death of Josseline shows, the evolution of the border across the twentieth century, and its gradual hardening, has had devastating human consequences. By constructing bigger walls between the two nations, American policies have led more migrants to risk death in order to access this American Dream.

St. John’s study explores how the previously fluid border in the American Southwest, particularly the region of Arizona and California bordering Mexico, became “static.” She observes that, in the first decades of the twentieth century, the enforcement of this particular stretch of the border in 1909 was a joint effort by both the United States and Mexico that reflected their shared interests in regulating cross-border traffic. While Americans looked to prevent the spread of Mexican cattle diseases, Mexicans looked to the border to help maintain national sovereignty. The border and its enforcement also reflected the needs of ranchers, and the compromises made necessary by the local geography. In such an arid climate, a ranch could not just be established anywhere. It had to be built in such a way so that it had access to water and grass to help sustain the cattle herds. However, with resources being as scarce as they are in the American Southwest, this often meant a constant exchange between Mexico and the United States by ranchers who needed resources on either side to make a living. As such, clearly a static border could not work because ranchers (and their cattle) needed mobility.

The continued role of both governments in enforcing the border in the American Southwest led to problems for local ranchers on both sides. For example, both governments saw trans-national ranching as a great way to make money and therefore established customs booths on trails used by the ranchers. Yet, those booths were established in such way as to not deter people from doing business across the border. Thus, there were a series of check points and gates that allowed a steady exchange of goods and items. Yet, these booths were nonetheless points of contention for the local residents on both sides of the border. These new points of entry detracted greatly from the original notion of the border, which was built around direct access to necessary resources like food and water. These new points of entry were seemingly arbitrary and often required difficult detours. Therefore the construction of even a semi-static border was disruptive to the common means of labor in the border regions.

Regan’s study explores the legacies of the static border. She talks with many different migrants about their experiences, most of whom are coming north to try to make a better life for themselves or their loved ones, just as the earliest immigrants to America did. She also details the inhuman traveling conditions, the merciless terrain, and the overall toll taken in migrant lives caused by the American policies which force migrants to trek through the Arizona outback. Regan also speaks with Arizona residents about their own experiences with the newly militarized border. For many it seems, the enhanced border enforcement infringed on their own property rights and created a situation of constant intrusion by federal agents. Regan’s stories suggest that the static and increasingly militarized border cause unnecessary deaths and excessive surveillance.

The militarization of the border has not changed the needs or desires of migrants to move across it. As a result of American economic trends, many migrants face terrible working conditions in their homelands. Since arrangements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) were put in place, many local residents found the agriculture they relied on no longer offered a sustainable means of work. Thus, the porous border became essential for workers in Mexico and Central America, as only in the U.S could they make a decent wage and support their loved ones. It was also beneficial for many in the United States, who relied on their labor.

As Regan observes in her prologue Doris Meissner, commissioner of the United States Naturalization and Immigration Services comments on the new border that “We did believe that geography would be an ally to us.” The least monitored areas of crossing are the ones that lead directly into the Arizona back country. Since there are only a few select corridors that actually lead to places of work like Tucson and Phoenix, these are the most heavily enforced and most difficult for migrants to use. Thus, these weaker points of entry are not only in arid regions, but are also quite far from the intended destinations of migrant workers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, migrant deaths increased as more were forced to travel through these inhospitable regions. As well, there was no compromise with the Arizona residents over the last decade as there was with the ranchers at the turn of the century. Though the American ranchers of the Southwest, starting around the 1890s, often suffered losses in terms of land as Mexico sought to enforce the sovereignty of their government against American encroachment, they did not face the military intrusion that many citizens of Arizona now have to live with. Thus the American government in Regan’s study not only intruded on land, they intruded into the very lives of people living near the border, violating basic rights of land ownership and privacy, while enforcing policies that make desperate migrants risk death.

Where once the Mexican-American border was porous and allowed people to come and go more freely, events such as 9/11 and the explosion of drug-related violence in Mexico caused a dramatic shift in American border policy. Since the border has become militarized, straying from its historical origins as porous and accommodating, migrants hoping to enter America in search of work suddenly find themselves being stifled in their search for a better life. At the same time, the livelihood of border citizens–the very people the border is meant to protect–also face intrusions on their land and their privacy and restrictions in their rights. By not listening to their own citizens and acting in a way that causes such a loss of life are not critical parts of the American Dream becoming nightmares?


Regan, Margaret. The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010.

St. John. Rachel. “Divided Ranges: Trans-border Ranches and the Creation of National Space Along the Western Mexico-U.S. Border.” In Bridging National Borders in North America, edited by Benjamin Johnson and Andrew Graybill, 116-140. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Migrant Lives & Border Politics: The Hidden History of Border Enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico Border  by Francesca Speed (B.A. student)

On the growth of the United States and the creation of the U.S.-Mexican border, Oscar J. Martínez wrote that, “Mexico had to be on its guard lest it lose more territory to its land-hungry neighbour”; one hundred and fifty years later, Mexico’s attention has shifted from losing its land, to losing its people. In recent years, the flow of migrants north has captured the attention of observers like Margaret Regan, whose work, The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands, examines the issues faced by trans-border migrants looking to find employment in the United States to lift the families that they have left behind up from poverty. Earlier efforts to patrol this boundary, including Operation

Wetback–one of the most infamous cases of migrant policing in the last century–helps us to see these recent efforts in a different light (Hernández). If one traces the history of the efforts to patrol this border, the similarities of the migrant experience from the 1950s to the present day are found to greatly outweigh the differences, and closer examination of both historical and contemporary experiences provides a comprehensive picture of life for migrants on both sides of the border: both those hoping to make their way al Norte and those who have come so far, but still have so far to go.

The Death of Josseline forces the reader to confront the dangers for those migrants seeking to make their way to the United States through less-than-legal means. Many employ the services of a coyote, a so-called guide that promises to deliver migrants across the border for a usually-exorbitant fee. The process is fraught with danger: “‘They tell them lies…Many people cheat them and take advantage. In the desert, people die. Women are raped'” (Regan).

Aside from the danger of trusting a stranger to guide them into a foreign land, the cost of using a coyote has increased exponentially over the years: one family crossed the border with a coyote in 1990 for the sum of five hundred dollars; when the father needed to return home just over a decade later to tend to his ailing father, the cost had increased fivefold. Coyotes now charged twenty-five hundred dollars to get people across the border (Laufer).  This cost, however, does not guarantee safety, as The Death of Josseline so strikingly shows (Regan).

If anything, the deaths of these migrants, usually from exposure to the harsh conditions of the Arizona desert, underscores the role of American border control policies in prompting those deaths (Regan). For example, beginning in the 1990s, Operation Gatekeeper blocked off the most used crossing points in San Diego and began the process of forcing migrants into far more dangerous regions. According to Regan, the non-profit migrant justice organization No More Deaths “calculates that more than 5,000 migrant bodies have been found in the southwest borderland between 1994 and 2009, in the years since Operation Gatekeeper got underway.”

While Doris Meissner, a commissioner for the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), reported to the Arizona Republic at the turn of the millennium that the INS believed that Operation Gatekeeper would discourage illegal immigrants from crossing the border once they learned of the deserts’ unforgiving conditions, the numbers told a very different story. As Regan ruefully notes, “their sense was wrong, tragically wrong.”

The militarisation of the border may not have been formalised until the late twentieth century, but one can certainly see the seeds of it in the 1940s and 1950s. Formally announced in 1954, Operation Wetback is often understood as a campaign conducted by U.S. law enforcement to remove illegal Mexican immigrants and send them back across the border. Historian Kelly Lytle Hernández, however, complicates that picture. Operation Wetback had its origins in the Bracero Program of the early 1940s, which “facilitated the migration of short-term Mexican contract laborers into (and out of) the United States” (Hernández). The influx of illegal immigrants into the United States following the Depression and World War II prompted protest from parties inside and outside Mexico: Mexico’s business leaders felt that their own agricultural economy was failing due to the migration of workers north, and the Mexicans already in the United States under the Bracero Program resented the presence of illegal immigrants because they felt they lowered wages and worsened working conditions (Hernández).

In response, Mexican law required labour contracts signed by the destination country prior to departure, and U.S. law mandated that foreign workers could not be contracted prior to entering the country. A memorandum from the Mexican Embassy in December 1943 shows Mexico requesting assistance from the United States in policing the border, citing the damage to the Mexican economy caused by labour shortages (Hernández). When measures taken by the Mexican government did not have the desired effect, they appealed to the United States, and so, Operation Wetback formally began.

Operation Wetback is proof that immigrants who made their way across the border in the early half of the twentieth century still faced dangers upon arrival, most notably deportation. The measures taken by the U.S., starting in April 1945, resemble those still used today: the apprehension of illegal immigrants to an INS-run detention centre along the border where they would wait to be deported back to Mexico. Officials on both sides of the border returned illegal immigrants to Mexico “in a false hope that it would discourage them from trying their luck again in el Norte” (Laufer).

If one follows the narrative through from Operation Wetback through to contemporary accounts of migrant border crossings, a picture of telling continuity is compiled. The dangers that face illegal migrants appear on both sides of the border and the space in between: those who make it across the border may not survive the journey, and those who do risk deportation upon discovery. Through means legal or otherwise, Mexico continues to lose its people to its northern neighbour. Rather than attempting to cap a continually overflowing well, the emphasis should be put on revising existing border control policies, to ones that take into account the peril that thousands of migrants each year face in the hopes of a better economic standing.


Hernández, Kelly Lytle. “The Crimes and Consequences of Illegal Immigration: A Cross-Border Examination of Operation Wetback, 1943 to 1954,” The Western Historical Quarterly 37 (4) (2006).

Laufer, Peter. Wetback Nation: The Case for Opening the Mexican-American Border (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004).

Martínez, Oscar J. (ed.), U.S.-Mexico Borderlands: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1996).

Regan, Margaret. The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 57.

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