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Trouble Along the Border

Celeste Menchaca says science and technology formed the U.S.-Mexico border but never provided an effective means of its control. 

When the United States concluded its two-year war with Mexico in 1848, the ambitious victors acquired 525,000 square miles to occupy and develop. With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, America’s westward propulsion began in earnest.  

Celeste Menchaca smiling in a classroom

Celeste Menchaca, assistant professor of history, augmented her PhD in history with an added component of visual and performance studies.
Photo by Rodger Mallison

But everything wasn’t a bed of desert roses, Celeste Menchaca said. “The idea of the U.S. conquest and Manifest Destiny is that the U.S. is going to expand westward, and its all just empty land anyway. And thats not true. 

The early American Southwest is often mythologized as a vast, quiet space, said Menchaca, assistant professor of history. But the Navajo, Apache, Comanche and other native peoples had long inhabited and controlled the land, including what is now known as the border region. By the outbreak of the U.S.-Mexico war in 1846, the border space was a diverse, international mix of indigenous peoples, Mexican farmers, a few Spaniards in small urban centers and pockets of settlers from the United States. 

At the war’s conclusion two years later, the treaty ceded all of Mexico’s lands north and west of the Rio Grande River to the United States. Problems with the agreed-upon boundary, however, became immediately apparent. The border was supposed to follow the river’s meandering course before turning west across the land at El Paso, where it would proceed until it reached the Pacific Ocean 

Drawing a line to separate the two countries may have seemed like a simple task, but the process was rife with complications. For instance, the map used in the treaty marked El Paso in the wrong location, said Karl Jacoby, the Allan Nevins professor of American history at Columbia University and Menchaca’s historical research colleague. “The inaccuracies in the map raised all sorts of problems and complications about where actually the border should be. 

Drawing a Line in the Dirt 

In 1849, the U.S. and Mexico formed a joint Boundary Commission to settle, in perpetuity, the firm border. The commission’s activities are at the center of Menchaca’s forthcoming book, Borderland Sightlines: Vision, Science and the Production of a 19thcentury U.S.-Mexico Border. 

When she dove into early reports from the men who drew the border, Menchaca saw page after page of astronomical tables correlated with exact latitudes and longitudes. Those numbers were evidence of the unquestioned, almost divine authority of science, she said. “They have to look up into the heavens to be able to mark a space on the ground. I look at it as this scientific expertise thats kind of unrolling itself onto the landscape.” 

From the beginning, the efficacy of creating a firm border seemed suspect. While government officials consulted sky charts, people who had been enslaved in the United States were escaping across the invisible line to seek freedom in Mexico. Meanwhile, political infighting among boundary commissioners led to disputes and recalculations. “You have the state assembling a boundary line, but at the same time it’s simultaneously disassembled,” Menchaca said. “Its the orderly disorder of the enactment of empire. 

To give the effort a sense of permanence, officials would leave piles of rocks to demarcate the border. Some of their reports included illustrations of landmarks near the makeshift markers. Indigenous people often scattered the rocks to obfuscate the effort. Mexican farmers, wanting no part of U.S. rule, would just move the markers to the north side of their property,” Jacoby said. One boundary official wrote that he had commissioned the illustrations because he knew the markers weren’t likely to last. 

The Rio Grande also complicated the attempts to solidify a border. “It’s always in flux,” Menchaca said, explaining how floods not only washed away markers but also shifted the river’s seemingly set path. Efforts to control the river, she said, proved worthless. 

In 1898, the Boundary Commission delivered its final report. Almost half of the 500 pages were astronomical tables. Menchaca said she could visualize the significance beyond the figures. “Im literally seeing an illustration of the border right here in front of me on these pages.” 

The tables, submitted to Congress, were numerical proof included to legitimize the idea that the boundary was real and could be guarded. The people who compiled the numbers were mainly West Point graduates with substantial training in the sciences, Menchaca said. “Thats what gives them the authority then to say thats the line. 

Early Border Control Efforts 

Though the report was final, evidence of a clearly defined border was scarce. People and animals were mostly free to roam during the 19th century. Several cottages sprouted up along the line to house the few officials designated as early immigration enforcers. Those officials apprehended some Mexican citizens heading north. Though the boundary was invisible, Menchaca said,Its not permeable for everybody. 

In 1891, U.S. legislators passed an immigration act that formalized human movement between countries as a federal matter in need of stricter legislation and enforcement. Two years later, the U.S. created Boards of Special Inquiry to give authority to small groups of people that could decide who would be admitted to the United States.  

After the turn of the century, officials in Washington handed down a series of increasingly restrictive immigration acts. But on the southern border, the only physical barriers to prevent migration were erected to stop cattle from straying. Men who had an economic purpose were generally allowed free passage, but women looking to cross could cause consternation. 

Some Mexican women, Menchaca said, were detained until they could appear in front of the Boards of Special Inquiry. The boards interpreted the puritanical language in the new immigration acts, which “projected this racialized immorality or sexual immorality on the women.”  

Women seeking entry to the U.S. were often assumed, by default, to be prostitutes. Many were classified as sexually aberrant women, sexually promiscuous women that have transgressed proper gender norms,” Menchaca said. 

While many were probably single mothers seeking economic opportunity in the United States, the boards asked leading questions intended to cast aspersion on the women’s moral and sexual lives, Menchaca said. The women had to act in ways suggesting conformity to the proper gender roles of the day to avoid deportation.  

While the candid memories of the women have been lost to time, Menchaca found a box with Boards of Special Inquiry reports at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. She examined them with the careful eye of a historian. “If you read in between the lines,” she said, you can see the haunting of the people that theyre writing about. 

As if the inquisitions were not humiliating enough, migrants detained at the border outposts often were forced to undergo delousing and medical inspections. Doctors — scientific experts much like the creators of the border line — cited a nonexistent tuberculosis outbreak to justify the projection of disease onto the migrants. Menchaca wrote about her discovery in the historical record in a 2014 essay, “Crossing the Line: A History of Medical Inspection at the Border.  

The dehumanizing immigration enforcement at the southern border coincided with southern European women migrating en masse to the eastern U.S. and then joining the workforce. For the first time in U.S. history, women were leaving the confines of home and motherhood and entering public spaces, thus shifting cultural norms. 

Much of the nervousness over early women’s liberation was transferred to female migrants along the southern border, who were under suspicion for deviant behavior, Menchaca said. The immigration acts of the era forbade entry for prostitution, living with a man outside of marriage and being involved in an interracial relationship. 

The term “likely to become a public charge” had begun seeping into state immigration acts in the late 18th century and was eventually formalized as a basis for federal exclusion. While the description had no firm definition, it could be used to deny entry for almost any reason, Menchaca said. Interpretation could “be arbitrary, which means that immigration officials at the local level can really detain you and exclude you for whatever. 

Celeste Menchaca with students in a classroom

Celeste Menchaca says the people who drew the line between the United States and Mexico looked to astronomy for guidance and authority.
Photo by Rodger Mallison


Then and Now 

Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, the once-open border became more defined, more populated and more forbidding, even if the Bracero Program between 1942 and 1964 permitted migration for approved labor purposes. Still, Menchaca said, “The larger narrative about migration of the mid20th century was on men. 

The professor’s parents migrated separately from Mexico in the 1960s. They settled to raise a family in Temecula, California, about 100 miles north of the border. Menchaca said her mother still refuses to discuss her experience crossing into the United States. 

The differences in historical migration realities between men and women intrigued Menchaca, whose PhD is in American studies and ethnicity with an added component of visual and performance studies 

She spent the 2018-2019 academic year doing research and writing as a recipient of the Bill & Rita Clements Fellowship for the Study of Southwestern America. She divided her insights into two upcoming papers on the gendered regulation of immigration from Mexico and the Borderlands Sightlines book. 

When asked, Menchaca agreed that the lessons from the historical creation of the border can be applied to the 21st-century frenzy over border walls, detention centers and surveillance drones. The latter, she said, are just another example of how officials think technology can help control the U.S.-Mexico border. Science, she said, can in fact “help with understanding how this space is not controllable.” After all, the river still shifts, and no wall is immovable.  

Jacoby said he admired Menchaca’s scholarship and agreed with her observation about the fluid nature of the line of demarcation. “The border has always been a space that’s outside of our control. And so this fantasy of complete control of the border is just that, a fantasy. Its not something that is achievable in quite the way that a lot of people imagined. 

by Caroline Collier