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History of the US and Mexico Border

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: International Relations
Wordcount: 4848 words Published: 11th Feb 2019

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Tracing the Evolving Historiography of the U.S.-Mexico Border


Regulating the border between the United States and Mexico is not a new issue. In fact, concerns over what to do with the border, what it should look like, and who should be allowed to cross have been prevalent questions since American and Mexican diplomats sat down to establish the border in the aftermath of the Mexican-American war in 1848. While the eastern half of the border is easily distinguished by the Rio Grande, the western border does not correspond to any recognizable geographic features and was instead made up of arbitrarily drawn lines through an uninhabited desert. It is along this permeable border that a borderlands historian like Rachel St. John’s monograph, Line in the Sand (2011), is concerned. While St. John’s work declares itself to be a history of the actual border, earlier historians like Clarence Clendenen and his work, Blood on the Border: The United States Army and the Mexican Irregulars (1969), is more of a military history discussing the United States army’s involvement in border clashes with Indian and Mexican forces. In later years, economic and public policy history became the preferred methodology of examining the history of the U.S.-Mexico border like Douglas Massey’s Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration (2002) which examines the issue of managing immigration from Mexico through the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in an era of increasing economic interdependence caused by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

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When examined side by side, these three monographs are a good representation of just how drastically historians have changed the way they discuss they border in only the last fifty years. Since its inception, the ways in which historians discuss the U.S.-Mexico border have evolved significantly. Unlike earlier approaches, which were biased toward the United States and primarily concerned with the American point of view, newer works like St. John’s are beginning to take a more transnational approach to tracing the evolution of the boundary between the two nation-states from its inception as a meaningless line on a map to the complex system of barriers and strict regulation that allows for the easy passage of some people, animals, commodities, and goods, while restricting the movements of others. Given the controversy and politics that are deeply entrenched in discussions about the U.S.-Mexico border, St. John’s work is by no means the pinnacle of successful transnational history, however it does act as a step in the right directions for future historians to further expand upon.

It is easy to assume that borderlands history would be inherently transnational because oftentimes borderlands are “crossroads where people and their institutions and traditions come together, creating distinctive ways of organizing space and transforming the seemingly fixed edges of empires and nations into fluid spaces”.[1] However that is not always the case, especially in the scholarship about the U.S.-Mexico border, which is heavily politicized in both nations. The best transnational histories examine the interconnections between political units, especially the flow of goods, people, and ideas across borders. These works trace how US involvement overseas shapes not only foreign peoples, but also Americans back home. The most successful works incorporate a variety of historical methods and draw on US and foreign archives while paying attention to the role of non-state actors and the agency of non-elites.[2] While each monograph discussed tend to only focus on a few of these qualifiers, there is a noticeable trend that scholarship is becoming more transnational, however maybe not as quickly as one would thing. The subject matter of borderland history lends itself well to transnational methodology, however historians are still more concerned with the elite actors, politics, and the American point of view for any of these works to be considered truly transnational.

Blood on the Border

Published in 1969, Clendenen’s Blood on the Border: The United States Army and the Mexican Irregulars is one of the earliest examples of borderland history and thus takes a more traditionalist approach to historical writing. As a graduate of West Point and the Curator Emeritus of the Military Collection at Stanford University, it is no surprise that Clendenen’s monograph is primarily focused on the tense history of border skirmishes that occurred between the U.S. and Mexican armies between 1848 and 1917.  Clendenen’s work chronicles a series of episodes where the U.S. and Mexican armies clashed with each other beginning with the activities of Juan Cortina who was a Robin Hood-like figure, later chapters also describes U.S. military activity during the Civil War, the campaigns against the Kickapoos and Apaches, and border problems during the revolutionary period. Clendenen then devotes over half of the book to examining General Pershing’s Punitive Expedition against the Mexican revolutionary general Francisco “Pancho” Villa in 1916.

Clendenen’s main argument is that the Punitive Expedition was not a humiliating failure for the US military, however this period of U.S.-Mexico history has been greatly neglected by historians because it had been forgotten amidst the earlier wars with the Plains Indians and World War I. He argues: “General Pershing’s Punitive Expedition was soon so over-shadowed by the entry of the United States into World War I that historians have given it scant attention, and most of those who grant it a few sentences, or a paragraph or two, are amazingly misinformed about it. Yet the operations of small American forces in northern Mexico on numerous occasions constitute a phase of our military history that is well worth rescuing”.[3]

To support his argument, Clendenen relies on a variety of sources including interviews, diaries and autobiographies of American soldiers, as well as U.S. archival sources. However Mexican sources are nearly nonexistent. He justifies that the exclusion of Mexican sources was intentional because his goal is to describe the basis on which American commanders formed their decisions. Clendenen argues that his research deliberately presents only the American perspective on the border conflicts because that is the nature of military history. “A military history written from the point of view of a participant nation is necessarily one-sided; it cannot be completely objective regarding the enemy… the commander of a military unit must base his decisions upon the information he actually has at a given moment—not upon what a scholar or historian may know half a century later… Hence, I make no apology for having cited very few Mexican sources…”.[4] Clendenen is also reluctant to include Mexican sources because, he argues, it is very difficult for an American to obtain firsthand information regarding events and activities. “Mexicans, for some reason or other,” he says, “are reluctant to discuss border events with Americans”.[5] This type of justification for focusing on the American narrative falls in line with most of the early scholarship about the U.S.-Mexico border. Very little, if any, of Clendenen’s work can be considered transnational even though its subject matter is about the US and Mexican army’s movements throughout the borderlands. Aside from examining the interconnections between political units (in this case, the militaries of two countries), Clendenen does little to examine the flow of goods, people, and ideas across borders, or focus on the role of non-state actors and the agency of non-elites. Little attention is also paid to tracing how the United States’ involvement overseas affects those back home.

Beyond Smoke and Mirrors 

By the early 2000s, scholarship on the U.S.-Mexico border was starting to become more willing to discuss the non-state, non-American actors, though it still tended to have a strong American perspective. Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration (2002) by Douglas Massey et al. examines the economic and public policy history of the U.S.-Mexico border—specifically the opposing effects of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—to draw conclusions about the complexities of how the border operated between 1965 and 1986. Massey et al. argue that the migration system between Mexico and the United States is similar to a complicated piece of machinery and that their monograph is meant to troubleshoot the problems of immigration by describing the dramatic impact that immigration policies have had on those living in Mexico as well as the United States.

The monograph operates as a sort of owner’s manual and describes how the migration system was built, how it worked until immigration policies first passed in 1986 disrupted it, and how the system changed as a consequence. Subsequently in its repair manual, the authors offer a specific set of proposals designed to fix the damage caused by these policies and make migration efficient and predictable again. The authors argue,

Just as it is not advisable to take a wrench to a precision clock if one is not a qualified clockmaker, it is not wise to pull policy levers if one has no real conception of how the underlying system functions. Yet this is exactly what happened beginning in 1986, when the US Congress and successive presidents presided over a series of legislative and bureaucratic changes that fundamentally changed the rules under which the Mexico-US migration system operated…we seek to provide policymakers and citizens with a more accurate blueprint of the nuts and bolts of the Mexico-US migration system. We offer a kind of ‘owner’s manual’ to explain how the system works theoretically, how it was built historically, and how it functions substantively, or at least how it did function until the 1986 IRCA threw it out of synch.[6]

To support their arguments, Massey et al. utilize an economic history methodology by using a variety of historical methods, statistical methods, and economic theory to closely examine the relationship between immigration and U.S. public policies. Similar to Clendenen’s work, Massey et al. also do not look beyond the American archives for source materials. However their sources do show a greater amount of variety than Clendenen’s and even includes published articles from Mexican scholars, which is something Clendenen specifically avoided. The authors gathered information from a diverse set of sources including official statistics from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the Mexican National Statistical Institute, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations.[7] Most notably, the authors rely on data compiled by the Mexican Migration Project (MMP), a bi-national research project compiled by the University of Guadalajara and the University of Pennsylvania and directed by two of the authors, Jorge Durand and Douglas S. Massey.[8]

Compared to Clarence Clendenen’s work, Beyond Smoke and Mirror shows a significant transformation in how historians study and write about the U.S.-Mexico border though the approach only hits on a few of the key qualifiers of a truly transnational work.  For example, Clendenen was solely concerned with recording the experiences of Americans who served in the army in the borderlands and justifying the United States’ involvement in various border skirmishes. On the other hand, Massey et al. have expanded the scope of their research in order to examine the broader picture of the immigration of non-state, non-elite actors and the influence agricultural employers and American politics had on the ebb and flow of people across the border. Massey et al. also attempt to address how the implementation of IRCA and NAFTA have interrupted the stable circular flow of Mexican migrants who arrived in the United States, quickly found jobs, and returned to Mexico for several months before migrating back to the United States again. This steady immigration system “minimized the negative consequences and maximized the gain for both countries”. [9] In this aspect, the authors attempted to explain how United States involvement in Mexico reshaped the lives of not only Mexicans, but also Americans back home.

Line in the Sand

One of the most recent works of scholarship about the U.S.-Mexico border is Rachel St. John’s Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border (2011). As part of Princeton University’s America in the World series, this monograph is meant to represent the newest transnational methodology historians are using when writing about U.S-Mexico border history. St. John does employ a transnational methodology in her examination of the history of the U.S.-Mexico border, displaying a tremendous amount of change in the field, however the degree to which she utilizes key aspects of a true transnational work are somewhat disappointing for a monograph published in a transnational history series. This appears to be a problem concerning the subject area rather than the author, as other historians such as Mae Ngai and her work, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004),appear to suffer similar shortcomings.

Regardless, St. John’s work does create a very useful stepping stone to guide future historians away from nationalistic, America-centered histories and towards studies not confined to political units that are more concerned with the role of non-state actors as subjects of an incredibly complex system. St. John attempts to differentiate her work from earlier scholarship about the border by immediately asserting that she is writing about the history of the physical border from its conception up to its modern form in the 1930s. She argues that the actual border itself is often ignored in scholarship that is supposedly about the border: “As borderlands historians have emphasized historical processes that transcend national boundaries and have expanded their focus to include zones of interaction outside of the US Southwest and Mexican north, they have often treated the border itself as in irrelevant or incidental part of the borderlands. By contrast, I emphasize the centrality of the boundary line in the processes of market expansion, conquest, state building, and identity formation with which many borderlands historians are concerned”.[10] St. John examines the transformation of the border chronologically from its origins in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, to a prosperous economic crossroads, and finally into a heavily policed series of checkpoints intent on keeping certain people and goods from crossing.

St. John breaks her research up into chapters that can almost be viewed as a series of vignettes or snapshots throughout time of how the western U.S.-Mexico border quickly began to change. From its inception as well as the actual attempts by surveyors to map out the border, St. John argues that simply drawing a line on a map does not automatically guarantee territorial authority for a nation, especially one that is not marked by any distinct geographical features like the western border. Essentially, she writes, the creation of the western border “conjured up an entirely new space where there had not been one before”.[11] This is significant because for many years, the border remained a porous boundary that actually encouraged border residents to move freely. This idea of a porous border was especially beneficial for commercial development and bi-national cooperation, especially with the arrival of railroads in the 1880s. With the creation of railroads, St. John notes that a capitalist revolution had occurred, “grasslands became ranches, mountains became mines, and the border itself became a site of commerce and communities… by the early twentieth century the border had become a point of connection and community in the midst of an emerging capitalist economy and the center of a transborder landscape of property and profit”.[12] However with the development of transnational capitalism came the creation of state border control, which was intent on protecting investors that profited from this economy by controlling the passage of goods and people across the border. By this time, military power was no longer the primary concern along the border. Instead, the U.S. and Mexico’s sovereignty was “measured in customs collected, immigrants rejected, and bandits arrested”.[13] The latter half of St. John’s work examines the use of the border to manage immigration. The ultimate challenge for both countries was the creation of a conditional border that allowed for the passage of desired migrants and commerce but obstructed the flow of those who were not welcome.[14] This conditional border was incredibly inconsistent and depended largely on the discretion of immigration officials, changes in law, and fluctuating economic conditions.[15]

St. John attempts to address each of the key aspects of a transnational methodology with varying degrees of success. Most obvious is her examination of the interconnections between political units and the flow of goods, people, and ideas across borders because this is the entire basis of her research. Unlike Clendenen and Massey who only focused on the one-way flow of people and goods from Mexico to the United States, St. John actually expands on this idea in her work by examining the flow of people from Mexico to the United States and then back to Mexico at different points in time in the early twentieth century. She spends a considerable amount of time discussing the effects that immigration policy changes had on immigrant laborers, their families, and their communities—aspects of immigration that the earlier historians had all but ignored.

Similar to St. John, Massey et al. also discuss the idea that the economy in the United States played a significant hand in influencing the ebb and flow of Mexican immigration, however they fail at investigating what happened to these people once they emigrated back to Mexico. St. John discusses the fluctuations of immigration, but she also attempts to tell the other side of the story by including the Mexican government’s response to deportations and increasingly strict immigration laws.[16] In this way, St. John does a much better job than earlier historians at tracing how U.S. involvement and policies shaped not only Mexican citizens, but Americans as well. This becomes increasingly apparent as she examines the sharp increases in policing of the border in the 1930s as “ government officials not only made it more difficult for new migrants to cross the border but also criminalized Mexicans as “illegal aliens” and encouraged, coerced, and forced hundreds of thousands of Mexican nationals and US citizens of Mexican descent to move to Mexico”.[17] Changes in U.S. policy in attempts to protect its economy and citizens clearly affected deported Mexican citizens and people of Mexican descent, but it also fed into the growing anti-Mexican sentiment that many Americans were feeling at the time, essentially treating Mexican laborers as scapegoats for the lack of jobs leading up to the Great Depression.

One aspect of St. John’s work that could use improvement is diversifying the sources that she uses. Again, this appears to be a problem inherent in this subject area rather than any fault of the author. While Clendenen intentionally used only American sources, later historians of U.S.-Mexico relations like Massey et al. and even Mae Ngai appear to have trouble including a fair amount of sources from foreign archives. This could be for a variety of reasons including language barriers, lack of access to the archives, or simply because perhaps the majority of scholarship on this subject could be published in the United States. St. John seems to have been more successful at including Mexican scholarship in her work compared to earlier scholars, however for a monograph specifically about the border between Mexico and the United States, her sources are still notably one-sided. Out of all of her research, St. John only visited three archives in Mexico to complete her work. These include the Archivo General del Estado de Sonora, the Archivo Histórico Genaro Estrada, and the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas.[18] In comparison to the numerous American archives she visited, it is hard to understand why she chose to include so few Mexican sources when a significant portion of her work is dedicated to the communities located on the Mexican side of the border. The vast majority of St. John’s research was conducted within the United States and she uses a variety of American archives to complete her work using a large assortment of books, photographs, manuscript collections, microfilm reels, government documents, and newspapers. St. John’s use of source materials is comparable to Massey et al. who used similar documents to complete their work only a decade earlier. The fact that scholars have yet to utilize Mexican sources to their greatest potential is somewhat disappointing for a work of transnational history but perhaps the next generation of historians will be able to improve the situation if the controversy and politics that are deeply entrenched in discussions about the U.S.-Mexico border ever simmer down. Rachel St. John’s Line in the Sand is the latest attempt by borderlands historians taking a transnational approach to their work. It may not be successful in all aspects of a truly transnational methodology however it does set the stage for future historians to build off of and think outside of the borders of traditional U.S.-centric histories.


Concerns over regulating the U.S.-Mexico border, what it should look like, and who should be allowed to cross it are issues as relevant today as they were when the border was first established 170 years ago. Tune into any news network today and information on the latest immigration policies and border control will surely be hotly debated between policymakers, citizens, and corporations who all have differing opinions on how the border should operate. While obvious geographical features like the Rio Grande easily delineate the eastern portion of the U.S.-Mexico border, the western border cuts through uninhabitable desert that is barely marked with more than a few fence posts in some areas. It is along this permeable half of the border that borderlands historians situate their work.

Borderland histories have transformed significantly over the course of the century as historians are beginning to leave behind the nationalistic, pro-American sentiments of historical writing behind in favor of a better-rounded transnational approach that situates America in the context of the greater history of the world. Published in 1969, Clarence Clendenen’s Blood on the Border: The United States Army and the Mexican Irregulars represents the ways in which earlier historians often used military history when discussing border issues. In later years, economic and public policy history became the preferred methodology of examining the history of the U.S.-Mexico border like Douglas Massey’s Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration (2002). In recent years, historians like Rachel St. John are attempting to examine the history of the actual border itself without tying themselves down to writing specifically from the perspective of any one nation state. When examined chronologically, these monographs show just how drastically historians have changed the way they discuss they border in just the last fifty years. Unlike the earlier approaches to writing about the border, which were primarily concerned with the American point of view, newer works like St. John’s are beginning to take a more transnational approach to tracing the evolution of the boundary between Mexico and the United States from its inception as an unclear and undefined political boundary to the complex system of border patrols and strict regulation that allows for the easy passage of some people, animals, commodities, and goods, while at the same time restricting the movements of others.

In many other fields of study, the transnational approach to history was specifically sparked by changes in how we examine and write about history in a post-9/11 world. However, discussions over the U.S.-Mexico border do not seem to follow this trend quite as closely as it is still a subject the general public is hotly divided over. This could be attributed to many reasons such as current events involving recently elected U.S. leadership fear mongering that it is imperative for the safety of American citizens and the economy to build a two thousand mile long wall along the border. This feeds into a deep-seated distrust of the immigration system after using Mexican immigrants as a convenient scapegoat for the better half of a century. As long as U.S. citizens, our government, and policies continue to vilify our neighbors to the south, any sort of progressive transnational scholarship will not be possible.


Clendenen, Clarence C., Blood on the Border: The United States Army and the Mexican Irregulars. London: The Macmillan Company, 1969.

Hamalainen, Pekka and Benjamin Johnson. “What is Borderlands History?” In Major Problems in the History of North American Borderlands, 1-40.Wandsworth Publishing, 2011.

Accessed May 1, 2017.



Massey, Douglas S., Jorge Durand, and Nolan J. Malone. Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002.

St. John, Rachel. Line in the Sand: A history of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

[1] Pekka Hamalainen and Benjamin Johnson, “What is Borderlands History?”, in Major Problems in the History of North American Borderlands (Wandsworth Publishing, 2011), 1.

[2] Class notes.

[3] Clarence C. Clendenen, Blood on the Border: The United States Army and the Mexican Irregulars (London: The Macmillan Company, 1969). Xvi.

[4] Ibid., xvii

[5] Ibid.

[6] Douglas S. Massey et al., Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002). 2.

[7] Ibid., 165.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 71.

>[10] Rachel St. John, Line in the Sand: A history of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011). 5-6.

[11] Ibid., 2.

[12] Ibid., 64.

[13] Ibid., 90.

[14] Ibid., 175.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 188.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 249.


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