With Trump promising military action at the southern border in response to a highly publicized migrant “caravan,” it’s easy to let our historical amnesia set in about the recentness of the border and our fears of Mexican and Central American crossers.
Between 1846 and 1853, we had no recognizable boundary with Mexico — this due to a mix of factors including Native American raids against surveyor camps, an unexpected death in the joint border-planning committee, and poorly drafted map materials. Between that time and Mexican “repatriation” in the 1930s — when our government sent many Mexican-Americans south to their “historic” homeland — impromptu migration northward was not uncommon, whether for farm-work for other opportunity. The United States did not have any quota or cap on Mexican migration like it did for other regions.
All the way into the 1960s, it was common for Mexicans to enter the country under seasonal farming permits from the “Bracero Program,” which accommodated historical migration patterns based around the agriculture economy. Certain Native American bands continue to border-hop to this day under protections designed to preserve traditional ranges of movement. (A 1983 law secured these rights for the Texas Kickapoo. A similar policy applies for Arizona’s Tohono O’odham people.)
Call these pictures what you will; they are certainly not the hermetically sealed border of GOP fantasy. And understanding this paves the way for an even shorter history of other global borderlands.
Before 1957, almost none of sub-Saharan Africa existed under its current political arrangement. Where borders did boast official legal status, their defense was often impossible in practice, and the lines themselves often assumed the loyalty of their inside occupants. Such was the case in Namibia (formerly “South West Africa”) under South African rule, where most of the 900-mile northern border was demarcated by indigenous tribal reserves.
In Asia, it was much the same story. The first country to gain independence was Yemen in 1918. It was only a small sliver of desert (and a fraction of today’s Yemen).
Everywhere, borders are — as they always have been — hasty, imaginative affairs. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, they conjure real, and violent, worldviews from their faulty premises.
Underlying the problem is a worldview based on neat divisions. The hope to perfectly regulate human movement is an unfortunate dream of the modern state, and where it comes nearest to reality, its effects are visibly disfiguring. The Korean “Demilitarized Zone” is perhaps today’s only example of a perfect border: heavily guarded and completely surveilled. On either side, one is totally protected against the contagion of the other.
This sense of protection comes at great human cost. At our own southern border, 412 migrants died in 2017, adding to 341,000 who were taken into temporary or long-term custody. In 2016, the total figure for apprehended persons was nearly double that (the lower figures after 2016 reflect a combination of demoralized potential emigrants and new opportunity in Mexico). Since then, custody camps for Central American refugees have sprouted up in the borderlands, like halfway houses for those fleeing war, sexual violence, and poverty. The accounts of living conditions in these camps are distressing. Residents speak of overcrowding, illness, ridiculing from guards, and jail-like conditions. Many detainees end up getting deported after weeks or months in stir.
A similar (if more extreme) phenomenon is unfolding in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost administrative region (bordering former-Soviet Central Asia). There, the government is waging a demographic war, using a system of detention camps to house, reeducate, and sometimes torture Uyghurs, a transnational Muslim minority. Estimates put the total number of detainees at one million (high-end estimates suggest three times that).
If the problems of “border logic” aren’t obvious, consider the point raised by Bengali historian Sudipta Kaviraj that states view borders as ends in themselves, often fighting to secure control over empty, barren, remote, or depopulated space. Such was the case in the now-forgotten Paraguayan War, when Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay launched a bloody invasion of Paraguay over empty interior regions of South America. The pretext, sure enough, was an untenable border line left over from the colonial era.
My own studies focus on the history of the US-Mexico borderlands, so naturally I am partial to (and especially concerned by) that case. It is nonetheless an undeniably global problem that we are facing.
Where we can effect any sort of policy change — at the polls this November, for instance — we must move to do so. That means voting for Democrats who will advocate uncompromisingly for an end to refugee detention, an overhauled immigration system, and aid for countries sending migrants. It also means demanding the kind of international coalition-building that can make it unfashionable to commit border genocide — in Myanmar, Gaza, Xinjiang, or here at home.
If we can’t defuse the bomb of nationalism, the risks might be unprecedented. One scenario — a worst case — is what the Hungarian historian Istvan Hont ominously called, in a moment of commendable clarity, the “permanent crisis of a divided mankind.”
We should try our best to avoid that outcome.
Henry N. Brooks ’19 is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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