The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the US-Mexico Border, 1917-1954

February 18, 2017
By: Deborah Kang

In December 2014, I visited Friendship Park/El Parque de la Amistad, San Diego-Tijuana, to take photos for my book, The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the US-Mexico Border, 1917-1954 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).  As I walked along the section of the border fence moored to the stunning white sands of Imperial Beach, I followed in the footsteps of a group of surfers carrying their boards and heading home for the day.  The scene instantly transported me back to those that I had witnessed years earlier and that served as an inspiration for this book.  At various points along the line, I observed that the highly militarized character of the border didn’t bring life to a standstill.  At the El Paso-Juárez port of entry, friends happily chatted on the pedestrian bridge that was surrounded by fences, patrol roads, watchtowers, and armed immigration officials; in Nogales, Arizona elderly Americans patiently waited in line to cross the border into Nogales, Sonora where they would shop for low-cost prescription drugs; and at the San Ysidro-Tijuana crossing, thousands of Mexican nationals traveled north each day to shop, attend school, or go to work.

While the popular and scholarly literature on the nation’s immigration agencies tell us much about the emergence of a border control regime, I began my research seeking to understand what I had seen along the line; I asked how the seemingly ordinary could coexist with the rise of an extraordinary immigration enforcement system.  What I discovered is that the US-Mexico border has been and continues to be both open and closed as a matter of design.

For much of the twentieth century, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) grappled with the question of how to simultaneously close the nation’s borders to the entry of undocumented immigrants and security threats and open them to the free flow of tourists and trade.  The agency’s dilemma was particularly acute on the US-Mexico border where the constant and vehement protests of local residents — American, Asian, European, and Latin American nationals living on both sides of the line, made it nearly impossible for southwestern immigration officials to enforce the immigration restriction laws.  These measures included the Immigration Act of 1917, the Passport Act of 1918, and the national origins quota system of 1924, among others.  Any border control measure, locals repeatedly argued, damaged a flourishing binational economy and divided a community that long saw itself as one.

Local immigration inspectors addressed these competing demands by resorting to the law, or by exercising their administrative discretion to create an immigration policy for the borderlands.  In order to sustain the region’s transnational economy and society, local immigration inspectors devised a series of legal innovations that often suspended the restriction laws and facilitated the cross-border movement of local residents, laborers, merchants, and tourists.  Meanwhile, transnational considerations impinged upon the operational strategy of the Border Patrol.  While the unit never abandoned its mission to close the nation’s borders to the entry of unwanted immigrants, it recognized that the border crossing policies created by local immigration inspectors and ongoing local opposition to any form of border control rendered the achievement of that mission more difficult, particularly at the international boundary itself.  As a result, Border Patrol officers, like their counterparts in the immigration inspection force, relied upon their administrative discretion to develop policies that allowed them to conduct their enforcement operations not only at the border but also in public and private spaces within the nation’s interior.  Taken as a whole, these legal innovations reflected the ways in which the agency saw the US-Mexico border as much more than a geopolitical boundary or defensive barrier; agency officials also construed and constructed the border as an economic zone, a transnational social space, and a vast legal jurisdiction for the policing of undocumented immigrants.

Despite the local and contingent quality of the agency’s legal inventions, they ultimately served as the building blocks of the nation’s regulatory capacities along the US-Mexico border.  Some of these local innovations became standard operating procedures due to ignorance and inertia; a long-standing lack of oversight by Congress, the courts, and agency leaders in Washington, DC meant that INS officials had little incentive to change local institutional customs.  Other local practices were incorporated into the federal immigration statutes thanks to the vigorous lobbying efforts of southwestern agency leaders.  As a result, to this very day, the nation’s immigration agencies still adopt a complex approach to immigration regulation along the US-Mexico border, an approach that straddles the competing demands for an immigration policy that opens the borders to the free flow of goods and peoples and simultaneously closes it to the entry of undocumented immigrants and security threats.

The INS on the Line not only revises our historical understanding of the INS and immigration law and policy formation on the US-Mexico border, it also presents an inconvenient truth for contemporary policymakers who have proposed to close the nation’s borders to unwanted immigrants.  Their aims, I argue, have been and continue to be premised on the myth that border management is solely about border control.  Thus, for example, recent calls for the construction of a border wall, the exclusion of Muslim immigrants, and the deportation of Mexican nationals disregard the fact that throughout the twentieth century, federal officials created laws that both defended the nation’s borders and invited millions of immigrants to cross them.

Yet, despite their own awareness of the complex realities of immigration regulation, many politicians, both past and present, have continued to propound a much simpler vision of the border and border enforcement due to its enduring political appeal.  As the election of President Donald Trump has illustrated, the idea of securing the nation’s borders in the name of nativism and national security wins votes.

While policymakers in Washington, DC may have few incentives to change their posture regarding immigration law enforcement on the US-Mexico border, border residents, border officials, and their advocates on both sides of the line have many reasons to maintain the transnational character of the borderlands.  Today, despite the construction of a massive border enforcement apparatus, the communities along the line retain strong economic, social, and cultural ties.  And, in what has effectively become a local tradition, they have continued to challenge federal immigration regulations, fighting to sustain a semblance of the ordinary in the midst of the extraordinary.

Deborah Kang

Deborah Kang is an assistant professor in the History Department at California State University, San Marcos. She received her Ph.D. in US History and an M.A. in Jurisprudence and Social Policy from U.C. Berkeley.  Her research focuses on the relationship between law and society along the nation’s northern and southern borders and has been supported by grants from the Huntington Library and the Clements Center for Southwest Studies.

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