Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: US–Mexico Border from Blackwell Encyclopedias in Social Sciences: The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Globalization

The US–Mexico international border was officially established in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. It extends 1960 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, with four US states (California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas) bordering six Mexican states (Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas). There are 14 sister-cities that are paired and interdependent on each side of the border, separated only by the international boundary – most famously, San Diego–Tijuana and El Paso–Ciudad Juarez. There are 42 official crossing points along the US–Mexico border. It is estimated that it is one of the most transited borders in the world, second only to the US–Canada border. Populations along the US–Mexico border also include many indigenous tribes who live on both sides of the border and are separated by the international boundary. There are 26 federally recognized indigenous tribes on the US side, and seven officially-recognized indigenous tribes on the Mexican. Conflict over indigenous sovereignty and immigration law enforcement has emerged recently. Most notably, the Tohono O’odhma people, mostly settled in northern Sonora, Mexico, and in north to central Arizona, have complained that the US Border Patrol has detained and deported members of their nation traveling through their own traditional lands. With the Agreement on Cooperation for the Protection and Improvement of the Environment in the Border Area, signed in 1983 in La Paz, Baja California, Mexico, both the United States and Mexico designated the border region as 62.5 miles (100 kilometers) on each side of the international boundary. Today, 12 million people live in this border region, 90 percent of whom reside in the 14 sister-cities. The population is expected to reach 19.4 million by 2020 (EPA 2009). One of the most important issues, that has actually brought about cooperation among both the United States and Mexico, has been the pollution along the border. Rapid population growth coupled with industrial development and waste has created environmentally unsound air and water quality for the population living in the 14 metropolitan areas along the US–Mexico border. Population growth, as well as migration, unemployment and underemployment, along the border has been closely linked to the emergence and expansion of the maquiladoras – outsourced assembly plants. In 1965, the Mexican government launched the Mexican Industrialization Program (BIP) to provide economic incentives for US and international companies to establish assembly plants in the border region. In 1994, the US–Mexico border was opened up further to trade and assembly plants with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Violence along the US–Mexico border has become chronic. In 1993, women began disappearing in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, drawing attention from journalists, academics, and human rights groups. These femicides – totaling more than 500 deaths and disappearances among women in this border sector – have been neither clarified nor stopped (Alba & Guzman 2010). The violence along the border has exploded since 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderon, shortly after taking office, declared war on drug cartels. By 2008, President Bush signed the Merida Initiative, pledging $1.4 billion dollars to Mexico to help combat drug cartels. This war on drugs has resulted in more than 28 000 deaths as of December 2010. The violence and resulting death generated by this war on drugs in Mexico has impacted the border region especially.

The Labor Appropriations Act of 1924 officially established the US Border Patrol to control the US–Mexico border between official inspection points. Before 1993, the US Border Patrol’s strategy to deal with undocumented migrants was to catch and release, that is, undocumented migrants were caught after they entered the United States and immediately sent back to Mexico. This strategy created a revolving door through which undocumented migrants tried to enter the United States, were detained and released, and would try again immediately through a different site. However, in 1993, El Paso Border Patrol chief Silvestre Reyes began implementing a new strategy along El Paso sector known as prevention through deterrence. This new strategy was based on the logic that undocumented migrants should be prevented from entering the United States altogether through various deterrence mechanisms. The operation, called Operation Blockade (later renamed Operation Hold-The-Line), was a success along that sector, and thus began being implemented elsewhere along the border. The new Border Patrol strategy resulted in two important shifts in border enforcement policies. First, since 1993 there has been a sustained increase in the budget allocated for border enforcement. Second, new resources are concentrated in segments heavily used by undocumented migrants (Cornelious 2001). Prevention-through-deterrence strategies have now been implemented throughout the border: in 1994 Operation Gatekeeper was implemented in California, in 1995 Operation Safeguard was established in Arizona, and in 1997 Operation Rio Grande was launched in Brownsville, Texas.

The effectiveness of prevention-through-deterrence policies has not been proven, but the unintended consequences for would-be migrants have been dire. These policies have raised the costs (in the form of higher smuggler fees) and increased the risks (as more people die each year trying to cross undocumented) associated with crossing into the United States undocumented. Moreover, these policies have also resulted in higher rates of settlement and longer periods of stay among undocumented migrants in the US.

Scholars have argued that the intensification of border enforcement since 1993 has been largely symbolic (Andreas 2000; Nevins 2002), since it has not effectively curbed border crossings of undocumented migrants. Nevertheless, a host of human rights abuses have arisen with the new border enforcement strategy of prevention-through-deterrence (Dunn 2010; Nevins 2003; Falcon 2001), although such violence is not new along the US–Mexico border (Hernandez 2010). Scholars focused on the historical development of border enforcement have emphasized how the US–Mexico border has been constructed out of competing interests of the state (Tichenor 2002), agribusiness (Calvita 2010), and racial ideologies (Montejano 1987).

Scholarly theorizing on the US–Mexico border has addressed the borderlands from two perspectives. On one hand, social science academics have focused on the geographical realities of border inhabitants. Alvarez (1995) describes such works as “literalist,” focusing on the issues of the geographical border: history, migration, policy, militarization, enforcement, settlement, environment, identity, labor and health.

On the other hand, cultural studies academics have focused on the figurative borderland. These “metaphorical” scholars have focused on the social boundaries and the relations along the border that involve contradictions, conflict, and the shifting of identities, most famously in the work of Gloria Anzaldua (1987), while Mignolo (2000) has theorized “border thinking” as the transformation of hegemonic thinking into a critical and dialogic tool to critique all fundamentalisms. Vila (2000), on the other hand, has shown how rather than adopting hybrid identities, border subjects often construct categories of differentiation (like “Fronterizo,” “Anglos,” etc.), to demarcate differences between themselves and others. Thus, the geographical border does not necessarily correspond to the metaphorical borderlands. Hybrid, flexible, borderlands subjects, as theorized by Gloria Anzaldua, are politicized identities that are not necessarily attached to or dependent on a geographical border experience.

SEE ALSO: Borders; Migrants; Migration; Migration Control; Migration and the State; North American Free Trade Agreement.

REFERENCES
  • Alba, A.G.D.; Guzman, G. (eds.) (2010) Making A Killing: Femicide, Free Trade, and La Frontera. University of Texas Press Austin.
  • Alvarez, R.R.J. (1995) The Mexican-US border: the making of an anthropology of borderlands. Annual Review of Anthropology 24, 447-470.
  • Andreas, P. (2000) Border Games: Policing The US-Mexico Divide. Cornell University Press Ithaca, NY.
  • Anzaldua, G. (1987) Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books San Francisco.
  • Calvita, K. (2010) Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Immigration, and the I.N.S. Quid Pro Books New Orleans, LO.
  • Cornelious, W.A. (2001) Death at the border: efficacy and unintended consequences of US immigration control policy. Population and Development Review 27, 661-685.
  • Dunn, T.J. (2010) Blockading the Border and Human Rights: The El Paso Operation That Remade Immigration Enforcement. University of Texas Press Austin.
  • EPA (2009) US-Mexico Border 2012 Program. US Environmental Protection Agency. Available at www.Epa.Gov/Usmexicoborder/Framework/Index.Html (accessed April 17, 2010).
  • Falcon, S.M. (2001) Rape as a weapon of war: advancing human rights for women at the US-Mexico border. Social Justice 28, 31-50.
  • Hernandez, K.L. (2010) Migra!: A History of the US Border Patrol. University of California Press Berkeley.
  • Mignolo, W.D. (2000) The many faces of cosmo-polis: border thinking and critical cosmopolitanism. Public Culture 12, 721-748.
  • Montejano, D. (1987) Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986. University of Texas Press Austin.
  • Nevins, J. (2002) Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Making of the US-Mexico Boundary. Routledge New York.
  • Nevins, J. (2003) Thinking out of bounds: a critical analysis of academic and human rights writings on migrant deaths in the US-Mexico border region. Migraciones Internacionales 2, 171-190.
  • Tichenor, D. (2002) Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control In America. Princeton University Press Princeton, NJ.
  • Vila, P. (2000) Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders: Social Categories, Metaphors, and Narrative Identities on the US-Mexico Frontier. University of Texas Press Austin.
  • Heidy Sarabia
    Wiley ©2012

    Related Credo Articles

    Full text Article UNITED STATES-MEXICO BORDER
    Great Debates in American Environmental History

    Time Period: 1819 to the present In This Corner: United States In the Other Corner: Mexico Other Interested Parties: Tribal groups,...

    Full text Article UNITED STATES-MEXICO BORDER WATERS: CONVENTIONS, TREATIES, AND INSTITUTIONS
    Water Encyclopedia: Oceanography; Meteorology; Physics and Chemistry; Water Law; and Water History, Art, and Culture

    SELECTED TREATIES AND CONVENTIONS Cooperation over shared United States-Mexico waters dates back to the Treaty of Peace, Friendship,...

    Full text Article IMMIGRATION ALONG THE UNITED STATES-MEXICO BORDER
    Great Debates in American Environmental History

    Time Period: Throughout history, but particularly since the nineteenth century In This Corner: Immigrants, human rights activists In the...

    See more from Credo