Border Policing: A History Of Enforcement And Evasion In North America

Editors: Holly M. Karibo and George T. Diaz
Publisher: Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2020. 288p.
Reviewer: Nicolás Eilbaum | August 2021

Border Policing is written against “the historical amnesia that often animates public debates over immigration and border enforcement,” editors Holly Karibo and George Díaz state in their introduction (p. 3). The book “asks and seeks to answer the question of how we got here” (p. 5). How did the United States northern and southern borders transform “from relatively fluid transnational regions into expansive militarized zones” (p. 5)? How can we account for the long-term expansion of “the security state” (p. 18)?

This book presents fourteen historical case studies ranging from contraband in Maine during the War of 1812, to vigilantism and violence on the Texas-Mexico border after the Mexican revolution, to female liquor smugglers along the Rio Grande during Prohibition, to changes in race and gender diversity in the Border Patrol in the 1970s, to how border policing is portrayed in reality television today. The chapters come together to build a collective argument. The various authors look for points of connection among their contributions and often cite each other.

The book is organized chronologically: from “emerging borders” in the nineteenth century to “solidifying” borders in the early and mid-twentieth century, to “expanding” borders in the late twentieth century. This presentation suggests a relatively linear progression toward more “effective” and “legitimate” border policing. The chapters highlight some of the key historical steps toward border enforcement as we know it today. This developmental process is presented as a general historical trend boosted by specific policies (such as Prohibition) and events (such as 9/11).

Although the cases presented in the book support the long-term vision, other cases might have suggested a less linear path. Most of the case studies in the book are based in the borderlands. Here, the historical expansion of federal policing power over local lives and livelihoods seems hard to dispute. Yet the story might appear differently at the national level. Here tighter border policing has coexisted with increased migration and trade (authorized and not). The “national” story seems to be as much about globalization and transnationalism as about tighter border policing and control.

Perhaps because the cases focus on the borderlands, the book uses the same framework for the border policing of people and goods. This makes sense at the local level. Several chapters show the disruptive impact of expanded federal power on local transnational economies (with chapters on tobacco, alcohol, and drugs). The movement of both people and goods has increasingly become more difficult. Yet looked at more broadly, the policing of people and goods at the border seems to point in different directions. Following NAFTA, goods could move freely but people could not. Illicit products aside, borders have become much more intent on controlling migration rather than trade.

Likewise, the book approaches the United States northern and southern borders from the same perspective. This is an attempt “to bring the literature on the northern and southern borders into conversation” (p. 7). This makes sense at the local level. The disruptive effects of border policing seem to run parallel between the northern and southern borderlands. But again, the comparison seems more difficult at national level. The fact that several of the chapters focus on Canadian­ border policing suggests differences between the two lines. Both Canada and the United States have tightened control of their borders—Mexico has not (at least not its northern border).

Border Policing presents the story of border control from the perspective of the borderlands. The authors offer rigorous and insightful contributions on “the experiences of borderlands residents” (p. 6). This focus brings to light important experiences too-long hidden and ignored. Yet the relevance and consequences of border policing go well beyond the borderlands, and the book offers less about the far-reaching impact of changes in border policing for the nation as a whole.

Nicolás Eilbaum, Greensboro College

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