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

S. Deborah Kang
Katherine Benton-Cohen

S. Deborah Kang. The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the US-Mexico Border, 1917-1954. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 296 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-975743-5.

Reviewed by Katherine Benton-Cohen (Georgetown University) Published on H-LatAm (September, 2019) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

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Blurring Legal Lines at the Border

S. Deborah Kang, an associate professor of history at California State University, San Marcos, understands that two (or more) things can be true at the same time. In The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the US-Mexico Border, 1917-1954, Kang demonstrates that the internal and oscillating contradictions of the first half-century of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now part of US Customs and Border Protection) continue to shape border enforcement today. In a laudably brief 180 pages, Kang has created “in the simplest terms … an institutional history of the INS on the US-Mexico border” (p. 5). Her two main points are, first, that the INS, as an agency often underfunded and treated with profound ambivalence both by the local objects of its rules as well as by the federal bureaucrats who oversaw it, made law as well as enforced it; and second, that the INS’s mandates and programs were often internally contradictory. By fruitlessly trying to appease both “border hawks” and local employers, the INS simultaneously pursued both border enforcement and leniency toward undocumented immigration. 

Though these are not entirely new arguments, their rigorous backing in the deep archives of the INS guarantee Kang’s book a place on the expanding bookshelf of essential reads on the complex history of the US-Mexico border. Such a close reading reveals remarkable gems like the epitaph with which Kang opens the book, a quotation from an INS district director from 1928: “It was complained that the presence of the Border Patrol in Nogales, Arizona had a discouraging effect upon business and the patrol inspectors have been taken out of the town with instructions to conduct their operations on the outside” (p. 1).

And so we see, time and again, the ways that underfunded and overburdened regional bureaucrats responded to local exigencies by making policy in the absence of legislative clarity. Kang’s six chapters offer compact case studies of the INS’s early years. Chapter 1 examines the World War I era’s first guest worker programs and suspension of new rules like the literacy test and passport requirements “sustain[ing] the transnational character of the borderlands for the benefit of local residents” (p. 12). Chapter 2 shows the first years of the Border Patrol, whose practices angered reformers from all sides; chapter 3 examines a more aggressive enforcement approach that prompted a reflective reform effort to curtail what even internal critics saw as excessive. Chapter 4 shows the INS in a period of weakness in the 1940s, and then as it sought to gain control over the Bracero Program from other federal agencies, one perverse consequence of which were calls from the Mexican government for stronger enforcement. Chapter 5 explores the internal administrative and cultural changes that resulted from the Bracero Program, as well as its failure to curtail undocumented immigration. Chapter 6 shows the sometimes ironic complexities of the debates and precursors to Operation Wetback in 1954, including Truman-era liberals’ role in advocating for a stricter border and immigration enforcement policy even as they tried to dismantle the racist national-origins quotas. Kang’s conclusion bravely connects this history to our post-9/11 present, in which the INS is routinely treated as a law-enforcement agency when in reality her book “unsettles this notion” (p. 169) by showing it made law as well as enforced it.

The INS on the Line complements a few other recent essential volumes, among them works by Rachel St. John, Patrick Ettinger, Julian Lim, and Kelly Lytle Hernández’s history of the Border Patrol, Migra! (2010). Indeed, Kang uses Lytle Hernández’s collection of primary sources housed in UCLA’s Chicano Studies Collection. Yet at times I wish Kang had expanded on how her argument differs from and elaborates upon that in Migra! Kang argues that most works on the history of the INS have argued either that it was “weak and ineffectual” or “strong and effective” (p. 3). Yet Lytle Hernández shows the same regional variations and tensions between Washington supervisors and local business leaders. Her points about the internal debates within the Border Patrol and the dissonance between its local practices and federal mandates match in many ways the story Kang tells. Kang focuses more on the sociolegal context and the history of administrative law, but the two books work well together.

The book is impeccably researched. It is a delight to find archival documents in footnote after footnote. Kang’s main source is, unsurprisingly, the INS’s internal files at the National Archives. But to tell the story’s local context, Kang plumbed a dozen regional archives as well. The result is a deeply evidenced and convincing story. Kang did the hard work so readers can benefit from her cogent and impressive summary of a complex history.

Kang belongs to a remarkable and growing new generation of immigration historians—most of them women—who are currently or formerly engaged in policy debates and advocacy. Most are junior or recently tenured, and some work outside the academy. Among these are Mary Mendoza, Ana Raquel Minian, Maddalena Marinari, Ellen Wu, Anna O. Law, Julia Rose Kraut, Julian Lim, Sarah Coleman, Yael Schacher, Mireya Loza, Ana Elizabeth Rosas, Torrie Hester, and Beth Lew-Williams. Like her peers, Kang’s scholarship cannot be divorced from her public work, in talks and social media, on the history and abuses of the INS, as well as her activism, with special attention to undocumented students and victims of sexual harassment in the academy. Drawing on the precedents set by “foremothers” like Mae Ngai and Donna Gabbacia, this generation defies stereotypes about the ivory tower. Yet for some reason, the field of immigration history seems to get little credit for its long history of policy work and activism. I hope this book will reach a broad audience to demonstrate the power of history to understand our maddening present.



Citation: Katherine Benton-Cohen. Review of Kang, S. Deborah, The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the US-Mexico Border, 1917-1954. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. September, 2019. URL:

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