McManus on Karibo and Díaz, 'Border Policing: A History of Enforcement and Evasion in North America'

Holly M. Karibo, George T. Díaz, eds.
Sheila M. McManus

Holly M. Karibo, George T. Díaz, eds. Border Policing: A History of Enforcement and Evasion in North America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020. xiii + 288 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4773-2067-9.

Reviewed by Sheila M. McManus (University of Lethbridge) Published on H-Nationalism (June, 2021) Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

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Border Policing: A History of Enforcement and Evasion in North America is the latest addition to and one of the best of a small but growing number of anthologies that put the histories of US-Mexico and US-Canada borderlands in conversation. The lens here is the many and varied ways these two borderlands are policed, from high-level policies to the most local and granular efforts, and the equally many and varied ways borderlands communities resist and subvert those policing efforts. As editors Holly M. Karibo and George T. Díaz note in their introduction, the collection is organized around two key questions: “How have states (at the federal, state, provincial, and local levels) attempted to regulate and police people and goods at their geographical and political borders? And how have local communities responded to, been shaped by, and at times undermined particular policing objectives and practices?” (p. 6). The collection’s temporal breadth of time is equally impressive, covering two full centuries from the War of 1812 right up to present-day “reality” TV shows about border policing, expanding the mid-nineteenth-century to mid-twentieth-century frame that dominates most North American borderlands historiography.

Part 1, “Emerging Borders: Policing Boundaries in the Nineteenth Century,” begins with three essays about the nineteenth century. Edward J. Martin’s “Defining the Acceptable Bounds of Deception: Policing the Prize Game in the Northeastern Borderlands, 1812-1815” is a fascinating exploration of the ways military and commercial vessels in the New England, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia borderlands took advantage of the fluid space between British and American rules about privateering; licit and illicit trade; a commissioned privateer and a smuggler; and customs collectors and colluding ship captains. The author notes that “economic self-interest and cross-border ties evidence during the War of 1812 would remain central to the cultural life of communities that straddle the northeastern borderlands” (p. 41). Chapter 2, Luis Alberto García’s “Dominance in an Imagined Border: Santos Benavides’s and Santiago Vidaurri’s Policing of the Rio Grande,” looks at the remarkable relationship between the two fronterizos and norteños who dictated border policing in their region in the 1850s and 1860s. From setting import duties and taxes at rates that suited their own cross-border commercial interests and revenue streams to leading and supplying their own local military forces and authorizing the massacre of a Lipan Apache community, Benavides and Vidaurri “used their knowledge of the local dynamics of the Rio Grande borderlands to create a powerful transnational structure of political and military power that joined southern Texas and northeastern Mexico under their control as an undivided, quasi-independent state in all but name” (p. 45). The third essay in this opening section is Benjamin Hoy’s “A Border without Guards: First Nations and the Enforcement of National Space,” which details the range of indirect strategies that Canada and the United States used in the late nineteenth century to try and control the cross-border movement of Indigenous peoples. Native communities were able to take advantage of the gaps and ambiguities in federal legislation for decades, but over time federal officials were increasingly able to use “Indian status, rations, and treaty payments as leverage to threaten and punish First Nations who violated the sanctity of national spaces” (p. 62).

Part 2, “Solidifying States, Testing Boundaries,” bridges the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and shows readers some of the processes and consequences of increased state regulation of North America’s national borders and identities. In chapter 4, “To Protect and Police: Mexican Consuls in the American Borderlands at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” María de Jesús Duarte discusses a fascinating and little-known piece of Mexican border policing, in the form of consular staff who had the power to affirm or deny citizenship to Mexican nationals living in the US. The 1886 Nationality and Citizenship Law had a clause whereby a Mexican national lost their citizenship if they resided in the US for more than ten years without government permission, and consular officials used this law to try and exert their authority on immigrants who were reluctant “to come under the purview of consular authorities.... The acquisition of a matrícula compelled them to shed their local and regional identities in order to adopt identities as Mexican citizens. A great number of Mexicans struggled to embrace their Mexicanness as a nationality marker and stayed away from consular authorities unless they had a pressing legal issue that required consular aid” (p. 89). Next, Thomas A. Klug’s “Enforcing US Immigration Laws at the US-Canada Border, 1891-1940: The View from Detroit” explores the innumerable concessions local officials had to make to the deeply intertwined borderlands communities at Detroit-Windsor, where thousands of local residents crossed every day for work and pleasure. The essay notes that just as both nations were trying to construct a more robust state apparatus for controlling immigration, “the viability of the system depended on the judgments of immigration administrators at all levels, including frontline inspectors, to balance the political imperatives of policing the border with recognition of the complexities of business and life in the border region” (p. 110). In “The Roots of the Border Patrol: Line Riders and the Bureaucratization of US-Mexican Border Policing, 1894-1924,” James Dupree argues that the line riders played an important, if unintended, role “in shaping border-policing policies during the first decades of the twentieth century”: they were so ineffective and corrupt that the Bureau of Immigration had to increase “federal oversight of the national border” and tried to bring more “order and discipline” to the force (p. 117). The final chapter in this section is Miguel A. Levario’s “Home Guard: State-Sponsored Vigilantism and Violence in the Texas-Mexico Borderlands,” which “examines how Anglo mobs sought and won state support for their attacks on ethnic Mexicans in the borderlands” during the early and most “combative phase of the Mexican Revolution, from 1911 to 1914.” He argues that these vigilantes, as with their later counterparts, based their responses as much on their own racist perceptions of ethnic Mexicans and local demographic shifts as on “immediate concerns of violence and short-staffed law enforcement personnel” (p. 131).

“Building and Resisting a Prohibition Apparatus,” part 3 of the collection, includes three essays that focus on the United States’ and Canada’s many efforts to control illegal and illicit drugs and alcohol crossing their national borders. In chapter 8, “Policing Peyote Country in the Early Twentieth Century,” Lisa D. Barnett highlights the early twentieth-century concern in the United States “over the religious use of peyote by Native Americans and the social concerns of non-Indians to protect the country from intoxicants coming across the border” (p. 147). Peyote was not illegal but it was seen as illicit by American policymakers, which led to a host of racialized, extralegal efforts to police its import and use from the US-Mexico borderlands all the way to the Canadian West. “Skirting the Law: Female Liquor Smugglers and Sellers and Policing through Prohibition along the Rio Grande,” by Carolina Monsiváis, returns us to the more familiar terrain of alcohol smuggling but with an exciting new perspective. The essay “examines the interactions between law enforcement and women who harbored, smuggled, and sold alcohol in the Rio Grande valley between 1920 and 1933” and “explores how particular gender and racial codes shaped how US federal and local law enforcement policed women’s illegal activities. It also examines how women, in turns, asserted their agency during their confrontations with agents” (p. 164). The ethnic Mexican women who were targeted by US officials knew how to play on the officers’ racist and sexist beliefs to protect themselves and the men in their families from harsher treatment and held as much space for themselves as they could in this borderlands economic niche. Chapter 10, Karibo’s “Building a Villain/Hero Binary: Public Rhetoric, Smuggling, and Enforcement in the Postwar Borderlands,” takes us back to the political heights with her analysis of Canadian and American Senate hearings in 1955 about drug smuggling. She notes that “although the simplistic dualism of ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ sometimes enabled federal enforcement officials in the United States, Canada, and Mexico to work together to fight an identifiable ‘other,’ it also often led local enforcement officers to blame the trafficking problem on the lax policies of their neighbors” (p. 180).

In part 4, “Expanding State Authority and Its Challenges,” the final four essays give us rich analyses of some recent developments (and sad continuities) in North America’s border policing regimes. Jensen Branscombe’s “Diversity and the Border Patrol: Race and Gender in Immigration Enforcement along the US-Mexico Border” picks up on themes developed by Dupree, Levario, and Monsiváis in his discussion of the last fifty years of the Immigration Service and Border Patrol’s ongoing failure to diversify their ranks and end a persistent culture of racism and sexual violence. He notes that, “rather than prompting real change, the troubles of the 1970s fortified the culture of power and prejudicial practices that exited within the Immigration Service and Border Patrol” (p. 205). Similarly, Devin Clancy and Tyler Chartrand’s “Refusing Borders: Haudenosaunee Resistance, Tobacco, and Settler—Colonial Borderlands” shows the continuity from the policing practices aimed at Indigenous peoples discussed earlier by Hoy and Barnett. In recent decades, a whole host of Canadian and American policing agencies have treated Haudenosaunee communities’ treaty rights to trade tobacco products across the border as a reason to attack the “legitimacy and sovereignty” of communities like Kahnawá:ke, the Six Nations of the Grand River, and Akwesasne with raids, “militarized surveillance,” and advertising campaigns accusing them of using the profits from smuggled cigarettes to fund terrorist campaigns (pp. 220, 221). Chapter 13, Santiago Ivan Guerra’s “Border Surge: Drug Trafficking and Escalating Police Power in the Rio Grande,” looks at the dramatic increase in police presence, citations, and warnings, in Hidalgo and Starr Counties, Texas, in the last ten years. It too follows nicely from Dupree and Levario by exploring how contemporary “border communities become sites of intensified policing and how these communities then are affected by, and respond to, these types of policing practices” (p. 238). And finally, in “Bordering Reality: Dramatizing Policing the North American Borderlands in Reality Television,” Anita Huizar-Hernández provides a rich analysis of how the reality TV franchises Border Wars (2010-13), Border Security: Canada's Front Line (2012-16), and Border Security: America's Front Line (2016-present) purport to show objective truths about the different policing agencies, while portraying very specific narratives about “the US-Mexico border as a dangerous war zone and the US-Canada border as a benign space of commerce and exchange” (p. 253).

Overall this is an exceptionally well-organized and thoughtfully arranged anthology. Every essay can be grouped with at least two or three others either thematically, chronologically, or geographically, which makes it an excellent teaching resource for courses about nationalism, borderlands, or policing. The amount of fresh scholarship and interpretations means this collection is also pushing the field forward in distinct ways.

Citation: Sheila M. McManus. Review of Karibo, Holly M.; Díaz, George T., eds., Border Policing: A History of Enforcement and Evasion in North America. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. June, 2021. URL:

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