Rachel St. John’s Line in the Sand is the best book yet on the early development of the U.S.-Mexico border. It should be read widely by policy makers who continue to claim that border debates arose only during the very recent past, and by students of borderlands history at all levels. Particularly impressive is how St. John brings together the concerns and approaches of several subfields of U.S. and Mexican history, including histories of the U.S-Mexico border, the American West, and Mexico’s northern frontier.
St. John chronicles the border’s evolution—roughly between 1850 and 1930—from an invisible line to a heavily policed and regulated boundary. Like other borderlands scholars, St. John argues that histories of the border necessarily move back and forth among local, national, and international scales, and that local conditions often trumped national imperatives, allowing local immigration officials, for example, to selectively enforce national laws, and local actors, like raiding Apaches, to shape border policy.
Line in the Sand is less a history of the built environment of the border than a history of how the social, economic, and political histories of a given moment shaped how the border changed over time. In other words, she describes the physical character of the border—how it was at first a series of lines drawn on maps, then became a line of refuge, beyond which U.S. and Mexican authorities had difficulty pursuing outlaws, and then a space linked by railroad tracks and customs houses that later became divided by fences—but these elements of her story are secondary to the broader historical debates reflected by the changing shape of the border itself.
For example, cross-border raids by Apaches, and filibuster expeditions into Sonora and elsewhere in Mexico, led to the first concerted efforts to police the border. International railroad connections led to the growth of trans-border commerce, which in turn led to the emergence of twin border cities as an important part of border landscapes. Fears about the spread of violence and imperialist aggression led U.S. and Mexican citizens to argue for the construction of fences along the border, which, from the Mexican Revolution forward, became a permanent feature of the borderlands. The growth of moral reform movements during the 1920s then caused [End Page 169] U.S. and Mexican governments to use the border as a way of policing morality, and during the 1930s and beyond, the border became a space to police the movement of immigrants, dominated by government officials of one sort or another.
Future borderlands scholars can build on St. John’s work by offering a more explicit comparison of different kinds of borderlands spaces, including urban and rural, or the western border, which is St. John’s focus, and the eastern, Rio Grande border. They also can advance St. John’s analysis into the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. St. John argues that the border, because of depression-era deportations and the application for the first time of restrictive immigration policies to Mexicans, became increasingly firm by the 1940s. But post-World War II histories of immigration and border debates were less predictable, and more formative for the present, than Line in the Sand makes them seem. Line in the Sand therefore has helped us take a big leap forward towards understanding how the border has functioned in American life, but we should continue to strive for an understanding of how, when, and why the border changed, as well as the roots of present-day border debates.