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  • Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands by Julian Lim
  • William J. Suarez-Potts
Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. By Julian Lim. The David J. Weber Series in New Borderlands History. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. Pp. xviii, 302. $32.50, ISBN 978-1-4696-3549-1.)

Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands focuses on Mexican, Chinese, and African American border crossers and residents and on American and Mexican government policies that, altogether, shaped the U.S.-Mexico border between the 1880s and the 1930s. The study largely centers on El Paso, Texas, the transport hub for much of the border in the period covered and a gateway for immigrants. The author, Julian Lim, sets out several objectives. She endeavors "to offer a fuller account of the ways in which late nineteenth-century border crossers of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds converged in the borderlands and, in the process, reshaped social, political, and legal notions of race and belonging in both countries and at the nation's periphery" (p. 198).

Lim depicts the border region, exemplified by El Paso-Ciudad Juarez, as a multiracial world, in which "black, Chinese, and Mexican men and women" found "more space to pursue economic, political, and social opportunities that were denied them elsewhere on the basis of their race and class" (p. 3). The sentiments of American and Mexican elites often ran contrary to such "multiracial contact," and even if they were sometimes at odds with one another, elite interests usually proved congruent (p. 4). In the 1920s and 1930s, as the nation-states were consolidated on both sides of the border and national identities were redefined, immigration law was applied at the border to establish racial order, to enforce ethnic distinctions, and to regulate people's movements. Porous Borders is thus also about what Lim describes as "erasure—a history about how the multiracial past has become so hidden, erased from the geographical and historical landscape of the borderlands and the nation itself" (p. 5). As such, Porous Borders is a significant contribution to the historiography of comparative immigration and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. It is well grounded in existing scholarship, interprets primary material adeptly, and, along with other recent works published in English, cites Mexican scholarship and sources to comprehend better the transnational subject and region.

The book unfolds chronologically and thematically. The first chapter provides background and discusses the Native peoples who were violently displaced and culturally erased. Subsequent chapters recount episodes of miscegenation (between African Americans and Mexicans in El Paso), [End Page 208] interactions among Chinese and other peoples in the same region, and the repression of multiracial groups. Lim' s prose is especially evocative of the traces of Chinese, African American, and Mexican lives in the region; they passed from one side of the border to the other and, in doing so, used or avoided the formalities of the boundaries that the evolving nation-states were demarcating. The last two chapters note aspects of the impact of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) and the relevance of American and Mexican nationalist policies. As Lim argues, both the U.S. and the Mexican states in the 1920s and 1930s exerted more control over the movements of people, as policies came into accordance with notions of ethnic homogeneity: in the United States, with an ideal of northern European ancestry; in Mexico, with the post revolutionary idealization of an indigenous and mestizo (Spanish-Indian) heritage. The policies resulted in the suppression of people who did not fit into these categories, such as African Americans and Chinese people. But as Lim sharply points out, the individuals survived, even if their histories, which are reconstructed in this study, normally did not. This book merits consideration on these grounds, but it may also be deemed a call for further research to clarify and expand on the reasons for governmental immigration and border policy and to examine the interactions among all of the peoples of the region, including the marginalized indigenous.

William J. Suarez-Potts
Rice University


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pp. 208-209
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