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Imaginary Lines

Border Enforcement and the Origins of Undocumented Immigration, 1882-1930

By Patrick Ettinger

Publication Year: 2009

Although popularly conceived as a relatively recent phenomenon, patterns of immigrant smuggling and undocumented entry across American land borders first emerged in the late nineteenth century. Ingenious smugglers and immigrants, long and remote boundary lines, and strong push-and-pull factors created porous borders then, much as they do now. Historian Patrick Ettinger offers the first comprehensive historical study of evolving border enforcement efforts on American land borders at the turn of the twentieth century. He traces the origins of widespread immigrant smuggling and illicit entry on the northern and southern United States borders at a time when English, Irish, Chinese, Italian, Russian, Lebanese, Japanese, Greek, and, later, Mexican migrants created various “backdoors” into the United States. No other work looks so closely at the sweeping, if often ineffectual, innovations in federal border enforcement practices designed to stem these flows. From upstate Maine to Puget Sound, from San Diego to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas, federal officials struggled to adapt national immigration policies to challenging local conditions, all the while battling wits with resourceful smugglers and determined immigrants. In effect, the period saw the simultaneous “drawing” and “erasing” of the official border, and its gradual articulation and elaboration in the midst of consistently successful efforts to undermine it.

Published by: University of Texas Press


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xi

To my friend and adviser, Dave Thelen, I owe a truly incalculable debt. I learned more from him than I may ever even realize, and I benefited richly from his constant intellectual prodding and the warm graciousness of his friendship. Other members of my dissertation committee at Indiana University—John Bodnar, Henry Glassie, and Peter Guardino—made themselves available for comment and consultation, and each...

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pp. 1-12

This book explores part of the history of immigration into the United States, in particular the history of smuggling, undocumented immigration, and border enforcement on American land borders at the turn of the twentieth century. Although popularly conceived of as a relatively recent phenomenon, surreptitious border crossings of immigrants into the United States...

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Chapter 1 The Menaces Without: Immigrant Aliens and the Origins of Immigration Restrictions

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pp. 13-36

At the close of the 1880s, El Paso, Texas, stood on the threshold of tremendous growth. Freshly laid railroad lines linked the small border town not only with major trading centers in the United States, such as New Orleans, San Francisco, and St. Louis, but also with Mexico City and the economically promising borderlands of northern...

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Chapter 2 Diverted Streams: Discovering a Permeable Border, 1882–1891

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pp. 37-66

Eleven months after passage of the 1882 Immigration Act that barred pauper immigration into the United States, the New York Times reported that twenty-eight immigrants fresh from Ireland had been found “helpless and starving” in the streets of Buffalo, New York. According to the article, the immigrants had crossed into the United States from Canada,...

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Chapter 3 Drawing the Lines: Blueprints for Immigration Enforcement on the Borders, 1891–1910

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pp. 67-92

When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of congressional oversight of immigration in 1889, it did so on the basis of a commonsense understanding of sovereignty. Any independent nation, the court reasoned, ought to exercise “jurisdiction over its own territory.” Such jurisdiction included the power to admit and exclude foreigners from its territory.1 The effect...

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Chapter 4 Erasing the Lines: Immigrant Ingenuity on the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1895–1910

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pp. 93-122

Between 1891 and 1910, both the scope of federal immigration restrictions and the means for enforcing them on the Mexican and Canadian borders grew tremendously. But while the United States made progress in enforcing immigration restrictions on the Canadian border, progress on the Mexican border was halting at best. The early 1900s witnessed an upsurge in illicit border crossings from Mexico, and...

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Chapter 5 Northward Bound: Mexican Immigrants, Migrants, and Refugees at the Border, 1900–1921

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pp. 123-144

By 1908, the U.S.-Mexico border had become virtually equated with immigrant smuggling and undocumented entry, and was viewed as the most important battleground between immigration authorities and excludable immigrants.1 Reports from immigration officers on the border in 1910 suggested that the bureau might soon master the smuggling situation, but the extent to which American immigration...

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Chapter 6 The Sisyphean Task: Origins of the Modern Border

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pp. 145-166

The 1920s were a watershed in the administration of immigration law along the U.S.-Mexican border. The conflicting pressures on border immigration authorities in the 1900s and 1910s, pressures to create a border administration formidable enough to prevent the illicit entry of “undesirable aliens” flocking to it from around the globe yet flexible enough to accommodate fluctuating demand for...

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Epilogue. An Imaginary Line: Change and Continuity on the U.S.-Mexico Border

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pp. 167-177

On April 26, 1941, the El Paso Herald Post briefly related an episode at the international border that, in many ways, revealed the dramatic changes that had been wrought in the preceding decades. The story discussed the unusual circumstances under which Jose Morga, a Mexican citizen, had been barred from entry at the Santa Fe International Bridge linking El Paso, Texas, to Ciudad Juarez,...


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pp. 179-224


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pp. 225-237


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pp. 239-244

E-ISBN-13: 9780292795167
E-ISBN-10: 0292795165
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292721180
Print-ISBN-10: 0292721188

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 5 b&w photos, 2 tables
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 560652499
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Imaginary Lines

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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Emigration and immigration -- Government policy.
  • United States -- Emigration and immigration -- History -- 19th century.
  • Mexico -- Emigration and immigration -- History -- 19th century.
  • Immigration enforcement -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Mexican-American Border Region -- Emigration and immigration -- History -- 19th century.
  • Illegal aliens -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Illegal aliens -- Government policy -- United States.
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