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American Quarterly 57.3 (2005) 593-610

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Introduction Legal Borderlands:

Law and the Construction of American Borders

On the coast, at the California-Mexico border, a rusted sheath of metal extends from the beach into the ocean, dividing the waves. There, grains of sand become attributes of different sovereignties. Two nations are brought together at this edge; at the same time, their inhabitants are marked with national identities; they come together wearing the marks of sovereignty inscribed by the border. Yet while it classifies and codifies subjects, the border cannot contain sovereignty itself. The border marks a space that American power proceeds from.

The metal edge on the beach descends into the ocean. From the beach it looks as if it might extend to the horizon, dividing the ocean floor. There are borders, not marked by metal, throughout the ocean. They mark a nation's territorial waters, a sovereignty of currents and of sea life. The boundaries around U.S. territorial waters are not outlined by physical structures; they exist on the shelves of law libraries, their dimensions defined in treaties. Instead of a metal edge, there are words on a page.

The words that place seashells into the category of American sovereignty are the technology of law. Such words are attached not only to unseeable ocean borders. They are embedded in the metal edge on the beach; they are inscribed on bodies on either side. Law defines national borders; it delineates the consequence of borders for the peoples within them. It does not contain sovereign power, but law has an imprint on national power wherever it is exercised.

This volume interrogates law's role in constituting American borders. One project of American studies scholarship has been to explore American culture and history in relation to the rest of the world.1 But the global turn in American studies raises new questions about the boundaries of the field and of the reach of "America" itself. Once we view the United States in a global context, [End Page 593] once territory—formerly the implicit boundary around American studies—is decentered, it becomes important to ask what the frame is around "American" studies, and to ask how, in a global context, U.S. borders and identities are constructed. Law is one window through which to look at the construction of American borders. Law is an important technology in the drawing of dividing lines between American identities and the boundaries (or lack of boundaries) around American global power. Borders are constructed in law, not only through formal legal controls on entry and exit but also through the construction of rights of citizenship and noncitizenship, and the regulation or legitimation of American power in other parts of the world.

The essays in this volume highlight the multiple ways law figures in American borders. Law has always been there in borderlands writing, although law and American studies scholars have often operated in separate intellectual spaces.2 It was not at the surf, but in the desert spaces of what we call the Southwest, that Gloria Anzaldúa powerfully rendered the force of law in the role of la migra, the border patrol. "In the fields, la migra," she writes.

My aunt saying, "No corran, don't run. They'll think you're del otro lao." In the confusion, Pedro ran, terrified of being caught. He couldn't speak English, couldn't tell them he was fifth generation American. Sin papeles—he did not carry his birth certificate to work in the fields. La migra took him away while we watched. Se lo llevaron. He tried to smile when he looked back at us, to raise his fist. But I saw the shame pushing his head down, I saw the terrible weight of shame hunch his shoulders. They deported him to Guadalajara by plane. The furthest he'd ever been to Mexico was Reynosa, a small border town opposite Hidalgo, Texas, not far from McAllen. Pedro walked all the way to the Valley. Se lo llevaron sin...


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