- Border Land, Border Water: A History of Construction on the U.S.-Mexico Divide by C. J. Alvarez
Border land, border water bills itself as "a history of construction on the U.S.-Mexico Divide." It indeed takes its readers through the histories of projects ranging from the first survey markers indicating the newly-established international frontier, to dams on the Rio Grande, to perhaps the most well-known and notorious such construction project—the contemporary border wall. The book draws on a combination of environmental history of the U.S. West and histories of the borderlands and border enforcement. The marriage of the two is productive and long overdue. The setting of the U.S.-Mexico border means that the implications of its environmental history stretch far beyond their environmental effects: manipulating the region's environment, as Alvarez deftly shows, has long been a means of statecraft. Conversely, then, histories of border enforcement need the environmental and infrastructural context that Alvarez provides. The book's overall argument is that border environmental infrastructure and border enforcement are inextricable: they co-produce one another.
A key element of that argument is the resonance between perceptions of the environment of the desert with the politics of the border, and how U.S. authorities translate that perceived parallelism into conscripting the desert environment into enforcement. Alvarez draws on the anthropologist Jason [End Page 186] De León's argument that U.S. enforcement agencies deliberately re-routed migration routes through the Sonoran Desert in its 1994 Prevention Through Deterrence strategy, but shows that such a phenomenon began well before 1994: he cites an article published by the American Geographical Society in 1917, for instance, which describes the borderlands' topography, climate, and vegetation – all contributed to military control of the region during the Mexican Revolution.
I was rapt by Border Land, Border Water. Though its chapters are long, at around forty pages each, I read most of them in a single sitting. At times, however, I wondered whether the chapters were structured too much by Alvarez's overall argument about the dialectic between environment and policing. Each chapter includes construction projects and policing (somewhat confusingly, two chapters are called Police and Waterworks, with distinct sub-headings). In Chapter Two, the long recapitulation of the events of the always-complex Mexican Revolution suddenly pays off when Alvarez reveals the way that the revolution-era militarization of West Texas gave way to a (failed) 1918 proposal for an Immigration Patrol Service. This prehistory to the U.S. Border Patrol's 1924 creation, one not usually mentioned in histories of the agency, emerges directly from the creation of a "landscape of coercive force" (p. 91). In Chapter Three, however, the history of policing takes up so much space that I felt swindled out of attention to infrastructure. The narrative seemed to sacrifice the opportunity to make an argument specific to the waterworks and bridges it describes, instead re-iterating the book's central point, that "physical construction is a central means of affecting control over other people as well as the nonhuman world" (p. 139). I wondered what the book might look like if it were organized not by decade but by type of infrastructure: what, beyond policing, might dams, El Chamizal, highways, and fences have to teach us?
The book's key primary sources—documents from the archives of Mexico's Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores and Comisión Nacional del Agua, and from the records of the former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and other state and military agencies from National Archives branches at Fort Worth and Washington D.C.—are meticulously researched and beautifully incorporated. I particularly admired the way that Alvarez renders the technical details of the projects: "The longboom dragline excavators moved over 6 million cubic yards of material, reducing 155 miles of winding, silt-carrying water to 88," he writes of rectification efforts...