A generation ago, relatively little professional historical scholarship existed on the intertwined histories of American immigration policy, border enforcement efforts, and undocumented immigration. With her excellent monograph The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the US-Mexico Border, 1917–1954, S. Deborah Kang joins what is now an expansive and expanding historical conversation on these topics as they relate to the U.S.-Mexican border. Her book offers an institutional history of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) during the critical years between World War I and the early 1950s. Kang focuses closely on several generations of leaders of the INS as they wrestled with shifting responsibilities, highly politicized expectations, and constant enforcement dilemmas on the nation’s borders. Some problems resulted from statutes, administrative regulations, and legal decisions, which were often conflicting or ambiguous. But enforcement quandaries were nurtured as well by the political pressures exerted by agricultural interests, by deeply vested and vociferous borderlands stakeholders, and even by immigration inspectors and U.S. Border Patrol officers working at “cross-purposes” (7). Above all, Kang presents a legal and policy history of American immigration, which puts her book in the tradition of immigration scholarship pioneered by scholars Lucy E. Salyer and Mae M. Ngai, among others. Based on her very substantial research in U.S. government documents, Kang argues provocatively that the INS “not only administered the nation’s immigration laws, it also made them” (2). That is, the agency’s administrators, particularly as they wrestled with how to police the border, actively shaped policy. They did so by instituting enforcement practices that, at times, extended beyond statutory authority, and also by working with congressional leaders to revise laws to meet the agency’s needs. The work proceeds chronologically, with chapters that trace developments from the passport restrictions initiated during World War I through the infamous “Operation Wetback” deportation drives of 1954. The 1920s witnessed the creation of a border patrol force with a thin and ill-defined mandate that offered the patrol “a great deal of latitude in its pursuit of unauthorized immigrants” (51). Pushback by civil libertarians in the mid-1930s against aggressive deportation campaigns brought a spirit of reform to INS administrators in Washington, but that spirit did not always translate into the field, where warrant reforms and other changes could “fall by the wayside” (85). Perhaps nothing better illustrates the quandaries of the agency than its insertion into the politics and administration of the several iterations of the Bracero Program (1942–1964). Kang unravels the transformative effects of the program on the INS itself. Under the program, INS immigration inspectors were put into the service of bringing cheap labor into the country at the same time that other INS employees in the Border Patrol remained tasked with keeping unsanctioned workers out. The program placed the agency in a sort of crisis born not only of conflicting responsibilities but also of under-resourcing. A key figure in the transformation of the agency in the early 1950s was El Paso director Grover C. Wilmoth, who assumed an active role in the policy-making process and ushered in statutory changes in 1946 that “vastly expanded the agency’s legal authority at the border and far beyond” (122). By the early 1950s, “the tactics that local immigration officers had devised over the years were put into play” in Operation Wetback, a deportation campaign that “legitimized mass deportation as a response to undocumented immigration” (9). Hence, while lawmakers debated (and sometimes dodged) the issues involved in border enforcement, “American immigration law and policy quietly and steadily took shape in the hands of borderlands administrators” (3). Kang navigates a middle ground between the competing historical interpretations of the efficacy of American border enforcement efforts. While some authors emphasize the relative weakness and ineffectiveness of border enforcement bureaucracies, others highlight the power those agencies wielded in regulating border crossings. The INS’s enforcement efforts in this era were “characterized not by strength but by struggle,” Kang admits, but a close look at the agency’s history reveals that the INS “created a complex set of policies that closed the line to unwanted immigrants, opened it for the sake of the regional economy and society, and redefined it for the benefit of the Border Patrol” (5). I found Kang’s discussion of the impact of national border-crossing regulations on local communities especially illuminating. Economic interests in both countries, large and small, had a stake in border-crossing regulations. But it was the local merchants, employers, and chambers of commerce on both sides of the line that proved particularly adept at expressing their displeasure with any regulations that hurt their bottom line. Prohibition during the 1920s jump-started a vibrant tourist trade in Mexican border cities, and that traffic, in turn, brought scrutiny to border operations, such as border-crossing closing times. So, too, did the reliance of border denizens on traditions of cross-border shopping and work mean that officials needed to innovate practical solutions on a rather impractically situated line. To Kang, this created what at times was a “sectional immigration policy” (11) that accommodated regional needs. This dynamic on the U.S.-Mexico border—border residents chafing at and contesting intrusive national directives—extends back further than Kang’s research, at least to the closing decades of the nineteenth century. And it certainly transcends this particular binational context, making this otherwise narrow work of scholarship of potential interest to scholars of other borderlands. Ultimately, the agency’s activities “left a mixed legacy for the borderlands” (176). Administrative flexibility and discretion allowed the agency to accommodate some of the binational region’s important social and economic needs, Kang notes. At the same time, however, that very discretion helped create a “free-wheeling” (74) Border Patrol culture that could veer toward violence and abuse. By the 1950s the Border Patrol had expanded its operating space (into the nation’s interior) as well as its powers to conduct warrantless searches and detentions in public and private spaces. All in all, Kang makes an intelligent and thoroughly convincing argument with regard to the halting and provisional state-building efforts of the INS in this period. American border enforcement, in practice, has always been something of a muddle. To her credit, Kang provides a clear and nuanced tour of the individuals, ideas, and forces that shaped enforcement strategies still practiced on the contemporary border. Her work deserves the attention not only of legal and immigration historians but also of policy historians, scholars of the U.S.-Mexican border region, and borderlands specialists across regions, fields, and disciplines. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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