How the U.S.-Mexico Border Became a Political Flashpoint

U.S.-Mexico border
A United States Border Patrol vehicle drives along a fence line at the Texas border with Mexico in the Rio Grande Valley. Donna Burton/U.S. Customs and Border Protection

To many Americans, the U.S.'s southern border seems nothing short of a long, hot mess. Traffic jams at major city crossings. Beyond that, miles and miles of barren, unforgiving desert. Drug smugglers. Armed guards. Illegal immigrants. Walls. Fences. Barriers.

The U.S.-Mexico border is a flashpoint — especially now — a political and literal line in the sand waiting to be crossed. Name a problem that America faces today — economic, social, moral, whatever — and somebody, somewhere will blame the border for at least part of it.


This winding, raggedy, roughly 2,000-mile (3,218-kilometer) boundary has become as much about symbolism as sovereignty. It delineates where two nations start and stop, certainly, and what happens there, at least partially, defines both.

"In some ways, I think actually people pay too much attention to the border," says Benjamin Johnson, a border expert and history professor at Loyola University Chicago and the co-author of "Bridging National Borders in North America." "I think that a lot of the things that are quote-unquote 'problems' on the border are manifestations of larger problems that didn't start on the border and aren't going to be fixed on the border."


The Border's History and Make Up

The U.S.-Mexico border as we know it today has been around only since the mid-1800s, mapped out after the U.S. "annexed" Texas and won the ensuing Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The area, of course, was contested long before that, with Native Americans (including Aztecs, Comanches and Apaches), Spanish and Mexicans all laying claim to borderlands at one time or another.

Today the border runs from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, making up the southern edges of California and Arizona, part of New Mexico and the entire southern side of Texas. It follows the Rio Grande River (in Mexico, it's the Río Bravo del Norte) from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico.


The biggest cities along the way are San Diego, Nogales, Arizona and El Paso, Texas. Those are the spots that many think of when they think border: crowded crossings with fences and checkpoints manned by police and immigration officials. Most commercial traffic and legal immigration take place there.

But the border has a total of 48 places where people can legally cross. Outside of those 48 are hundreds and hundreds of miles that are largely unmanned by law enforcement, often marked only by low fences easily crossed on foot — if you can make it through the desert and terrain.

"It's really a patchwork of busy-ness and emptiness, chaos and order," says Ieva Jusionyte, a professor of anthropology and social studies at Harvard and author of "Threshold: Emergency Responders on the U.S.-Mexico Border."


Everyday Border Life

The U.S.-Mexico border, especially in the bigger cities, is a living, thriving ecosystem unto itself. Millions live and work there. Along with thousands of border agents and immigration officers are restaurant and retail workers, doctors, lawyers, educators ... you name it.

"The people who live near the border live there often because of the border," says Jusionyte, who spent a year there working with first responders, "either because they have family on both sides and it's easier for them to be part of that family, or because [the border] creates opportunities."


Some in the U.S. will go to doctors in Mexico while some who live in Mexico will send their kids to American schools. Bi-nationals often move between the two nations, sometimes daily, often enduring long waits to cross the border.

Then there are those whose families have been there for decades, whose ancestors can be traced to a time well before the U.S. existed.

"For those people, it's the border that has crossed them," Jusionyte says. "Their communities were split in half by the border and the fence."

U.S.-Mexico border
Bridge of the Americas is a group of bridges that connect the U.S-Mexico border cities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. American officials estimate it is the busiest of all border crossings between the two countries.
Donna Burton/U.S. Customs and Border Protection


Breaching the Border

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, some 50,000 immigrants crossed the southern border in May 2018; some illegally, some who turned themselves in. It was the third straight month of 50,000-plus immigrants. Authorities expect many others slipped through undetected.

If you listen to some politicians these illegal immigrants are the genesis of any number of problems that the U.S. faces. They steal jobs from American citizens, don't pay taxes and take government handouts. They smuggle drugs. Crowd schools. Commit heinous crimes. Spread coronavirus.


Others claim that immigrants (and undocumented workers) boost wages, grow the economy, commit crimes at a lower rate than the public as a whole and enrich the culture.

The people who live on the border have learned to live with all the rhetoric, Jusionyte says.

"The communities that live by the border, both Republicans and Democrats, Americans and Mexicans, they see this issue much more reasonably," Jusionyte says. "It's part of their everyday life and they know that this has nothing to do with security." For instance, U.S. towns like El Paso are just across the border from Mexican towns like Ciudad Juárez, which has one of the highest homicide rates in Mexico. But El Paso is one of the safest communities in the U.S. "No crime is pouring through the border," Jusionyte says. "Only those people that live in the region understand that."


Life Ahead on the Line

Former President Donald Trump, of course, trumpeted a zero-tolerance policy toward illegal immigration. He declared it a crisis and ordered in the National Guard to protect the border. He promised, famously, to build a wall to keep illegal immigrants out. President Joe Biden is dealing with the crisis differently, though his Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas won't call it that. "We will also not waver in our values and our principles as a Nation," Secretary Mayorkas said in a statement March 16, 2021. "Our goal is a safe, legal, and orderly immigration system that is based on our bedrock priorities: to keep our borders secure, address the plight of children as the law requires, and enable families to be together. As noted by the President in his Executive Order, 'securing our borders does not require us to ignore the humanity of those who seek to cross them.' We are both a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. That is one of our proudest traditions."

All of it, Johnson says, misses the point.


"As a historian, there seems to be a widespread assumption that we used to be in control of the border, and that at some point we lost that. And if we hire more people or use certain technology like drones or sensors or build a fence, that we're going to get that back. That's just not the case," he says. "I don't know a single point in history when the government actually determined who and what got to cross and was successful in implementing that vision.

"This is not about the border. This is about these other things, and we just see them at the border."

Sometimes it seems as if those "other things" — economic disparity, racism, nationalism, fear, anger, crime, just to name a few — are most at home along the southern border. But all that exists in Chicago, too, and Washington D.C, in Seattle and in Syracuse. All those problems didn't start at the border. The border won't keep them out.

"[The border] became this site, an object, a metaphor even, where we misplaced very real economic insecurities and social anxieties," Jusionyte says. "So it is the wrong answer to very important questions about the conditions of our society."

Still, the U.S.-Mexico border, thanks to decisions made in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere, remains a flashpoint. At least away from the border, passions run high. Rhetoric runs wild.

"It hasn't always been this way, and it won't always be this way," Johnson says. "Decades from now when a quarter of the United States is of Latino descent, I think we're going to have a different politics and a different society.

"I think we're at the high point of a kind of sound and fury on this."