Graffiti on a stretch of border fencing between the US and Mexico calls for an end to the incarceration of immigrants. Courtesy of Christoph Buchel/Creative Commons.

By María Cristina García, Adam Goodman, Erika Lee, Maddalena Marinari, and Evan Taparata

*Editor’s Note: This essay is part of the Abusable Past’s “The Border is the Crisis” Series*

President Trump has thus far failed to fulfill his campaign promise to build a wall on the border that the United States shares with Mexico. That has not stopped his administration, however, from trying to bring migration across the southern border to a halt. The President’s “zero tolerance” policy tears families apart and subjects migrants of all ages to squalid detention centers that many have compared to cages. Federal officials have separated  more than 900 children from their families since Trump supposedly ended such a policy in June 2018. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and current Attorney General William Barr have implemented policies that make victims of gang violence and domestic violence, along with the family members of individuals who face persecution, ineligible for asylum. And, in July 2019, the administration announced a new policy that would make it all but impossible for Central American migrants (and potentially even those coming from African nations, Cuba, and Haiti) to apply for asylum in the United States.

The inhumane actions taken against migrants at the border seem to become only more frequent and more severe by the day. The costs of the U.S. government’s myriad efforts to deter migration have been devastating. At the time of this writing, the International Office for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project reports that at least 221 migrants have died in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands in 2019 alone. At least 24 migrants have died in ICE custody during the Trump Administration and at least six children between two-and-a-half and sixteen years of age have died in U.S. custody since September 2018.

These acts of violence at the border have occurred alongside a range of disturbing incidents within the United States in which the president has condoned and effectively encouraged racism and racist acts of violence – including the mass shooting near the border in El Paso on August 3, 2019, where the gunman invoked President Trump’s repeated descriptions of Latin American migration to the U.S. as an “invasion.”

Two and a half years into his presidency, Trump’s vision for the country is clear. When he says “a country without borders is not a country at all,” Trump is not speaking broadly about the relationship of borders to nations. Rather, he is reinforcing what his policies, his statements, and his participation in racist rhetoric make all too clear — that his vision of the United States is one that uses immigration enforcement to perpetuate xenophobia, at the border and beyond.

The histories of marginalization that inform the current situation along the border are manifold. The authors of this #microsyllabus have focused on the intersection of border enforcement and immigration law specifically at the U.S.-Mexico border, a place that differs markedly from the country’s northern border with Canada, which has generally been subjected to less severe policies. In particular, we wish to highlight three areas of history that we believe shed important light on the ongoing mistreatment of migrants: 1) the early history of the U.S.-Mexico border; 2) Central American migration and refugee policy; and 3) deportation and detention. Though each of these sections could easily comprise its own microsyllabus, the authors hope to provide readers with a broad introduction to the humanitarian crisis at the border and the role that immigration policy has played in facilitating it.

Early History of the U.S.-Mexico Border

Although the president has been at the helm of the current iteration of white supremacy in the United States, it would of course be false to presume that the histories of racial exclusion that animate immigration enforcement at the border today began with Donald Trump. The violence and xenophobia at the border today started with the making of the border in the first place. The creation of the U.S.-Mexico border as we now know it occurred after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War and forced Mexico to surrender half of its northern territory – which included the present-day states of California, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada — to the United States. This massive loss of Mexico’s land occurred in 1848, only 27 years after Mexico achieved independence from Spain. The transfer of Mexican land to the United States and the redrawing of the U.S.-Mexico border reified a deep history of colonization and paralleled the United States government’s broader practices of dispossessing Indigenous peoples of their land in order to expand the nation’s territory. Still, despite U.S. efforts to claim the land and enforce the border, the many different groups who had lived along the borderlands continued to live trans-border lives, crossing between the United States and Mexico with relative ease well into the 20th century.

Even though Indigenous North Americans and transnational communities have often considered the U.S.-Mexico border an “imaginary line,” U.S. and Mexican authorities believed otherwise even as transnational communities developed along the border. Focusing on the desert border west of the Rio Grande, Rachel St. John, in her book Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border, traces the dramatic development of the southern border from a mere line on the map at its founding after the Mexican-American War in 1848 to the heavily policed and regulated border of today through the eyes of government officials, Indigenous peoples, ranchers, railroad builders, miners, investors, immigrants, and smugglers. In Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, Julian Lim shows how the economic, social, and political interdependency between Mexico and the United States intensified at the end of the nineteenth century, when the arrival of the railroad transformed the region into a thriving economic hub that attracted Mexicans, Chinese, and African Americans in search of new beginnings. These transnational communities continued to develop even as the United States professed a commitment to draconian immigration restriction. As Geraldo Cadava demonstrates in his Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland, U.S. and Mexican business leaders and politicians in the 1940s created a thriving cross-border Sunbelt between Tucson, Arizona, and the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora that drew entrepreneurs, tourists, shoppers, and students and spurred the growth of manufacturing, ranching, and agriculture.

As these transnational ties developed, many in the United States and Mexico grew alarmed and called for increasingly exclusionary policies. Enforcing these laws proved complicated, however. In The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1917-1954, Deborah Kang details how immigration authorities recognized early on that the U.S.-Mexico border region was different from other ports of entry like Angel Island or Ellis Island. While officials enforced restrictive immigration laws and policed undocumented immigrants in the name of nativism and national security, they also found ways to open the border under pressure from local residents, businesses, politicians, and ethnic organizations. The Bracero Program, the most famous but not the only guest worker program that brought Mexican laborers to the United States, crystallized these complex dynamics. A bilateral agreement between the United States and Mexico to address a labor shortage during World War II, the Bracero Program lasted until 1964 in recognition of the continuing need for agricultural labor and an exploitable workforce in the United States, but it also elicited strong reactions that often culminated in deportations and family separation. A richly documented event, a wealth of primary sources documenting the history of the Bracero Program are available online, including oral histories with braceros — migrants who participated in the program. The Bracero Program represented one of many instances in which U.S. and Mexican authorities collaborated to regulate movement along the southern border. As Kelly Lytle Hernandez demonstrates in Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol, throughout the twentieth century, the United States and Mexico repeatedly collaborated to contain, police, or encourage Mexican migration to the United States. The formation of the Border Patrol – as well as its predecessor, the Texas Rangers, a vigilante group that was founded to protect the interests of white settlers — marked the beginning of a gatekeeping regime that has normalized migrant exclusion and racially driven violence at the U.S.-Mexico border. Since the 1990s, initiatives like Operation Gatekeeper have paved the way for the outright militarization of the border.

Central American Migration and Refugee Policy

The scholarship on Central American migration has grown significantly over the past twenty years, written almost exclusively by social scientists who study the socioeonomic impact of migration and policies on families and communities. To understand the origins of today’s migration, however, historical context is critical. In Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada, Maria Cristina Garcia examines the historical roots of the first large-scale migration from Central America, which included migrants who fled the region to escape the brutal and destabilizing civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, and the Contra War in Nicaragua. Garcia pays particular attention to the political responses and legal accommodations in Mexico, the United States, and Canada. These communities across North America have subsequently provided havens for those seeking refuge today.  Seeking Refuge is also a study of the individuals, groups, and organizations that responded to the humanitarian crisis and, through their advocacy, helped shape refugee policies throughout North America. Collectively, these domestic and transnational advocacy networks collected testimonies, documented the abuses of states, re-framed national debates about immigration, pushed for changes in policy, and ultimately provided a voice for Central Americans.  Many of these individuals and organizations continue to advocate for Central Americans today. Chronologically, Garcia’s book ends with the passage of NACARA, the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act of 1997, which provided a pathway to citizenship for qualifying applicants.

As a follow-up to Seeking Refuge, Chapter 4 of Garcia’s The Refugee Challenge in Post-Cold War America, examines the complex legal bureaucracy that today’s asylum-seekers from Central America must navigate, often without the benefit of legal counsel or even translators.  Many of today’s asylum seekers fall outside the traditional categories of persecution, and the burden of proof of persecution is exceptionally high.  Central Americans’ struggles to secure asylum raise important ethical and moral questions about who is deserving of protection.

For over a century, the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service (CRS) has provided members of the House and Senate with non-partisan policy and legal analysis of the issues of the day. In Congressional Research Service, “Recent Migration to the United States from Central America,” Updated January 29, 2019, the CRS addresses the questions that members of Congress most frequently ask about Central American migration: What are the root causes of this migration? How do current levels of Central American migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border compare with earlier apprehension levels?  Is the migration in large groups or “caravans” a new phenomenon?  What is the United States government doing to address the drivers of migration?  What is Mexico doing to curtail the flow of migrants who transit through their country on their way to the United States?  What is the role of US government agencies in processing migrants at the border?  What is the process for seeking asylum? Are domestic violence and gang violence grounds for asylum?  Can the Department of Defense build a border wall?  Can the president use military personnel for border security?  As in other CRS publications, the report includes a bibliography of other CRS reports on related issues including U.S. responses to unaccompanied children, Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ enforcement strategies, and border security.

An estimated 195,000 Salvadorans and 57,000 Hondurans currently hold Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the United States.  In  “Temporary Protected Status in the United States: The Experience of Honduran and Salvadoran Immigrants,” Cecelia Menjívar surveyed 2098 respondents in the six cities with the largest Central American populations to examine if TPS has positively contributed to the socioeconomic integration of Salvadorans and Hondurans in the United States.  The survey revealed that both male and female TPS holders have higher levels of labor force participation, and one-tenth of those surveyed were self-employed. A third lived in owner-occupied homes and close to half have furthered their education in the United States.  Over 80 percent pay income taxes and contribute to social security.  This study is especially timely given the ongoing legal battles to protect TPS. Not long after taking office, the Trump administration announced that it was terminating TPS for Salvadorans, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, and nationals of other countries. Legal challenges were filed and the termination was placed on hold when U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California enjoined the Department of Homeland Security from enforcing the order until there was a resolution of the legal challenges and appeals in court (see Ramos v. Nielsen and Bhattarai v. Nielsen).  

Leisy Abrego’s Sacrificing Families: Navigating Laws, Labor and Love Across Borders is essential reading for understanding the pressures immigration policies place on Salvadorans (and other Central Americans) in the United States and the families they leave back home.  Through interviews conducted with transnational families between 2004 and 2006, Abrego examines how the decision to migrate, and the subsequent sending of remittances, affects the structure of families and communities, the bonds between parents and children, and the financial and personal security of those who leave as well as those who are left behind.  Sacrificing Families also helps explain the impetus for the current migration of unaccompanied children who hope to reunite with mothers and fathers.  Abrego’s work complements the scholarship of Susan Bibler Coutin, Jacqueline Hagan, Nestor Rodriguez, Cecelia Menjívar, Luis Zayas, and other social scientists who have also analyzed the devastating impact immigration policies have on individuals, families and communities.

Deportation and Detention

Since launching his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s demonization of Mexicans, Muslims, and Central Americans — not to mention many others — has provoked widespread fear and outrage. While alarming, insightful work by historians, social scientists, and legal scholars reveals that, in many ways, Trump’s calls for heightened enforcement both echo and build on the policies of past administrations. Peter Andreas’s Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide offers critical analysis of the symbolic politics of border enforcement that helps explain the president’s over-the-top proclamations. Daniel Kanstroom’s Deportation Nation: Outsiders in American History traces the expulsion impulse from the nation’s founding through the early twenty-first century, showing how federal authorities’ banishment of immigrants forms part of a longer continuum that includes Indian removal and the forced migration during slavery. Other historians have detailed how state-level immigration officials targeted Irish paupers in the antebellum period, focused on removal as a matter of international relations rather than domestic politics, and shown how immigration restriction in the 1920s and the subsequent increased policing of the country’s land borders helped create the stereotype of Mexicans as “illegal aliens.” Nicholas De Genova and Nathalie Peutz’s comprehensive edited volume The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement sheds light on expulsion as a “global mechanism of state control” and how the threat of removal affects noncitizens’ lives. And Deborah Boehm’s Returned: Going and Coming in an Age of Deportation and a number of other revelatory works explore the impact expulsion has on migrants and the stark realities people face after they’ve been deported.

At the same time that the Trump administration has emboldened its deportation efforts, the number of families and unaccompanied immigrant children migrating to the United States has increased dramatically. The number of families in detention has consequently ballooned. According to an American Immigration Council report, the United States currently detains more families seeking asylum than any other nation in the world. The detention of immigrant children has also increased, and much of the public’s recent outrage over the humanitarian crisis at the border has focused on reports that hundreds of immigrant children separated from their parents or family members were being held in shockingly unsanitary, crowded, and dangerous conditions at Border Patrol facilities. All this despite the 1997 Flores federal court settlement that mandates that the Border Patrol must allow lawyers, doctors and other monitors to visit and interview children in its custody.

Of course, immigrant children have always been part of the migrant population to the United States, often traveling with a parent or another adult relative. Like adults, children migrate to join family already in the United States and to escape war, gangs, violence, or poverty. Though they have not always been the focus of scholars, studies of migrant children have revealed how these populations often face particular challenges, which can include navigating the complex immigration system — often without legal counsel — as well as the trauma of war and displacement and struggles adapting to their adopted homelands. See, for example, Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, a portrait of child migrants from Central America as they recount their harrowing ordeals fleeing street gangs and civil war, migrating through Mexico to the United States, and struggling to prove their case for admission to U.S. immigration officials; and Susan Bibler Coutin’s study of Salvadoran children who migrated with their families during the civil war in El Salvador (1980-1992), Exiled Home: Salvadoran Transnational Youth in the Aftermath of Violence.

Child migrants also face unique challenges in the U.S. immigration detention system, which is made up of a variety of facilities that range from processing centers managed by Customs and Border Protection, detention facilities operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and shelters for children under the auspices of the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Health and Human Services Department. Together, they make up what author and journalist Andrea Pitzer calls the “larger concentration camp tapestry,” which she examines as part of a century long history of all kinds of camps used to confine certain populations in her book One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps. Among the first detention facilities to house immigrant children were the immigration stations on Ellis Island (in New York) and on Angel Island (in San Francisco). Both the detention of minors and family separation based on sex were particularly common on Angel Island, the most common port of entry for Chinese immigrants during the Chinese Exclusion Era (1882-1943). (Males under the age of 13, for example, were separated from their mothers and detained in the men’s barracks.) Former child detainees who were interviewed for the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation’s “Immigrant Voices” project described the barracks there as dark, overcrowded, poorly ventilated, and prison-like.

The U.S. government incarcerated Japanese American children en masse, who, along with their families, were unjustifiably considered a national security risk during World War Two. Many of the “assembly centers” where Japanese Americans were first taken were former race tracks and other facilities similarly unfit for human habitation. The hastily built incarceration camps were little better. Comparisons between the detention of migrant children in 2019 and the World War Two incarceration camps have been made by many, including actor and activist George Takei, a former internee who has been an outspoken critic of current immigration policies. The historical parallel was confirmed when the Trump administration announced in June 2019 that the Fort Sill, Oklahoma World War Two incarceration camp (and former Native American boarding school) would be adapted to shelter migrant children.

The U.S. government continued to confine migrants as part of a larger expansion of mass incarceration after World War Two that has disproportionately impacted communities of color. A. Naomi Paik has shown how detainees on Guantánamo like HIV-positive Haitian refugees and enemy combatants from the War on Terror were effectively stripped of their fundamental legal protections in Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War II.

Meanwhile, attorneys and advocacy organizations have taken action to end the ongoing “health and welfare crisis” in migrant detention centers, and organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics continue to point out the dangerous and long-lasting trauma that detention can have on immigrant children.


Maria Cristina Garcia, an Andrew Carnegie Fellow, is the Howard A. Newman Professor of American Studies in the Department of History at Cornell University.  Her most recent book is The Refugee Challenge in Post-Cold War America.  She is also the author of Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida and Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada.  Along with Maddalena Marinarai and Madeline Hsu, she is co-editor of A Nation of Immigrants Reconsidered: U.S. Society in an Age of Restriction, 1924-1965. García is currently completing a book on the environmental origins of refugee migrations—the so-called “climate refugees.”  She is a past president of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (2015-2018). 

Adam Goodman teaches history and Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is faculty advisor to UIC’s Fearless Undocumented Alliance and the author of The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants (Princeton University Press, forthcoming spring 2020).

Erika Lee, an Andrew Carnegie Fellow, is a Regents Professor of History and Asian American Studies, the Rudoloph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History, and Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. Her most recent book is America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States. She is also the author of The Making of Asian America: A History and Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America (with Judy Yung).  

Maddalena Marinari teaches history at Gustavus Adolphus College. She has published extensively on immigration restriction and immigrant mobilization. She is the author of Unwanted: Italian And Jewish Mobilization Against Restrictive Immigration Laws, 1882-1965 and a co-editor of A Nation of Immigrants Reconsidered: U.S. Society in an Age of Restriction, 1924-1965.

Evan Taparata is the Jack Miller Center Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy. He is a historian of migration, law, and empire in the 19th and 20th century United States and is currently working on a book manuscript about the evolution of an exclusionary regime of U.S. refugee policy from the American Revolution through World War II. His scholarship has been published in the Journal of American Ethnic History and his writing has been featured several times on He has also contributed to several public-facing digital humanities projects, including the #ImmigrationSyllabus and the Humanities Action Lab’s States of Incarceration initiative. He serves on the editorial collective of Abusable Past.