The crisis at the Mexican-U.S. border is—as both the statistics and common sense indicate—manufactured hysteria, the work of racist demagoguery. Border crossings, in general, are down, and anyone who believes that a group of tired, hungry, and scared human beings walking 2,700 miles is coming after you and your family is also going to believe that global warming is fake news, and possibly that Santa is a socialist liberal distributing joy such that kids become dependent on kindness.
In many ways, any discussion of the border is a win for the right, especially when the conversation concerns so-called illegal aliens. Aliens don’t exist (or have yet to present themselves outside of sci-fi and conspiracy theories); the refugees who have walked and hitched rides from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are human bodies lost in a violent maze of man-made state apparatuses. Even the borders themselves are a relatively recent phenomenon: Until the 20th century, border crossings in North America were a relatively free and open exercise.
Then again, it’s another racist myth that North America was a wide-open, uncivilized place—one of our founding racist myths, in fact. The continent was crisscrossed with transcontinental roads and trails that connected indigenous communities between what is now called Canada and the more southern landscapes from which this current 2018 migration began. In 1804, for instance, after the U.S. “purchased” a huge chunk of the West from France the year before—it would take much of the rest after a trumped-up war with Mexico that started in 1846 (begun amid a dispute over the whereabouts of U.S. troops vis-à-vis an invisible border, by the way)—Lewis and Clark marveled at trade goods from around the world on the floor of a Mandan lodge in what the U.S. calls North Dakota.
With the current international fixation on borders and crossings, and with their recent history in mind, we had a conversation with John Torpey, a professor of sociology and history and director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, as well as the author of The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship, and the State, which argues, in part, that modern nation-states and the international system have taken away people’s rights to move and migrate, that they have monopolized the authority to decide who is in and who is out, and even what citizenship is.
What was it like to walk across the country in the 1800s? Where were the borders?
The main thing that comes to mind is that we had forts. We had forts and outposts. I was just in Pittsburgh, where the French built Fort Duquesne. But we never really had the walled cities that you see in Europe. Those essentially arose in the aftermath of the collapse of the Roman Empire and its protective blanket, when in the medieval period people started building all these walled cities because they needed the protection. But in the U.S., we never really had that, until around the 1960s, when gated communities became the thing.
How did gated communities come about?
The timing suggests that it was part of the process of white flight. In the ’60s, white people moved to suburbs because African-Americans had moved to northern cities from the South as part of the Great Migration. Whites also wanted to live in places that were gated. The idea of enclaves into which one had no access unless one was an owner or guest of an owner took off around then too. But going back further to, say, 1800, there were probably relatively few controls on people. A point I make is that it’s hard to control people if they are walking. If they are in some kind of conveyance, it’s somewhat easier to keep track of them. But all this presupposes a kind of bureaucratic enforcement that is incipient at best in 1800. In the U.S., in the aftermath of the [first portion of the] French Revolution, we adopted the Alien and Sedition Acts, which was basically a response to the idea that revolutionaries might start to show up in the U.S. from France. But again, how enforceable that actually was . . . if somebody’s on a boat, then it’s a little easier to do that.
So ports and port controls—those were 19th-century equivalents of what we see today at international airports, for instance, or at international checkpoints. But for the most part, were there borders in the western U.S. in the 1860s, for example, after the Civil War?
No. I mean, borders were rivers, or just notions in people’s heads, but how much effective reality they had—basically it was pretty limited. Again, there may have been laws on the books that restricted people from traversing certain boundaries, but actually implementing that prohibition was a different story. In general, people moved around untrammeled. It’s really changes in the 20th century that allow border enforcement, with the development of all these means of transportation that involve getting into something, and with the rise of a bureaucratic apparatus that can implement restrictions. But those are really relatively recent developments.
We’ve seen the Trump administration recently question the validity of American citizenship held by some Mexican-Americans. Generally, how did the role of identification papers, like the passport, change or develop over the past century?
Until the mid-19th century, much labor was forced. In the U.S., certainly in the South, it was plantation slave labor. In Europe, this started to change after the French Revolution, which abolished feudalism and serfdom. But gradually in the course of the 19th century, more European countries abolished serfdom, including in Russia, in 1861. People were suddenly allowed to move around in a way that they had never been allowed to move before. A Russian serf and American slave, before 1861 and 1863, respectively, had to have permission of their owner in order to move around and would have had to carry permission in some document. Otherwise they were, presumably, on the loose. We know about the history of slave patrols, going off rounding people up, and there were similar kinds of things in Russia, when serfs might try to escape. The problem was getting out. This was for me one of the major things that I came to understand as I worked on The Invention of the Passport, simply that we are focused on the difficulties of getting in today. And while this doesn’t necessarily change in overseas colonial possessions, or in places that don’t abolish serfdom, in a European and North American context, up until the mid-19th century, the problem increasingly becomes not getting out, but getting in.
If you are walking more than 2,500 miles, from, for instance, Guatemala or Honduras, to the U.S. border, then you are walking north through a territory that we call Mexico now and has a history of being a Spanish colonial possession and then briefly a French colonial possession, as well as, of course, Mexican territory, and before that—and still now—indigenous land. What can we say about human bodies crossing places that aren’t necessarily borders but arroyos and ríos, desiertos and cuencas?
Reparations for most communities have to do with reasserting control over land, allowing full participation in a culture and its customs. Many of the people we are talking about in this caravan are surely of what we might call “indigenous descent.” The indigenous populations, in so far as they survived, were the populations that were subjugated by European intruders, primarily Spanish in this case. And I suppose some people might say it’s a kind of reparation if they gain access to the territory of a country like the U.S., that would have better opportunities and certainly would be safer for them. I haven’t heard people make that kind of argument. But there is no doubt that the system of borders that exists in the international state system today is, in a very fundamental sense, profoundly illiberal. We were lucky enough to be born in the U.S., which has a very high GDP per capita, has long had a very democratic system, though whether that survives remains to be seen. But these are people who are coming from desperate circumstances and who are trying—like many, many generations of immigrants before them—to improve their situations, whether economic or political or whatever.
What if there were no border?
I think it would be the case that if there were some kind of open-border policy, poor people would be better off if they could move to opportunities. But this is precisely what the populist movements in Europe and the U.S. are dead set against, giving these people open borders so that the poor of the rest of the world can come here and compete for jobs. We’ve seen this before; it’s not exactly novel. But the virulence of the opposition and the political consequences of the fears that are stoked by leaders like Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and people elsewhere—the consequences are much more serious because these people are not democrats and may well seek to destroy the democratic systems that made them powerful.
The U.S. is not used to thinking of itself as a colonial power, and yet isn’t the border between the U.S. and Mexico a kind of overlay of old and new colonial borders?
Sure, these borders are obviously the product of European colonialism, and, yes, we don’t necessarily see ourselves as a colonial power, but if you look at the whole history of U.S. involvement in Central and South American and the idea of a banana republic—a term which we now, alas, may have to apply to the U.S. itself—that had to do with American involvement in these very countries the migrants are fleeing. This, of course, is part of the reason these people are heading north, that they are fleeing from circumstances that we in the U.S. had a hand in creating. That, it seems to me, gives us some responsibility to take seriously their asylum claims.
This interview has been edited and condensed.