Guest post by Andrae Marak. Andrae is a professor of history and political science and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Graduate Studies at Governors State University. His areas of expertise are North American borderlands, indigenous peoples, transnational flows of drugs, contraband and vice, and education. He has authored, co-authored or co-edited four books, including Smugglers, Brothels, and Twine: Historical Perspectives on Contraband and Vice in North America’s Borderlands, with Elaine Carey (2011).

Book Review of Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, Julian Lim, (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

The Mexico-U.S. border is often depicted in the mainstream press (or thought of in our historical imagination) as a place of confrontation between Mexicans (with a recent surge of Central American immigrants) and (most white) Americans. The past several decades of scholarship have served to complicate this by introducing the histories of a much broader array of peoples and the ways that race has racialized borders. Usually, these studies focus on one sub-group of people be they Anglo, Mexican, indigenous, Chinese, Japanese, or African American. When they do examine the interactions of different groups, studies often focus on minority group interactions with increasingly powerful Anglos in the region. In Porous Borders, Julian Lim advances our understanding of borders, race, ethnicity, and immigration law by focusing in on Chinese, African American, and Mexican migrants and border crossers and the ways that their shifting identities and circumstances interrelated with each other. Her goal “is not simply to document that black and Chinese pioneers were ‘there’ too, but rather to illuminate the tensions, contingencies, and complexity at play in borderland communities and in the identities of people living between nations” (p. 9).

Historians have known for some time that borders and immigration laws, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, have been used to racialize and criminalize particular groups of people. Elites used these tools (as well as shifting racial categories) to minimize multiracial contact as much as possible, even as Blacks, Chinese and Mexicans used the border as a means of finding and creating sanctuary from state oversight (with varying degrees of success). Lim’s exploration of the 1880s to the 1930s allows her to explore one of the first moves by the state to harden and militarize the Mexico-U.S. border even as the border, then as now, remained porous and open to some forms of movement by some groups of people (and increasingly by ever higher amounts of goods).

So how do things look when we examine African Americans and Chinese together in the borderlands region rather than in isolation from one another? Lim’s work provides us with some interesting and important new findings. For one, Lim demonstrates that the paucity of Anglos in El Paso prior to 1880 resulted in a much more fluid and accepting racial climate in the city where Anglos often married into Mexican and Mexican American families, learned Spanish, and adopted local customs. Later, when more Anglos arrived in the city from the East Coast of the United States and wanted El Paso to conform much more closely to the racial/ethnic boundaries that existed there, they did so by enforcing anti-miscegenation laws almost exclusively on lower class, mixed race couples. The targeted couples were compelled to move across the border to El Paso’s sister city of Ciudad Juárez. As Lim notes, the desire of local elites to prevent racial mixing would result in a broader white supremacist plan for increased 'racial purity and segregation,' (p. 93) a set of practices that would profoundly affect local residents (and the Chinese in Mexico as well).

The barring of Chinese laborers from the United States resulted in the rise of complex multi-ethnic smuggling networks. As many historians and social scientists have attested, the hardening of borders creates a symbiotic relationship between those who are defending borders and those who are trying to pass through them. As the border hardened and inspection methods increased, methods for evading capture evolved. They went from the sharing of papers of already legal Chinese residents of the United States with non-residents who wanted to enter the country, the dressing of Chinese border crossers in typical Mexican clothes (and teaching them a bit of Spanish) and to much more elaborate methods. One for example, involved placing Chinese migrants in train cars without breaking the seal that demonstrated that the cargo was legal, to then remove the people without breaking the seal after they had crossed the border but prior to the cargo being unloaded. Interestingly, this latter method is still successfully used today in the shipping of illegal drugs mixed into legal commercial goods on trains, semis, and cargo ships.

Perhaps the most important set of Lim’s findings is that the U.S.’s push for racial purity and segregation, even as it opened up the possibility for citizenship through military service -a practice currently being undermined by the Trump administration- were not unique. Post-revolutionary Mexico embraced an Indianized mestizo racial ideal which served both to advance the position of the majority of its citizens even as it erased African and Asian contributions to the nation. A wave of Anti-Chinese violence in 1930s’ Mexico, resulting from Chinese men integrating all too successfully into Mexican society, put Chinese Mexicans into an untenable position. They were barred from entry into the United States but were equally unwanted in Mexico, prompting Mexican officials to both deport Chinese Mexicans to the United States and assist the deportees in gaming U.S. immigration laws.

Lim establishes that by the end of the 1930s, Mexico and the United States had engaged in racial purity campaigns, bringing about two nations who were 'more homogenous than ever' even as they would go on to celebrate their racial and cultural diversity (p. 96).

Few scholars do a better job of writing a fresh, new, and important history that avoids reproducing the power dynamics of the archives upon which it is based, dynamics that in the wrong hands would serve to hide and erase the very stories that Lim is able to tell with such alacrity.  Lim’s book is essential reading for both students and scholars of borderlands, U.S. and Mexican ethnic and racial history. I suspect that it will rightly find its way into many upper division and graduate courses but – given the craft, precision, and care with which Lim makes use of a wide range of sources on both sides of the border – I hope that Porous Borders is also adopted in courses on historical methodology.  

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Lim, J. (2018) Book Review: Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. Available at: (Accessed [date]).