by Steven W. Bender. New York: New York University Press, 2012. 233pp. Cloth $39.00. ISBN: 9780814789520.
Reviewed by Rebecca Hamlin, Department of Political Science, Grinnell College. hamlinr [at] grinnell.edu
It is a bizarre, perhaps even sinister fact of public education in the United States that most Americans reach adulthood knowing very little about the history of the United States’ relationship with Mexico. The assumption at the heart of Steven Bender’s new book Run for the Border is that if more Americans understood the longstanding interconnectedness of these two neighbors, the historic fluidity of the border between them, and the power dynamics of the relationship over time, they might take a different view of undocumented migrants today. He opens the book by claiming that if we had a better sense of history, Mexican migrants would be “celebrated for their positive contribution to U.S. labor markets and our economic well-being and for their renewal of the American dream that hard labor brings the hope of prosperity” (p.2). As immigration law professor Bill Ong Hing has said, rather than deporting illegal immigrants, we should give them a parade! (Hing 2006, p.8).
Instead of outlining the contributions of Mexican migrants to the American economy, Run for the Border attempts to relieve Americans of our ignorance by illustrating some of the less-discussed ways in which the U.S. and Mexico have been and continue to be interconnected, and the many different reasons why people on both sides of the border may choose to cross it. Perhaps as a way of countering the widespread American belief in a one-way south-to-north invasion, Bender puts particular emphasis on the wide variety of reasons why people cross the other way. Bender also intersperses this history with examples of pop culture representations of border encounters throughout American history. Presumably, these examples are designed to illustrate the ways in which Americans have been informed by stereotypes of the U.S./Mexico relationship in lieu of being properly educated about it.
Many of the historical and contemporary tidbits in Run for the Border are fascinating and will encourage readers to think about U.S./Mexico relations in a refreshing light. For example, Bender describes a history of fugitive slaves crossing into Mexico to avoid capture, outlaws and bandits fleeing Texas Rangers, Mormons avoiding polygamy laws, partiers craving booze and drugs, lonely men searching for prostitutes, women seeking abortions, retirees looking for an affordable place to spend their sunset years, and business owners wanting a cheap and convenient place to manufacture goods. I learned that increasing numbers of Americans are buying second homes south of the border, and finding loopholes to get [*546] around Mexico’s Constitutional ban on foreign ownership of coastline property. I learned how Tijuana became “Hollywood’s playground” during Prohibition, and how border towns suffered after the birth of Las Vegas diverted pleasure seekers to our own homegrown vice destination (p.58). I learned about the steady flow of Americans wanting divorces or abortions in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, before state laws regulating these controversial topics were liberalized. Overall, Bender lists many, many examples of Americans looking to their southern neighbor for goods, services, and experiences that are either unaffordable or illegal at home.
Though it is not always clear from the examples, the overall message of Run for the Border seems to be that the relationship between the United States and Mexico has long been an exploitative one. Our southern neighbor helpfully provides Americans with what we need and desire, and instead of showing gratitude, we turn around and vilify the labor that enables our privileged way of life and props up our Social Security system. This conclusion leads into Run for the Border’s final section, which advocates for a “harm reduction” approach to American policies directed at cross-border encounters (p.148). Specifically, Bender proposes open borders for labor migration, which would free authorities to focus on traffickers and terrorists. He also favors decriminalization of marijuana and LSD, which would allow enforcement to crack down on methamphetamine. Finally, he supports American investment in Mexico’s economic development, which would reduce the number of people needing to migrate north to support their families in Mexico, and keep factory jobs in the U.S. by reducing the cost disparity of manufacturing just over the border.
Run for the Border obviously takes up an incredibly interesting, important, and timely topic, especially as so-called Comprehensive Immigration Reform seems likely to resurface as a priority in President Obama’s second term. Assuredly, debates in Washington will not be historically informed and will not include bilateral negotiations with the Mexican government. The final policy outcome will certainly not be as holistic as it should be. Thus, books like Run for the Border play a valuable role by reminding us of policy options that are, at the present moment, impossible.
Unfortunately, Run for the Border could have made much more of such an important task. Part of the problem is that Bender tries to do too much too quickly, and ends up not giving any of the topics he mentions in passing a thorough treatment. The book provides a history of both north-to-south and south-to-north crossings over hundreds of years, as well as a contemporary policy discussion ranging from NAFTA to the drug trade to the Mexican real estate market, to child sex trafficking. Finally, he concludes with a multi-pronged proposal for reform. I understand that covering such an expansive array of topics is necessary for the holistic approach to reform for which Bender advocates, but because the book is not very long, it feels more superficial than comprehensive. Run for the Border is divided into fourteen substantive chapters plus an introduction, a conclusion, and five separate introductions for each of the five “Parts” of the book. In other words, one-hundred [*547] and eighty-four pages of text are broken into twenty-one separate sections, most of which are between two and ten pages long, giving the book an incredibly choppy feel, and leaving many assertions unsupported.
Secondly, because Run for the Border does not articulate a theory about what has driven U.S./Mexico border crossing, it is difficult to evaluate the fit between the history Bender provides and the policy proposal he puts forward. Is this simply a story about the age-old pattern of people moving across borders in order to enhance their economic well-being and get access to things that they want? If so, in what ways are these crossings different from Massachusetts residents driving a few hundred yards over the New Hampshire border to stock up on booze and fireworks that are unavailable or heavily taxed in their puritanical home state? In what ways are they different from the migration of many homosexual Mexicans to Mexico City to get married because (until the Mexican Supreme Court decision in December 2012) it was the only part of Mexico that allowed same-sex marriage? Bender puts great emphasis on the fact that the U.S. has much looser gun laws, so there is gun smuggling to Mexico, and Mexico has looser prostitution laws and a lower drinking age so there is “vice tourism” to Mexico. He mentions in passing that these differences should be evened out or “synchronized” in order to reduce this type of border crossing (p.179). But his final proposal does not really take up these issues, nor could it, because regulatory disparities are an unsurprising fact of borderlands, especially when it comes to highly contentious moral issues such as guns, alcohol and drug consumption, abortion, prostitution, and homosexuality. Thus, much of the history in the book feels unrelated to Bender’s ultimate policy proposals.
Finally, Run for the Border would have been strengthened by a more thorough and nuanced treatment of the motivations behind state action. Mexico is in a globally unique position as a developing state that shares a massive border with a very wealthy one. While the relationship is undoubtedly dominated by instances of American bullying, exploitation, and abuse, I would need to see a lot more evidence before I could believe that Mexico is a passive victim rather than a calculating political actor in a difficult situation. Bender writes that “rather than building border walls … Mexico is building bridges to foreign investment and opportunity” (p.38). The implication seems to be that the Mexican government is enlightened about the possibilities of open borders while the Americans are driven by xenophobia and greed. But one need only take a brief look at Mexico’s own southern border policies and its treatment of Guatemalans and other Central Americans within its territory to understand that inter-state power dynamics are universal as well as relative. Further, the Mexican government has exerted great effort to lure business investors, retirees, vacationers, and pleasure seekers southward, presumably because these crossings generate income. Thus, I wish the book had a more explicit discussion of the political calculus behind policy decisions in both states.
Run for the Border provides an interesting look at north-to-south migration over time that I have not seen [*548] elsewhere. In contrast, the discussion of south-to-north migration history was not new and has been outlined in much more detail elsewhere, such as Mae Ngai’s excellent Impossible Subjects. Overall, the book disappoints because it is not clear if it is a history of the borderland, a sketch of an idealized policy proposal, or a discussion of contemporary U.S./Mexico relations. Run for the Border may be of interest to scholars of American migration, but could have reached a much wider audience if it offered more concrete lessons to be learned about the unique and complicated relationship it explores.
Hing, Bill Ong. 2006. Deporting Our Souls: Values, Morality, and Immigration Policy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Ngai, Mae. 2005. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making Of Modern America. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Copyright 2012 by the Author, Rebecca Hamlin.