Ties That Bind: Migrant Placemaking at the U.S.-Mexico Boundary and Beyond
In the 1920s, economist Paul S. Taylor documented migrants in California sending dollars to Mexico through local California banks. In the state of Jalisco, he documented the modest houses, jacals and one-story adobe structures, migrants built upon their return from the U.S. In the same decade, Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio and his team of researchers published Department of Foreign Relations data cataloging dozens of objects men and women carried with them across the boundary when returning to Mexico in his classic study, Mexican Immigration to the United States. Hoes, mowers, and shovels were sometimes stashed inside remitted “Chevrolet” automobiles that individuals drove to hometowns and cities in Mexico. Crisscrossing this stream of ordinary items, molcajetes, bean pots, and cacao migrated north.
In the early 2000s, I began collecting oral and building histories of houses built in Jalisco in the 1960s and 1970s by migrants who worked and saved money in the U.S. Remitted dollars financing new houses is a practice that continues today. Many are filled with furniture and small items, such as “Welcome” front door mats, purchased in the north. And again, intersecting this flow of objects south is another stream headed north. In the 1970s, a Texan family with ties to Mexico built a house in Corpus Christi with stone quarried in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. Both cantera stone and skilled labor had to be “imported.” The family relied on the help of relatives in Mexico and endured a lengthy process to acquire work visas and permits to bring the stone and stonemasons north. Since the 1980s small family businesses primarily owned by Mexicans have emerged throughout the southwest to facilitate the importation of cantera. Today, individuals work with hundreds of artisanal masons throughout Mexico and scores of quarries in approximately a dozen Mexican states to facilitate the realization of “Mexican-style” or “hacienda-style” houses in the U.S. primarily commissioned by Mexican and Mexican-American clientele. Largely outside of large-scale businesses and corporations, individuals have built networks that span territories to create and to shape built environments on both sides of the international boundary (Figures 1 and 2).
If we start in 1848, with the delineation of what has evolved into today’s U.S.-Mexico boundary, there have been 171 years of engagement between these disparate places that can be traced and tracked in objects, architectures, archives, and oral histories. The movement of money, things, and materials is about relationships between people. Friendships, kinships, links to places, and a search for meaning motivate people to create robust social and spatial networks that endure generations and span great distances. These networks operate regionally; social and economic geographies are created by people operating from a specific set of places in Mexico to specific places in the U.S. A messy map of overlapping and intersecting points of connection covers the southwest U.S. and northern Mexico, and extends inward into the interior of both nations. From the point of view of this interconnected region it is sometimes hard to see distinct nation-states.
Human ties between people and places that span the boundary are stronger than state efforts to terrorize, diminish, humiliate, and shame primarily Mexican and Central American people. Beyond “the current administration,” the U.S. state has worked hard, also since the early twentieth century, to create bureaucracies, institutions, policies, and landscapes that marginalize and criminalize men and women fleeing violence, and seeking opportunities in agriculture, industry, and the service sector. Kelly Lyle Hernandez tracks the history of “human caging,” reminding us that Senator Coleman Blease’s bill (D-S.C., 1925-31), enacted in 1929, criminalized unauthorized border crossings for the first time, resulting in Texas’s first prison built for migrants.
Today, unauthorized border crossing is a misdemeanor, and re-entry after deportation is a felony. In the 1950s a tent city erected in McAllen near the boundary line quarantined mostly male workers who were informally crossing during a period when agricultural workers were encouraged to come north through the formal guest-worker Bracero Program (1942-1964). Jenna Loyd and Allison Mountz contextualize how and why detention and deportation throughout the twentieth century occurred on a relatively small scale when compared with today. They trace the rise of migrant detention to the 1980s when Cold War politics and policies coupled with streams of Haitian and Cuban refugees resulted in new punitive practices and new detention centers. By the late 1990s, just after President Clinton’s 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act which greatly increased the number of persons eligible for detention, the state of Texas (the state that incarcerates the largest number of non-U.S. citizens) had approximately five detention centers. By this time private prison corporations had assumed the mantle of envisioning, constructing, and managing facilities. The post–9/11 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, bolstered by new cash infusions, continued to receive more money from Congress throughout the early 2000s as private prison companies heavily lobbied Congress regarding immigration policy. In 2003, Texas had approximately ten detention centers; today that number has grown to approximately thirty, along with five immigration prisons; new facilities are on the horizon.
The material artifact of detention is comprised of a series of isolated islands, each one marked by a prison-like building monumental in scale but institutional in form, often flat-roofed and unadorned, windowless, single-mass, surrounded by 12-to-14-foot high fencing topped with concertina wire enclosing a barren recreation yard. Located in small towns and remote agricultural and oil fields, corporate detaining practices operate at full throttle as a stand-in for other forms of immigration policy (Figure 3).
Putting a century of migrant place-making in both Mexico and the U.S. into tension with a century of migrant incarceration and detention raises interesting questions about scale, and about the idea of “crisis.” The crisis—always and forever happening right now—has been used to justify allocating resources toward detention facilities and boundary fencing for almost 100 years; it is an institutional method of U.S. immigration policy. And yet, the built environment that surrounds detention centers and that spreads out from the boundary—the terrain of cantera houses—reminds us that stopping migration (if it ever was the goal) has never worked. The landscape is full of evidence of deep-past, recent-past, present, and future migrant place-making practices. Discovering when and how people built places, small decision by small decision, reveals migrants’ overwhelming strength and resolve. Migrants are demonized and demoralized by the so-called “migrant crisis” and subsequent incarceration practices; migration itself is not curtailed. Yet, in the face of extreme violence, we can recognize the strength, ingenuity, and character of the social and spatial networks that link regions, binding places and people together.
 Detention Watch Network obtained the ICE Facilities Matrix for 2017 which lists all ICE contracts with facilities by state. The number of facilities in Texas is always changing since new facilities open, existing facilities close, and some are repurposed. Historic estimations are based on an assessment of how long existing facilities have been in operation; these numbers may be revised if ICE releases data about its contract history.