La Otra Arizona: Our Migratory Border, Part III

La Otra Arizona: Our Migratory Border, Part III (Gadsden)

Published in The Noise, Fall 2012

We live in a time when most talk of the border between Mexico and the United States revolves around how best to fortify it. A higher wall? A dual-wall system a-la Palestine? A “virtual fence” of cameras and motion detectors? But what about environmental impact? The humanitarian costs? 

Border fortifications are a political chess piece, bandied out at opportune moments by purveyors of fear-motivated politics. John McCain’s last reelection campaign prominently featured a television commercial which depicted the incumbent senator walking near Nogales with Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu. Filmed in gritty, high-contrast close ups, the ad’s dialog is precious:

McCain: “Drug and human smuggling, home invasions, murder.”

Babeu: “We’re outmanned. With all the illegals in America, more than half come through Arizona.” 

McCain: “Have we got the right plan?”

Babeu: “Plan’s perfect. We bring troops, local and county law enforcement together.”

McCain: “And complete the danged fence.”

Babeu: “It’ll work this time. Senator, you’re one of us.”

We’ll set aside for a moment the disingenuous rhetorical connection made between “illegals” and violent crime. We’ll even disregard the fact that now Mr. Babeu is under investigation for allegedly using his positional power to leverage sex and silence from at least one Mexican lover. All these are symptoms of a wider moral corruption and simplification of context when it comes to discussing the border. Let’s dig deeper––even if maybe it might work this time, do we know where to build the danged fence?

Under the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, Arizona ended at the Gila river, just south of modern Phoenix. (See part II of this LOA series.) It was a convenient natural demarcation, the Gila being one of the most important rivers in the area, second only to the mighty Colorado. And yet when driving down I-10 we roll over the sucked-dry river without so much as noticing––where’s the Border Patrol? 

They’re 100 miles south, of course, patrolling a straight line drawn just north of 31º longitude, a line devoid of any natural barriers. Huh?

Throughout this series we’ve taken the long view and watched the borders as they leap, stumble and fight their way across North America and beyond. Far from being a firm, pseudo-geographical limit, the indecisive “U.S. border” moved nearly once a decade for over sixty years. 

This brings us to 1853. How did the border suddenly migrate south from the Gila to its present position? Short answer: by railroad. 

Just a few years after the U.S. invasion and occupation of Mexico in 1848, it became obvious that the bureaucrats who drew up the “Mexican Cession” had made a mistake. They hadn’t taken enough territory. Sure, Mexico had just “sold” some 55% of its land for a song, but there still wasn’t enough room for the U.S. to build an all-weather transcontinental railroad along its new southern edge from sea-to-shining-sea. 

Sure, there were already two other railroad routes that would span the continent, but they had the Rocky Mountains to deal with. For the mid-nineteenth century businessmen-politicians still high on Manifest Destiny, strapping the land down with iron rails was something of a spiritual quest. After all, gold had just been discovered in California. Lots of it. 

So the U.S. brought Mexican President Santa Anna back to the table in Mexico City, sat him down with James Gadsden and set about “negotiating” another land sale. Context is everything here. By and large the Mexican people were furious with Santa Anna for Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The new treaty had to be discussed in secret in order to avoid a popular uprising against the president. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the calls continued for the young country to just avoid future complications and take all of Mexico.

Gadsden––a railroad man, of course––was sent from Washington by President Franklin Pierce with five different offers. One would acquire almost an additional half of Mexico, putting the border somewhere south of Sonora. Another would push the border south of the pueblo of Tucson, and include all of Baja California as well. In the end, the smallest proposal won the day, and the U.S. paid $10 million for the sliver of land from the Mesilla valley in New Mexico to Yuma in eastern Arizona.

Not that either Gadsden nor Santa Anna knew the land they were talking about. The final version of the agreement provided for a bilateral survey expedition to figure out where exactly the border was. 

The Boundary Commission set out through unknown territory, looking to settle the debates that had been raging among surveyors and politicians since Guadalupe-Hidalgo, all of whom had been imagining the line in various places according to differing measurements. It had been nearly a decade since the beginning of the Mexican-American war when the final location of the border was decided upon in 1856.

The point is to keep all this in mind, especially in an election year. Politicians will mention the border in terms of permanence and threat, proposing that more defense contracts might work this time. 

But when studying the history, we realize that what happens on the border rarely begins there. The problems start with the doctrines held in the hearts of both countries, not the consequences found at their edges. 

It follows then that solutions should begin internally as well. Looking at our border, we can choose to see malleability and possibility, opening ourselves up to new, deeper solutions that surely stand a much better chance of working. 

 

For further reading:
Wagoner, Jay J. Early Arizona: Prehistory to Civil War, 1975.
Zinn, Howard. “We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God.” A People’s History of the United States, 1980.