Bor­ders: The First Mex­ico-U.S. Fences

To­day's rag­ing bor­der con­tro­versy be­gan with a sur­pris­ing in­ci­dent 100 years ago this sum­mer

Smithsonian Magazine - - Contents -

IN EARLY AU­GUST 1918, Felix B. Peñaloza, the pres­i­dente mu­nic­i­pal, or mayor, of No­gales, Mex­ico, or­dered con­struc­tion of a fence run­ning along the bound­ary line be­tween his city and No­gales, Arizona. The fence would con­sist of six wires strung to a height of six feet. His in­tent was to di­rect the flow of peo­ple cross­ing the bor­der through two gate­ways, to make it easier for a grow­ing num­ber of sol­diers, cus­toms agents and other of­fi­cials to over­see trans­bor­der move­ment. Peñaloza also met with U.S. rep­re­sen­ta­tives to dis­cuss a sec­ond, par­al­lel fence, to be built by the Amer­i­cans. Mex­i­can of­fi­cials said they “would wel­come the build­ing of such a fence by the United States Gov­ern­ment, as it would aid of­fi­cials on both sides of the line in en­forc­ing their reg­u­la­tions,” and they in­sisted that “such ac­tion would not be ir­ri­tat­ing or of­fen­sive to Mex­i­can sen­ti­ment.”

To­day a ten-mile-long rusted steel bor­der wall is a defin­ing fea­ture of the cities. Its ori­gin story be­gins with these two fences. When they were first erected in No­gales a cen­tury ago, they were nei­ther a brazen po­lit­i­cal state­ment nor a bar­rier to im­mi­grants, but a co­op­er­a­tive mea­sure, em­braced by both the United States and Mex­ico in the spirit of “good fences make good neigh­bors.” But the pro­posed Amer­i­can fence be­came what was most likely the first per­ma­nent bar­rier to con­trol the move­ment of peo­ple across the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der.

Peñaloza’s fence cut through the heart of the twin cities of No­gales—known as Am­bos No­gales, “Both No­gales.” Founded in 1882, Am­bos No­gales be­came a bustling com­mu­nity cen­tered on the bound­ary line, which ran along In­ter­na­tional Street. For years Mex­i­cans and Amer­i­cans crossed the bor­der reg­u­larly to do busi­ness, shop, so­cial­ize and cel­e­brate the hol­i­days of both nations. Years later, for­mer res­i­dents re­called how they had even played on the line as chil­dren.

Ten­sions along the bor­der started to rise with the Mex­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, which be­gan in 1910, and were height­ened by the First World War. A vi­o­lent bat­tle be­tween op­pos­ing Mex­i­can forces took place in No­gales, Mex­ico, in 1913. A sec­ond bat­tle in the town two years later saw U.S. cav­al­ry­men cross into Mex­i­can ter­ri­tory to en­gage Pan­cho Villa’s troops, who had fired across the line. The wars also fu­eled wor­ries about smug­glers run­ning guns into Mex­ico, refugees flee­ing to the United States and in­ter­na­tional es­pi­onage in the bor­der­lands.

The U.S. gov­ern­ment had built its first bor­der fence be­tween 1909 and 1911—a barbed wire di­vide along the Cal­i­for­nia bor­der—to pre­vent cat­tle from wan­der­ing be­tween the coun­tries. Now, as both nations adopted new mea­sures to mon­i­tor the bor­der, more fences be­gan to ap­pear. Pho­to­graphs seem to show one be­side the cus­tom­house near Ti­juana and an­other along the bor­der be­tween Dou­glas, Arizona, and Agua Pri­eta, Mex­ico. These were likely tem­po­rary wartime mea­sures, and as in No­gales, they were in­tended to pre­vent cross-bor­der clashes.

But on Au­gust 27, 1918, soon af­ter Mex­i­can work­ers had erected the fence in No­gales, con­flict broke

out when an uniden­ti­fied man at­tempted to cross into Mex­ico. A U.S. cus­toms in­spec­tor or­dered him to halt, but he did not stop. Of­fi­cers on both sides of the bor­der raised their guns, and a fire­fight broke out. About two hours later, at least 12 Mex­i­cans and Amer­i­cans had been killed, in­clud­ing Peñaloza, who had built the fence pre­cisely to min­i­mize the risk of con­flict be­tween the nations.

Iron­i­cally, de­spite his fail­ure, U.S. of­fi­cials in No­gales, Arizona, soon went ahead with plans for their own fence—which quickly be­came a model for con­trol­ling the move­ment of peo­ple across the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der. Fol­low­ing No­gales’ lead, of­fi­cials in Calex­ico, Cal­i­for­nia, erected a fence that


ran two miles along the bound­ary line there. By the 1920s, fences were a fix­ture in most bor­der towns.

Over time, the fences were put to a new use. In the 1940s, the U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Nat­u­ral­iza­tion Ser­vice co­or­di­nated with the In­ter­na­tional Bound­ary and Wa­ter Com­mis­sion to erect chain-link bar­ri­ers on the bor­der. More fences, a bor­der pa­trol­man later ac­knowl­edged, forced unau­tho­rized mi­grants through dan­ger­ous moun­tains, deserts and rivers “around the ends of the fence.” The U.S. ex­pan­sion of the fenc­ing in the 1990s dou­bled-down on this strat­egy, lead­ing to a dra­matic in­crease in the num­ber of mi­grants who died at­tempt­ing the treach­er­ous cross­ing. Thus the fences and other bar­ri­ers that stand along much of the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der now mark not only an in­ter­na­tional bound­ary but also a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis.

A metal obelisk marked the in­ter­na­tional bor­der in Am­bos No­gales circa 1913. Amer­i­can (left) and Mex­i­can (right) sen­tries pa­trolled the line.

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