Monday, June 6, 2011

Dorothee Schneider's "Crossing Borders"

Dorothee Schneider teaches in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Crossing Borders: Migration and Citizenship in the Twentieth-Century United States, and reported the following:
On page 99 readers find themselves at the Laredo border station with Carmen Moctezuma and her little nephew Alfonso. It is the winter of 1918 and Carmen is pleading her case for admission with the immigration inspectors. We have already read about immigrant departures from Europe and Asia in the previous chapter and have visited the U.S. ports of entry on the Atlantic Coast and the Canada. The encounter in Laredo is part of the readers’ journey westwards along the US border.

The encounter on page 99 takes place far away from Washington D.C. where immigration law is forged. Though the law is uniform everywhere, the realities of the Mexican border differ from Ellis Island. Inspectors are scarce and crossing the border away from inspection points is easy. Only a few thousand Mexicans choose to enter as registered immigrants every year, Carmen Moctezuma among them.

Perhaps Moctezuma has chosen this route because she is confident that as a woman of some means who has crossed the border regularly before, she has nothing to fear from the inspectors. She owns a home in Laredo, and has enough money saved for her nephew’s private school tuition. Perhaps she plans to become a U.S. citizen in the future and therefore had to document her legal entry.

The immigration inspectors note the facts and after extensive interviews they let Moctezuma and her nephew into the United States. But unlike European immigrants, Carmen Moctezuma is not admitted because of her apparent commitment to a stable life in the United States, but because she promises to return to Mexico once the boy’s education is completed.

For immigrants at the Eastern border stations the intention of a future life in the United States had always been a crucial part of their plea for admission. Mexicans on the other hand, were more easily admitted if they showed little intention of staying permanently in the United States.

The condition of impermanence would have important and problematic consequences for Mexican (and Asian) immigrants for the rest of the twentieth century. As Europeans crossed the borders into American culture and society and into U.S. citizenship, Mexicans’ admission would remain tentative. The pages and chapters which follow Carmen Moctezuma’s story show the divergent experiences of immigrants from Europe Asia and Mexico as they confront what it meant to become “American” in the eyes of the U.S. government and for themselves during the rest of the twentieth century.
Learn more about Crossing Borders at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue