Law and History Review

Reflections on Further Research in Comparative Legal History

Immigration and Techniques of Governance in Mexico and the United States: Recalibrating National Narratives through Comparative Immigration Histories

Theresa Alfaro-Velcamp c1 and Robert H. Mclaughlin

Immigration histories typically endeavor to describe and hold a nation–state accountable not only for the laws and policies by which it admits some immigrants, but also for those by which it refuses, excludes, or deports other immigrants. This article explores immigration to Mexico and to the United States with attention to its implications for the status of persons, and also for the conventional historical narratives in each country. The article focuses on three techniques of governance that each country has engaged in regard to immigration. These techniques include: 1) the assignment of nationality as a singular attribute of personhood; 2) the use of demonstrable and documentable characteristics as criteria of admission; and 3) centralized registration procedures to monitor and control the immigrant population. The techniques are analyzed together because of their concurrent emergence in each country during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The techniques are also complementary. They form a set that, although not unique to the United States and Mexico, nevertheless illustrates parallels and an interplay between the two countries, and, more broadly, illustrates how immigration presents a common predicament across different times, places, and forms of government.

(Online publication May 09 2011)

Theresa Alfaro-Velcamp is associate professor of history at Sonoma State University and an external research associate of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California at San Diego <>. Robert H. McLaughlin is also an external research associate of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California at San Diego <>. The authors thank William B. Taylor, Laura Nader, and Walter Brem for many conversations about the topics of this article, and Patrick Weil for a careful review of the text. James Kessenides, S. Deborah Kang, David S. Tanenhaus, and the anonymous reviewers offered very helpful critiques. The staff of the Archivo Migratorio del Instituto Nacional de Migración in Mexico City—Lic. Jorge Martínez Juárez, Lic. Laura Ivette Gonzales Cortés, Lic. Claudia Cacheux Campos, and Francisco Arturo Aldape Hernández—and Rosa María Rojas Montes were instrumental with assisting the authors to better understand Mexican records of immigration and naturalization. The authors also thank their many colleagues at the Centers for Comparative Immigration Studies and United States–Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Professor Alfaro-Velcamp is also grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute: American Immigration Revisited, and to its co-sponsors, Alan Kraut and Maureen Nutting, for their support in the summer of 2009. This article is dedicated to Magdalena and Alec Thomas.