In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Politics of the US-Mexico Border

  • Introduction
  • The Global and Comparative Turn in Border Politics

Political Science Politics of the US-Mexico Border
Kathleen Staudt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0245


It is perhaps not surprising that a pioneering review essay on border politics should focus on the US-Mexico border and, by extension, the borderlands of this near-2,000 mile territorial line seemingly fixed in 1848 (Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo) but then adjusted several times thereafter. With a population of approximately 14 million people in US counties and Mexican municipios (80 million in the ten border states: six in Mexico and four in the United States), and an annual half-trillion-dollar trade across the border between both countries, the significance of the US-Mexico borderlands can hardly be overstated. In the United States, people of Mexican heritage comprise the largest of the fast-growing census-counted Hispanic population of 18.3 percent, and significant numbers either migrated across the border or the border crossed their ancestors when Mexico lost half its territory to the United States in the mid-19th century under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In the mid-1970s, the interdisciplinary border studies discipline was born with a focus on the politics of the US-Mexico borderlands and the creation of the Association for Borderlands Studies (ABS). Many of the pioneering scholars of border studies lived, taught, and researched in the US-Mexico borderlands, illuminated in sections below. Because both the research and the scholars initially concentrated on the US-Mexico border, many border concepts emerged from richly contextualized studies in the multiple border regions and later in North America but struggled to expand toward a comparative and global approach while still exercising attentiveness to the politics of power in borderlands spaces. This essay provides an overview of key US-Mexico border political studies, with the term “political” used broadly to include both Political Processes and Institutions within borderlands, power disparities in everyday life, and public policies that impinge upon borderlands from afar, generally from the capital cities of Washington, DC, and Mexico City.

General Overviews

Border studies focus on the politics of power in space, especially space at or near international territorial lines, thus drawing interest from political geographers, political scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, and historians. Historical books provide foundations for understanding how US-Mexico politics and public policies have been shaped over time, including the ways Mexico lost half of its land to the United States (Martínez 2006). Volume editors introduce readers to scholars based in both Mexico and the United States for the conceptual language of border studies and the ways they frame the binational region and its variations from the tropical climates of the Gulf of Mexico through the desert regions and to the Pacific Ocean (Spener and Staudt 1998). In the overview, bibliographic items reveal multiple research options, studies, and challenges: first, comparing Mexico and US politics and society numerically at their borders (Anderson and Gerber 2008); second, examining how one country influences the other; third, taking a state-centric approach to examining how national policies and bureaucracies impact borderlands (Payan 2016); fourth, choosing a bottom-up perspective with the politics of power in borderlands space as the unit of analysis (Martínez 1994, Ganster and Lorey 2017). A tension exists between developing and using specific border concepts versus applying political science or other disciplinary concepts to border studies, though overview studies often reflect a mix of both. Most scholars highlighted in this general section live, teach, and research in the US-Mexico borderlands with immersion in and accumulated experiences from their everyday lives.

  • Anderson, Joan, and James Gerber. Fifty Years of Change on the US-Mexico Border: Growth, Development and Quality of Life. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008.

    Although dated, this collection of ten descriptive chapters each begins with a narrative and then goes on with charts, graphs, statistical data, and pictures on topics that range from population growth to trade, the environment, and living standards. A unique aspect of the book is the authors’ use of the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index (HDI) in the multiple borderlands. One challenge of comparative analysis is that Mexico and the US censuses measure data with different units and definitions.

  • Correa-Cabrera, Guadalupe, and Victor Konrad, eds. North American Borders in Comparative Perspective. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2020.

    At more than 400 pages, this North America comprehensive volume covers multiple issue areas and disciplines, to include Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Besides a fine chapter on North America in maps, containing many graphics, the volume’s sections deal with globalization, security, and cooperation across borders.

  • Ganster, Paul, and David E. Lorey. The U.S.-Mexico Border: Conflict and Cooperation in Historical Perspective. 3d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

    After six historical chapters that synthesize a general overview of diverse borderlands, Ganster and Lorey offer chapters 7 and 8 on border issues with policy implications (environment, NAFTA, migration, drugs, culture, and security) in US-Mexico relations. Their analysis moves readers beyond stereotypes to show how the borderlands, drawing from both Mexican and US cultures, provide a distinctive society (what others have called a hybridized society).

  • Martínez, Oscar. Border People: Life and Society in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994.

    In this influential book, historian Martínez proposes a fourfold typology of borders across time and space (alienated, coexistent, interdependent, and integrated), followed by an analysis of the types of borderlanders (known in Spanish as fronterizos and fronterizas)—national and binational—with variations within each. The typology spawned many studies in the now-interdependent US-Mexico borderlands and elsewhere in the world.

  • Martínez, Oscar. Troublesome Border. Revised ed. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006.

    Using conflict as a conceptual theme, Martίnez traces the roots of North American boundary construction born in colonial (English, French, Spanish) competition and continuous US challenges after war, negotiation, and purchase resulted in the current territorial lines that severed Mexico from half its territory after 1848 and 1853. With in-depth detail and maps, the author analyzes historical sources of seminal policy differences such as free trade (zona libre through 1905, NAFTA, 1994+ [the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement was ratified in 2020]); migration; transportation; water, air and sewage issues; land dispossession (including indigenous peoples); and violence along with micro-violence in the US Southwest.

  • Payan, Tony. The Three U.S.-Mexico Border Wars: Drugs, Immigration, and Homeland Security. 2d ed. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2016.

    After a historical chapter periodizing the borderlands, Payan offers a critical assessment of both Mexican and US policies and their implementation, using three logics: economic, political, and bureaucratic. Payan is one of the rare scholars to analyze bureaucratic competition, budget-seeking behavior, and expansionism in highly readable language.

  • Social Science Research Council. “Border Battles: The U.S. Immigration Debates.” Brooklyn, NY: Social Science Research Council (SSRC), 2006–2018.

    Issued originally in 2006, this collection of short articles features leading scholars of border policy issues such as trade, Latino politics, and Immigration policies; it contains several essays added thereafter. Despite the title, the collection focuses on more than immigration. These essays provide useful, albeit dated introductions and can be freely accessed on the SSRC website, so it is thus a useful supplement in courses. Available only online.

  • Spener, David, and Kathleen A. Staudt, eds. The U.S.-Mexico Border: Transcending Divisions, Contesting Identities. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998.

    Providing one of the first syntheses of border theories and concepts through the 1990s in the introduction, the editors differentiate border lenses as materialist and metaphoric, then go on to explain concepts such as bordering, debordering, and rebordering as related to nationalism, state-society relations, and identity politics. Mexican and US scholars wrote nine chapters covering topics ranging from small business and cultural practices in border crossing to federalism in both countries where residents lack access to public utilities in unplanned settlements (colonias).

  • Staudt, Kathleen, and Irasema Coronado. Fronteras no Más: Toward Social Justice at the U.S.-Mexico Border. New York: Palgrave USA, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-11546-1

    This book examines nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the borderlands and the extent to which they counter or reinforce the binational elite. These political scientists develop a framework about limited democracy in the borderlands and the extent to which the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its side agreements provide a legitimacy shroud for cross-border nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in three core chapters devoted to key policies: environment, business and labor, and human rights.

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