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Why borders are built on ambiguity

During the nineteenth century, Britain, Canada, and the United States began to construct, in earnest, a border across the northern part of North America. They placed hundreds of markers across the 49th parallel and surveyed the land around them. Each government saw the border as a symbol of their sovereignty, a marker of belonging, and as the basic outline of their nation-states.

If the dreams of politicians were simple, the border’s implementation was not. None of the countries country possessed the manpower necessary to police such an extent. Nor had they developed dependable ways to control how immigrants and citizens understood their place on the continent.

The failure to enforce both the tangible and intangible aspects of the border created an abundance of problems. Canada and the United States required immigration to grow their nations, but they feared admitting individuals whose loyalty they could not trust.

The issue was with the process not the applicants. Those willing to immigrate had expressed a willingness to shift their loyalties and create lives outside of their country of birth through the act of immigration itself. The vagueness of federal policies only added to the concern. Poor wording and conflicting aims created an administrative system that faltered when presented with the complexities of everyday life.

In 1886, J.J. Elder left Ireland for Woodstock, British Columbia and then made his way south to the United States. He contemplated becoming a naturalized citizen but struggled with the implications. The naturalization process required he renounce his allegiance to Britain. He worried, however, that such a decision would limit his ability to visit family or to gain future employment in the British empire.

Unsure of what to do, Elder sent a letter to the American Undersecretary of State. He inquired whether it was legal for him to renounce forever his allegiance to Britain if he thought he might need to renew that allegiance at a later date.

Like many important border issues, Elder’s question had no clear answer. The official he spoke to could think of no policy that governed such a decision. If the absence of any formal guidance, he believed that if Elder wished to make an oath he later intended to break it was a matter of conscience not law.

“Administrators measured the border’s power in terms of confiscations made, entries denied, and fines accessed. Everyday people … measured the border in cost, discomfort, friendships, and family.”

Temporary allegiance and legal uncertainty ensured that ambiguity remained a constant part of life. As Elder’s case, and hundreds like it suggested, making the border meaningful required both new laws and endless clarification.

By the 1930s, the infrastructure that made the border visible had grown. Thousands of federal officials now guarded ports of entry and permanent agencies governed much of the border’s operations. For all that had changed, the underlying uncertainties remained similar. Federal governments created borders but had failed to monopolize their meaning. The pervasiveness of social and economic connections ensured that the behaviors of everyday people governed the ways borders operated.

Administrators measured the border’s power in terms of confiscations made, entries denied, and fines accessed. Everyday people understood it differently. They measured the border in cost, discomfort, friendships, and family. They measured it in the insults their children faced and in the heartaches it created. Inconsistencies in policy and enforcement had created a border that seemed inescapable in one moment, only to seem forgettable in the next.

Josephine Grondahl moved to Canada as a child in the early twentieth century. Like many others, she first experienced the border as a barrier to friendships, rather than to movement. When she started attending a new school in Canada, the other children bullied her heavily. Her use of American terms for paper and boots (“writing tablet” and “overshoes”) instead of the local lingo (“scribblers” and “galoshes”) set her apart. Decades later, the bullying remained fresh in her mind. She felt the border’s sting first from her classmates, not from the customs and immigration agents that each government invested so heavily into.

As Grondahl and Elder’s experience suggested, the ambiguity of borders could not be resolved with more guards or more laws. Social practices and family connections mattered just as much to the ways individuals defined themselves as national borders did. In that context, border guards possessed only partial control over a world fill with motion and complexity.

Today, border guards use infrared cameras, facial recognition software, and unmanned drones to guard ports of entry. New technologies have amplified the kinds of surveillance possible but have created new gaps at the same time. Virtual private networks allow Canadians to mask their location in order to gain access to online streaming services meant for American eyes only. Old problems remain unabated. In 2020, American vacationers began to exploit transit rules to avoid pandemic restrictions. They claimed to be travelling to Alaska in order to sneak across the border to vacation in Vancouver instead. The approach was an old one, one that residents from both countries had used for more than a hundred years.

For both historic and contemporary communities in North America, attempts to create a meaningful border have faced the same problem. Creating hard boundaries requires assigning a binary (Canadian or American) to a spectrum of identities and people. As the past hundred years has shown, the problem cannot be solved by either advances in technology or the addition of thousands of pages of laws, policies, and regulation. The problem is inherent in borders themselves. By their very nature, borders create ambiguity because they overlay simple lines across a world that is impossibly complex.

Featured image by Jim Witkowski via unsplash

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