The location of the Expo may seem incidental; yes, it is in Texas, which is engaged in the project of border militarization. But San Antonio is located more than 100 miles from the border itself, just outside the border zone, and many local politicians have been outspoken supporters of immigrant rights.
Still, another exposition in San Antonio, hosted 54 years ago, played a role in jump-starting the politics of immigration that have only accelerated border militarization in recent years. Putting the two expositions in the same conversation can help us understand how the violence of U.S. border policies has stemmed from the limits placed on immigration by the United States.
The 1968 conference came at a tense moment in U.S. history, as high-profile political assassinations, the Cold War and racial unrest in American cities made daily headlines. Known as HemisFair ’68, it became the first world’s fair in the U.S. Southwest to be recognized by the Bureau of International Expositions in Paris.
World’s Fairs are mega-events that exhibit the accomplishments of nations or empires. Some of the most notable American fairs had included the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis and the 1962 Century 21 Exposition in Seattle. Such fairs provided a snapshot of modern society and projected future possibilities to global audiences. They tended to support empire-building and nationalism and, by showcasing the technological marvels of their periods, reinforced hierarchies in culture, class, race and gender.
Although such expositions are often thought of as relics of the late 19th and early 20th century, President Lyndon B. Johnson supported the idea of HemisFair ’68. He saw it as a measure to bring Latin American countries closer to the U.S. sphere of influence and draw them away from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The city was home to one of the largest ethnic Mexican communities in the Southwest, many of whom had voted for Johnson.
Local boosters saw hosting the fair as a way to draw tourism dollars and investment to San Antonio, one of the poorest cities in the nation. Local officials soon drew from federal urban renewal funds, intended to fight Johnson’s “war on poverty,” to prepare for the event and construct the fairgrounds.
HemisFair opened its doors on April 6, 1968, just two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and would last for six months. Once inside, thousands of attendees were able to experience the fair’s theme: “Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas.” According to Johnson, San Antonio should be seen as a “Gateway to the Americas” because it was a historic crossroads between empires and nations in North America.
On display were national, corporate and cultural exhibits and pavilions. Latin American countries represented 10 of the 23 national pavilions. Mexico operated one of the largest and most visited pavilions, showcasing history, art and film exhibits. The newly built 750-foot Tower of the Americas served as the fair’s focal point, just as the Eiffel Tower had for the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Protesters outside the gates tried to use the occasion of the fair to draw attention to civil rights abuses in Texas, commemorate King’s death and call for an end to the Vietnam War. But the HemisFair was drawing attention to policy changes in another way.
Right in the middle of the fair, on July 1, 1968, U.S. federal immigration policy changed profoundly. In 1965, Congress had passed the Hart-Celler Act, which went into effect three years later. Johnson had signed the act into law in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, celebrating the ways that it corrected former injustices in immigration law — namely that it ended limits on immigration of people from countries deemed racially undesirable.
But the law also imposed new limits on immigration from the Western Hemisphere and criminalized unauthorized border entries. This contributed to rising racist and anti-Latino sentiment. Soon, the Border Patrol expanded its apprehension of unauthorized people and increased immigration raids, neighborhood sweeps and deportations across the Southwest, including cities away from the southern border like San Antonio and Los Angeles.
When the law was implemented during the HemisFair, restrictions on the movements of migrants shaped the experiences of Latin American visitors to the event.
Preparing for this problem, U.S. officials modified the guidelines for the Latin American visitors, allowing them to bypass new restrictions at the border. The Immigration and Naturalization Service permitted foreign fairgoers with border-crossing cards to enter the United States and travel in Texas for up to 10 days. But agricultural workers who previously had been able to enter Texas without much fanfare were not issued such cards and faced the threat of being stopped by the Border Patrol.
The special exemption for Latin American fairgoers was intended as a gesture of goodwill, given Johnson’s goals of fostering stronger trading relationships and diminishing the appeal of the Soviet Union for Latin American leaders.
But U.S. foreign policy goals aimed at winning Latin American hearts and minds were directly contradicted by other policies, including U.S. interventions in the region and increasingly punitive migration policies in the decades that followed.
U.S. support for coups and invasive economic policies in Latin American countries drove many people to flee for their lives. But those who traveled to the United States seeking asylum from El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s weren’t met with the same goodwill crossing as HemisFair’s visitors. Instead, officials sharply limited the immigration of Central Americans and increased militarization of the border, adding Border Patrol officers, physical fencing and surveillance technology to stop people from coming, and to deport people already in the United States.
In 1992, a new policy, the North American Free Trade Agreement, was signed by Mexico, Canada and the United States in the shadow of the Tower of the Americas on the site of HemisFair’s old headquarters. The agreement further altered cross-border economies in North America and made migrating to the United States more essential for a larger number of people.
Even as U.S. policies incentivized migration, individuals crossing to the country were met with ever harsher border enforcement, leading to thousands of immigrant deaths.
Following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush established DHS, with CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement under its authority. In 2007, Congress passed the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act, enacted to increase agents and fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. Today, DHS’s budget is over $50 billion, the Cabinet department includes one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the world in CBP, and its activities include marine, air and cybersecurity operations.
Over a half-century after the United States hosted an exposition that intended to foster closer relationships with Latin America, the same site has been one of the locations used for an annual Border Security Expo since 2006, where industry leaders aim to sell drones, fencing techniques, armored vehicles and biometric applications to government agencies and contractors.
This year’s expo was held in the Henry B. González Convention Center, which was constructed for the HemisFair in 1968. By linking these histories, we can see how the legacies and violence of border militarization have sprung from the limits on migration imposed by U.S. immigration policies more than 50 years ago. Unless Congress revises its approach to immigration, we can expect another Border Security Expo next year in San Antonio. And it will return every year until the U.S. changes course.