White Slavery in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

From the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico maintained a reputation as a vice capital. Americans flocked to the city for drinking, gambling, and prostitutes. Additionally, white women from the American West, especially southern California, became increasingly aware of the lax laws regarding prostitution and sought the safety of the city. Morality laws in the United States created increased difficulty for women who were in the world’s oldest profession, so they moved south of the border. Naturally, this created more concern and famously the Mann Act(s) were passed by the United States Congress, thereby prohibiting the transport of women into the United States or across state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose, or with the intent and purpose to induce, entice, or compel such woman or girl.” [1] The Mann Act(s) was also known as the White Slave Traffic Act, the first act was concerned with immigrant women being brought into the United States for prostitution and the second concerned American women being transported across state lines for prostitution. The passage of these acts emphasized the growing concern with morality and culturally appropriate behavior.

In this paper, I am asserting that Americans who were concerned and outraged about the possible disintegration of traditionally held beliefs regarding women, race, and sex in the United States painted prostitutes as victims of white slavery. Yet, this narrative was not supported by many of the women that engaged in prostitution. Additionally, the paper will underscore the impact of race and ethnicity on this issue. Miscegenation was taboo at best for most Americans during this period. And finally, this paper will address the link between white slavery and prostitution and the development of border control policies. Border regulation was inextricably linked to the prostitution along the U.S.-Mexico border. In general, this paper is an examination of social and cultural norms of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries in America and how those norms impacted the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

The 1910 passage of the Mann Act allowed the US government to legislate morality and define and criminalize behavior that was deemed immoral. While the original target of the law was prositution, the vague language of “debauchery” and “immoral purposes'' allowed the law to be interpreted in a much more broad fashion. Thus, people engaging in consensual, noncommercial sexual relationships were prosecuted for violating the act. This broad interpretation of the law was upheld in Caminetti v. United States, 1917 which established the “the plain meaning rule” with Justice William Day writing in the opinion, “When the language of a statute is plain and does not lead to absurd or impracticable results, there is no occasion or excuse for judicial construction; the language must be accepted by the courts as the sole evidence for the ultimate legislative intent, and the courts have no function but to apply and enforce the statute accordingly.” [2] Additionally, the vague language and interpretation of the law easily allowed for the arrest and prosecution of heavyweight boxer, Jack Johnson.

For white Americans in the early twentieth century, Jack Johnson was representative of a Black man not knowing his proper place in society. He was a champion boxer who defeated white men, and most notably and controversially, had public relationships with white women. This was incredibly taboo for the time period and ultimately led to him being prosecuted under the Mann Act. He was prosecuted for transporting a woman across state lines, but it is impossible to separate the issue of race because he was Black and she was white. Men like Johnson represented the possible issues from urbanization and immigration that could develop over time: the possibility of interracial relationships. The Mann Act and the overall concern with white slavery reflected concerns of moral debasement and societal decline. Morality legislation was viewed as a way to fix those problems. Coinciding with this, white women were viewed as vulnerable [3] and pure so they would need to be protected from dangerous men of a different race. With the concern of white slavery came the narrative that women were abducted so they would need to be protected. These concerns and ideas contributed to the victimization of white women due to them being forced to give up their most prized possession, their sexual purity. [4] But, the false victimization and morality legislation is what drove women to Tijuana in order to pursue legal prostitution.

However, when examined more closely, the victimhood narrative did not necessarily hold up according to many of the women who were perceived as white slaves. In “The Selling of American Girls: Mexico’s White Slave Trade in the California Imaginary,” Catherine Christensen Gwin breaks apart the narrative of white slavery as a whole and the supposed victimhood of the women. Following the passage of California’s Red Light Abatement Act, many women left California for Baja California, Mexico in order to make money through prostitution without legal problems. [5] The morality legislation crackdowns led to the development of Tijuana as a vice haven and locale for prostitutes. There, women who worked as prostitutes had protections, and prostitution was regulated as a legitimate occupation. As Christensen Gwin identifies in two of her works, women who fled to Baja California had more lucrative opportunities working in vice resorts and establishments south of the border than in the United States. [6] Esteban Cantú, governor of the Northern District of Baja California, wanted to capitalize on the reputation of northern Baja California as a vice haven by institutionalizing the “economies of vice by selling ‘entertainment…’” [7] Tijuana provided working women better financial and social opportunities than the United States did. The abolishment of brothels in the U.S. did put women at risk of danger, but the regulated market and legal status of prostitution in Mexico provided women with a level of security. This directly negates the notion that women who were prostitutes that moved south of the border were ensnarled in white slavery and were being subjected to unspeakable horrors by men as proclaimed by Roger Bell, et. al in Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls or War on the White Slave Trade.

Grace Peña Delgado asserts that the flight of American prostitutes to Tijuana and the rise in morality legislation led to the development of border patrol and border control. Policing the U.S.-Mexico border was a method to eradicate the white slave trade. Prior to 1907, immigration law and morality laws did not have much intersection. [8] The Immigration Act of 1907 prohibited women from entering the United States for prostitution. The immigration legislation of the United States was shrouded in the racism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but, coupled with the morality legislation of the same time period, the attempt was to keep America pure and in compliance with traditionally accepted forms of morality. The combination of legislation, policing, and the language and concern around white slavery was able to reinforce social and cultural boundaries. [9] If white American women were in compliance with the morality legislation of the early twentieth century then fears of miscegenation (as in the case of Jack Johnson) would be diminished. Additionally, the amount of non-white people coming into the United States and potentially mixing with whites would be lowered.

The push for border control can also be linked to the language that was prevalent in discussions of white slavery and played into Americans’ fears. The term “white slavery,” was propaganda itself. It was used to describe women who were involuntary prostitutes. [10] The term was sensationalized as “The Greatest Crime in the World’s History,” as put by Ernest Bell. [11] As previously mentioned, the belief was that young girls and women were being abducted and sold into slavery. This was a marketable claim that instilled fear and concern in Americans. This fear led to support for an agency to specifically focus its efforts on mitigating such a possibility. Delgado explains that eventually, the United States joined an international treaty aimed at fighting white slavery, “But it was not until 1905, at the urging of American anti-white slavery activists, that the United States adhered to some of the treaty’s protocols by designating the Bureau of Immigration as the principal agent to detect and scrutinize alleged prostitutes—and whenever such trade was suspected, deny the entry of these women.” [12] And while this depiction was often of foreign women as voluntary prostitutes who could be denied entry into the United States, that was not the case for American women who were seen as victims. This was due to the association of white women and purity which was not associated with Mexican or Asian women in the same way as it was with white, American women who were thought to be vulnerable, naive, and in need of protection. “The concept of volition was also lost or at least obscured in the rhetoric of Braun and other morals purity advocates who often conflated prostitution, a voluntary practice, with the involuntary sex trafficking of women and girls. Immigration inspectors trying to make sense of prostitution and the mandate to enforce white-slave laws often fused the two ideas.” [13]

The victimization of white women in the context of prostitution can be relayed back to beliefs of white women’s purity and importance in state-making. [14] Thus, protecting the purity of white American women through immigration and morality could have also been viewed as protecting America itself. If American women weren’t subjected to abduction and migration to a foreign country, then America could flourish and be safe. The combination of language and imagery of white slavery was powerful and relevant for Americans in the early twentieth century. In Figure 4 an image from Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls is shown with a caption that mentions “dens of shame.” [15] At that time shame would have referred to young women losing their virginity and dignity by having been involved in white slavery. Protecting and keeping young white women safe and virginal was a culturally significant practice that many Americans supported, thus allowing for the government to strengthen immigration law and border patrol.

White slavery was a bane on the American conscience during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Horrified that young women were being sold down a pipeline of miscegenation and immorality, Americans rallied support behind immigration and morality legislation. Controlling the movement of people through the Mann Act and the types of people who could enter the country through several immigration acts were implemented to undermine the plague of white slavery. Yet, what many at the time failed to realize what that white slavery and prostitution were not inherently the same thing. Americans conflated the two and the rise in legislation led to the flight of American prostitutes to Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. There, these women were provided legal protections and increased financial opportunities. However, the language and imagery in America was depicting the women as being forcibly taken and exploited against their will. This belief could be related back to the importance and adoration of white women’s purity and the development of the United States. Protecting American women and girls from harmful foreigners was also protecting America as a whole. Vice establishments and prostitution were viewed as a stain on the morality of America and could pose a danger to such a great nation. As seen in figure 5, vice establishments were believed to be a danger to the public and degrading to American society. Therefore, legislation and policing were viewed as the way to stop the plague on American society.