Find Your Immigrant Ancestor - Border Crossings and Other Records

On border crossing records from Canada and Mexico

As genealogy researchers, we commonly come to the issue of our ancestors' arrival in a new country. For those immigrants coming to America, there is the inevitable border crossing. Of course we know that a substantial number of people crossed into the United States without going through formal border crossing procedures. If we go back in time, we eventually reach a time when there were no records kept of any border crossings at all. In other countries, during different political times, border crossings have also been an issue and records of the crossings may be available.

The United States has two major borders: Canada and Mexico. Those who come into the United States legally would have arrived by coming through one of the many ports of entry. If the immigrant arrived by boat, it is possible that they came to one of the many oceanside ports of entry but that is another topic for another article.

Because there has been controversy about the boundary between the United States and Canada over time, finding an ancestor's boundary crossing record is likely be a matter of chance. I have also found that many of my ancestors crossed international boundaries with Canada and Mexico many times on business or for vacations or to see relatives. Others of my relatives likely crossed international boundaries on church business. For genealogists, this is one of those types of records that help identify your ancestors but often leave more questions than answers.

The initial border between the United States and Mexico was established by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 that established much of the U.S. border at the Rio Grande and added the states of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming. The southern portion of Arizona and New Mexico was added later through the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. But until well into the 20th century, the border between the United States and Mexico was ill-defined.

The first U.S. Federal law on immigration was passed in 1882. Arrivals at the Canadian border were first kept in 1895 and at the Mexican border about 1906. Here is a quote from the National Archives website:

Beginning in 1895, immigrants who arrived at Canadian seaports with the declared intention of proceeding to the United States were recorded and included in the immigration statistics. Other alien arrivals at land borders began to be reported in 1906, and reporting was fully established in 1908 under authority of an act of February 20, 1907 (34 Stat. 898).
Not all aliens entering via the Canadian and Mexican borders were necessarily counted for inclusion in the immigration statistics. Before approximately 1930, no count was made of residents of Canada, Newfoundland, or Mexico who had lived in those countries for a year or more if they planned to enter the United States for less than 6 months. However, from about 1930 to 1945, the following classes of aliens entering via the land borders were included in immigration statistics:
  1. Those who had not been in the U.S. within 6 months, who came to stay more than months;
  2. Those for whom straight head tax was a prerequisite to admission, or for whom head tax was specially deposited and subsequently converted to a straight head tax account;
  3. Those required by law or regulation to present an immigration visa or reentry permit, and those who surrendered either, regardless of whether they were required by law or regulation to do so;
  4. Those announcing an intention to depart from a seaport in the United States for Hawaii or other insular possession of the U.S. or for a foreign country, except arrivals from Canada intending to return there by water; and
  5. Those announcing an intention to depart across the other land boundary.

You can probably guess that, as I mentioned above that finding a record of a border crossing would be a hit or miss situation.

Written by James L. Tanner. Used with permission.

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