This article examines how white slave narratives in California helped inscribe social, cultural, and institutional divides at the U.S.-Mexico border during the Progressive Era. The predicament of American prostitution in Mexicali and Tijuana amplified fears of interracial sex, which readily translated into hysteria over white slavery throughout California. Consequently, concerned citizens decried the so-called trafficking of American girls at the border and contributed to growing demands for a more rigid international boundary. As such, this panic over white slavery and the “protection of white womanhood” helped construct both figurative and literal borders between the United States and Mexico between 1910 and 1930, an era recognized by scholars as a critical moment in the social reordering of California’s nonwhite inhabitants. Analysis of local newspapers, club records, vice reports, reformers’ correspondence, and government documents reveal that the ascription of racial difference rested upon lurid portrayals of sexual deviance in border towns—particularly among African Americans and the Chinese. Such representations colored the Mexican border, and perhaps Mexicans themselves, as menacing to both American women and the nation itself. These stories galvanized support for closing and fortifying the U.S.-Mexico line early in the century.

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