Kelly Lytle Hernandez receives MacArthur Fellowship

Oct 01, 2019
Kelly Lytle Hernández is a historian challenging long-held beliefs about the origins, ideology, and systemic evolution of America’s modern-day incarceration and immigrant detention practices. 

Her book, Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (2010), is the first significant academic history of the enforcement organization. Lytle Hernández traces the rise of the Patrol over the course of the twentieth century, from a rural community brigade with a narrow agenda to help farmers and ranchers manage the flow of seasonal workers in the 1920s to its current focus as an anti-immigration unit of the federal government. Her research took her to the Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) in Mexico City, where she unearthed documentation about partnerships between the early Border Patrol and the Mexican state to regulate Mexican migration into the United States. Her second book, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 (2017), is an ambitious study that reconstructs the history of how Los Angeles County built what is today the largest jail system in the United States. She builds upon what we know about the Southern enslavement of African Americans as the defining precursor to America’s racialized prison system by foregrounding how, in the American West, cultural and institutional practices targeted African Americans as well as other marginalized groups. Native populations, non-white immigrants, and even itinerant and impoverished white men encountered hyper-policing, incarceration, and eventually erasure from social privileges and the public eye. Because historical records from the L.A. County Jail and Sheriff’s Office had been destroyed, Lytle Hernández built what she calls a “rebel archive” containing materials from local agencies—including public health services, the courts, and city council—and from activists, community members, and incarcerated persons.

While making previously unarchived records from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border accessible to other scholars, Lytle Hernández is uncovering experiences and perspectives that shed new light on the carceral state’s complex and entangled roots in the western United States. She currently leads the Million Dollar Hoods research project, which maps the fiscal and human costs of incarceration in Los Angeles County. She is also at work on a history of the Flores Magón brothers, Mexican social reform activists who, as exiles in the United States, seeded the outbreak of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Lytle Hernández’s investigation of the intersecting histories of race, mass incarceration, immigration, and cross-border politics is deepening our understanding of how imprisonment has been used as a mechanism for social control in the United States.