Border Patrol

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Border Patrol






The National Origins Act of 1924 placed strict limitations upon legal immigration to the United States. Persons prohibited from entering the United States included, but were not limited to, Chinese and Japanese laborers, epileptics, beggars, prostitutes, lunatics, convicts, and those likely to become public charges. Further, the National Origins Act established a national quota system that promoted immigration from western Europe while limiting the number of legal immigrants from other regions of the world, particularly Asia, Africa, and eastern Europe. Congress understood, however, that prohibited persons would seek illegal entry into the United States by crossing U.S. borders without official inspection and sanction, and it established the U.S. Border Patrol to enforce U.S. immigration restrictions.


In addition to preventing persons from crossing into the United States without official sanction, the Border Patrol was assigned the job of policing borderland regions to detect and arrest those who had successfully effected illegal entry. The Border Patrol’s jurisdiction stretched along the 5,525-mile Canadian border, spanned the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, and, in time, extended to include the Florida Gulf Coast region and various coastlines. In the early days and months of its existence, the new Border Patrol officers were confused about how to translate their broad mandate and jurisdiction into a practical course of law enforcement. But as the years wore on, Border Patrol officers along the U.S.-Mexico border began to focus almost exclusively upon apprehending and deporting undocumented Mexican nationals. During the early 1940s, the entire national emphasis of the U.S. Border Patrol shifted to the southern border, where officers continued to target unsanctioned Mexican border crossers. Since the end of World War II, this national police force, which had been established to broadly enforce U.S. immigration restrictions, has been almost entirely dedicated to policing the problem of unsanctioned Mexican immigration in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. The rise of the U.S. Border Patrol in this region reshaped the story of race in twentieth-century America by racializing the crime of illegal immigration.

Illegal immigration is a crime that is inscribed upon the lives of those who enter the national territory of the United States without sanction. Denied official recognition and living under the constant threat of detection and deportation, those who commit the crime of illegal immigration live in zones of social, political, and economic marginalization. For them, every breath and every movement is illegitimate. Illegal immigration, therefore, is a living crime that transforms persons guilty of the act of illegal entry into persons living within the condition of being illegal. The condition of being illegal is articulated through an overall unequal distribution of political rights, social protections, and economic defenses. As the historian Mae Ngai describes it, illegal immigrants are “a caste, unambiguously situated outside the boundaries of formal membership and social legitimacy.” (2004, p. 2)

Despite the deep marginalization of being illegal, the caste of “illegals” is highly abstract in everyday life. There are countless ways of becoming illegal. In addition to entering without inspection, one can enter with false documents or fail to maintain the conditions of legal residency. Without any precise indicators of the crime of illegal immigration, it is difficult to detect the illegals among the population. However, with a mandate to detect, detain, interrogate, and apprehend persons for the crime and condition of being illegal, officers of the U.S. Border Patrol spend their working hours personifying the abstract political caste of illegality. Border Patrol officers, therefore, have played a critical role in shaping this site of political disenfranchisement, economic inequity, and social suspicion within the United States. Despite the many peoples and groups that have fallen into the category of illegal immigrants, Border Patrol officers have mostly targeted Mexican nationals for the crime of illegal immigration. This focus on policing unsanctioned Mexican immigration has assigned the inequities, disenfranchisements, suspicions, and violence of being illegal to persons of Mexican-origin, thereby effectively “Mexicanizing” the set of inherently and lawfully unequal social relations that emerge from the crime of illegal immigration.

While there is no question that the racialization of U.S. Border Patrol practice took shape in response to the large number of Mexican nationals who illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border during the twentieth century, police practices and priorities are socially and politically negotiated processes rather than a system of unmitigated responses to criminal activity. Police officers do not police every crime or criminal so much as rationalize and prioritize their mandate for law enforcement in response to the social anxieties, political tensions, and economic interests invested in the overall police project of using state violence to establish and maintain social control. The U.S. Border Patrol’s racialization of the caste of illegals, therefore, must be understood within the sociohistorical context of the politics of policing the crime of illegal immigration.


In the years following the passage of the National Origins Act, Border Patrol officers were uncertain as to how to create a practical course of law enforcement. They could have patrolled the border to prevent unsanctioned crossings; they could have enforced the spirit of the law by focusing on apprehending the law’s main racial and ethnic targets, particularly Asian and eastern European immigrants; or they could have policed prostitutes and clinics, searching out immigrants whose alleged moral depravity or poor health rendered them illegal. Despite the broad field of possible subjects of Border Patrol work, the officers received little guidance from supervisors within the Immigration Service. The men hired as Patrol Officers, therefore, were able to exert significant control over the everyday development of U.S. Border Patrol priorities and practice.

In the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, a region where the deeply rooted divisions between Mexican migrant laborers and white landowners dominated social organization and interactions, Border Patrol officers—who were often landless, working-class white men—gained unique entry into the region’s principal system of social and economic relations by directing the violence of immigration law enforcement against the region’s primary labor force, Mexican migrant laborers. Mexican immigration was the foundation of the region’s primary economy, agribusiness. During the 1920s and 1930s, an “army” of migrant laborers moved northward from field to field, beginning with 25,000 laborers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and growing to 300,000 migrants at the height of the cotton-picking season between July and September. In California, 35,000 laborers were required for the cotton crop alone. In 1940, the Texas State Employment Service estimated that 85 percent of full-time migrant laborers were Mexicanos. Until the arrival of white dustbowl immigrants in California in the mid-1930s, Mexicans comprised between 80 and 95 percent of the migrant workforce. Mexican labor, therefore, played a pivotal role in making the Southwest the nation’s most productive and profitable agricultural region. Some estimated that up to 85 percent of the Mexicans in the mobile “army” of migrant laborers lived and worked in the United States illegally. Border Patrol officers, therefore, with the power to police the crime of illegal immigration, held considerable authority over the region’s primary labor force.

Although disputes with agribusinessmen were not uncommon, Border Patrol officers during the 1920s and 1930s typically enforced federal immigration law according to locally defined interests in maintaining an accessible, temporary, and disciplined labor force. Most important, officers did not interrupt the flow of Mexican workers during peak seasons, but rather focused on apprehending and deporting workers at the end of the harvest. Working in an intensely local context of labor control, these early Border Patrolmen did not imagine the impact of their work beyond their local communities. Yet while they were busy enforcing federal U.S. immigration laws according to the seasonal labor needs of local ranchers and farmers, U.S. Border Patrol officers during the 1920s and 1930s transformed the story of race in twentieth-century America.


World War II ripped the Border Patrol from its local roots and transformed the politics of migration control. Within the context of international military conflict, U.S. national borders assumed new significance as the first lines of defense against invasion and sabotage. During 1940 and 1941, wartime worries about saboteurs illegally entering the United States across the southern border threatened to undo the long history of targeting Mexican nationals. At this time, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) supervisors assigned U.S. Border Patrol officers to guard Japanese internment camps and warned officers to be on the lookout for European saboteurs. The new demands placed upon Border Patrol officers promised a transformation in U.S. Border Patrol practice along the U.S.-Mexico border by shifting the officers’ focus away from Mexicans and toward racially and socially ambiguous saboteurs. The establishment of the Bracero Program in 1942, however, placed migration control in a binational context that refocused Border Patrol attention upon policing the unsanctioned border crossings of Mexican nationals.

The Bracero Program (1942–1964) was a series of agreements between the U.S. and Mexican governments that facilitated the migration of short-term Mexican contract laborers into (and out of) the United States. Known as braceros, these laborers generally worked on southwestern farms, and U.S. and Mexican officials closely managed their movement between the United States and Mexico. At a time when the Mexican government was sponsoring an ambitious project of rapid industrialization, Mexican politicians, in part, agreed to participate in the Bracero Program as a strategy to limit the loss of Mexican laborers to higher-paying jobs in the United States. In exchange for legal bracero workers, Mexican officials demanded that the United States prevent Mexican laborers from surreptitiously crossing into the United States and, when unsuccessful in this, aggressively detect and deport those who had effected illegal entry.

In response to Mexican demands within the context of the Bracero Program, INS officials shifted the entire national organization of the U.S. Border Patrol. Prior to 1943, more U.S. Border Patrol officers worked along the northern border than along the southern border. Beginning in 1943, the INS doubled the number of Border Patrol inspectors working in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and established the U.S.-Mexico border as the national center of operations for the Border Patrol. With additional officers and new strategies, the number of Mexicans, as a percentage of the national total number of apprehensions, increased from a roving average of 17 percent to 56 percent between 1924 and 1940 to a steady

average of more than 90 percent between 1943 and 1954. Therefore, at a time when detecting, detaining, and deporting enemy aliens and saboteurs could have emerged as a priority of migration control within the United States, the bilateral promises of the Bracero Program directed the U.S. Border Patrol’s attention to policing the southern border and deporting undocumented Mexican nationals (see Lytle-Hernández 2006)

Further, the rise of the U.S. Border Patrol in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands developed in partnership with the Bracero program as a cross-border system of migration control during the 1940s and early 1950s. During the Bracero years, U.S. and Mexican officers participated in joint raids upon border settlements, cooperatively patrolled the border, and coordinated collaborative deportation schemes that removed undocumented Mexicans from the U.S.-Mexico border to the interior of Mexico. Mexican participation in creating, shaping, and collaborating with U.S. migration control practices added a binational dimension to the problem of race that emerged from the U.S. Border Patrol’s uneven enforcement of U.S. immigration restrictions. What had first begun as a local interpretation of federal immigration laws evolved upon the cross-border foundation of U.S. and Mexican collaboration during the Bracero era.

When the Bracero Program ended in 1964, the U.S. Border Patrol entered its third generation of U.S. immigration law enforcement. In these years, INS and Border Patrol officials reframed the Border Patrol’s mission away from controlling unsanctioned labor migration and toward preventing a broad range of cross-border criminal activities, such as prostitution and drug trafficking. This shift allowed the Border Patrol to maintain its institutional relevance despite the low apprehension rates between the mid-1950s and late 1960s. Further, the switch from migration control to crime control linked immigration law enforcement to border enforcement and drug interdiction, each of which were core elements of the rising U.S. war on crime in the late twentieth century. In these years, the policing of the unsanctioned migrations of poor Mexican-born workers increasingly intersected with the policing of the cross-border trafficking of marijuana and narcotics, such as Mexican-grown heroin. The impact was an implosion of race, crime, and immigration at a moment when the United States embraced crime control as a primary system of governance and social organization. Border Patrol officers and INS officials, therefore, played a critical role in linking the racialized problem of illegal immigration to the problems of crime that have dominated American politics and social organization since the late 1960s.


The United States Supreme Court legitimated the U.S. Border Patrol’s racialized policing of the crime of illegal immigration in a case that had begun on the evening of June 11, 1973. That evening, two Border Patrol officers sat in a parked car on the northbound side of Highway 5 in southern California. Sometime after dark, the officers looked into their headlights and saw a car carrying Felix Humberto Brignoni-Ponce and two of his friends. According to the officers, the three men appeared to be of “Mexican descent,” which was sufficient evidence to suspect the men of the crime of illegal immigration. The officers launched a short pursuit, pulled the men over, and questioned them about their citizenship status. Brignoni-Ponce was a U.S. citizen, but his two passengers both admitted that they had entered the country illegally. The officers arrested all three men: the two passengers for illegal entry and Brignoni-Ponce for “knowingly transporting illegal immigrants,” a felony punishable by a fine of $5,000 and up to five years in prison for each violation.

Brignoni-Ponce appealed his conviction in a legal battle that ended in the Supreme Court in June 1975. According to Brignoni-Ponce and his lawyers, “Mexican descent” was insufficient evidence of the crime of illegal entry and the Border Patrol officers had therefore violated Brignoni-Ponce’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. The Supreme Court, however, decided that decades of Border Patrol statistics revealed a close relationship between the problem of illegal immigration and persons of Mexican origin. While acknowledging Brignoni-Ponce’s Fourth Amendment concerns regarding the uneven distribution of state surveillance and violence toward persons of Mexican origin through U.S. Border Patrol practice, the Supreme Court legitimated the Border Patrol’s use of “Mexican appearance” as an indicator for the crime of illegal immigration. The Border Patrol’s practice of linking persons of Mexican origin to the caste of illegals, therefore, entered the late twentieth century as a legitimate practice of racialization.

In the years following the Brignoni-Ponce decision, war and poverty pushed increasingly large numbers of Salvadorans and Guatemalans to seek both sanctuary and work in the United States. Many entered the United States by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without sanction. Although the U.S. Border Patrol remained focused upon policing unsanctioned Mexican immigration, the intensive regional focus of U.S. Border Patrol practices entangled Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants in the racial projects of U.S. immigration law enforcement.

SEE ALSO Immigrant Domestic Workers; Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA); Immigration to the United States.


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Kelly Lytle Hernandez