(First in three-part series on Border Patrol prior to adopting the "border security" framework.)
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Border Patrol adapted their rhetoric to reflect its newly acquired homeland security mission.
In the past, the Border Patrol only occasionally referred to its mission as “securing the border.” But the use of the term “border security” has gained prevalence over the past decade and now commonly substitutes for “border control.” References to border security – and border insecurity -- shape current discourse not only about the border but also about immigration, drug policy, U.S.-Mexico relations, and homeland security.
|Border Patrol at Douglas/Agua Prieta/ Tom Barry|
Border control operations and Border Patrol strategy prior to 9/11 facilitated the transition to the new border security framework, while also presaging the failures of this new paradigm of border management.
The Border Patrol has long been a backwater agency -- one with little prestige or influence and populated by ex-military with little professional or academic training. It is an agency drawn to a plethora of multitude of military-like “operations” and less inclined to embrace intelligence operations, strategic thinking, and inter-agency collaboration.
With its military-style management, the Border Patrol comes to the border security challenge with brawn and bluster but with little strategic focus. The Border Patrol carries a chip on its shoulder with respect to other more prestigious DHS and DOJ agencies, particularly with ICE.
Tension between the Greens and the Blues (referring to the green-uniformed Border Patrol and the blue-outfitted ICE agents) is palpable along the border. Evaluation and self-criticism are rare, while tradition and routine are favored over strategy, intelligence and policy analysis.
Origin as Labor Patrol
The Border Patrol, formed as a Labor Department agency in 1924, was preceded by irregular squads based in El Paso and by Texas Rangers who were routinely contracted by the National Immigration Service. The apprehension of Chinese laborers who were in violation of the Chinese Exclusion Act occupied these patrols.(1)
Since its official founding at the start of the Prohibition Era (1919-1933), the Border Patrol has been tasked to prevent the entry of illegal alcohol and drugs across the southwest border.
Yet, given the immensity of the border, the federal government never expected that the Border Patrol would seal the border against the routine flow of unauthorized immigrant workers and prohibited substances. In tacit agreements with ranchers, farmers, and agribusiness, the Border Patrol did not enforce immigration laws against their immigrant workforces.
For most of the last century the Border Patrol often fumbled along without a clear mandate or strategy. In 1940 the Border Patrol, following the agency’s transfer to the Justice Department (along with the entire immigration and customs service), became more clearly defined as a federal law-enforcement agency. The U.S. wartime government was concerned less about unauthorized immigration from Mexico than about the possible penetration of the border by enemy agents.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 created a path to legalization and citizenship for 2.6 unauthorized immigrants then living in the country, while also authorizing major increases in the Border Patrol staffing and the enforcement of sanctions against employers who hired immigrants without proper papers.
Yet this immigration reform legislation -- despite the authorization for an additional 2,000 Border Patrol officers -- failed to stem the flow of illegal immigrants, while the stipulated employer sanctions were not enforced.
Liberal immigration reformers had lent their support for employer sanctions as part of the amnesty deal. But once amnesty became law they didn’t support the enforcement of these sanctions – thereby further angering immigration restrictionists and hardening their resolve to oppose any future immigration-reform compromise.
What is more, the amnesty precipitated new illegal and legal immigration flows, as millions of relatives and neighbors in the past couple decades sought to join the newly legalized residents. An exodus from Central America – roiled by escalating repression, counterinsurgency wars, and U.S. intervention – created a new northbound stream of immigrants.
By the late 1980s, the local and national backlash forces against immigration began to gather new strength and national resonance.
(1) Sources for Border Patrol history include: Kelly Lytle Hernández, Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (University of California Press, 2010); Peter Andreas, Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide (Cornell University Press, 2010); Timothy J. Dunn, The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border 1978-1992 (CMAS Books, University of Texas, 1996); Dunn, Blockading the Border and Human Rights (University of Texas Press, 2009).