From [intercept] SINCE ITS FOUNDING in the early 20th century, the U.S. Border Patrol has operated with near-complete impunity, arguably serving as the most politicized and abusive branch of federal law enforcement — even more so than the FBI during J. Edgar Hoover’s directorship.
The 1924 Immigration Act tapped into a xenophobia with deep roots in the U.S. history. The law effectively eliminated immigration from Asia and sharply reduced arrivals from southern and eastern Europe. Most countries were now subject to a set quota system, with the highest numbers assigned to western Europe. As a result, new arrivals to the United States were mostly white Protestants. Nativists were largely happy with this new arrangement, but not with the fact that Mexico, due to the influence of U.S. business interests that wanted to maintain access to low-wage workers, remained exempt from the quota system. “Texas needs these Mexican immigrants,” said the state’s Chamber of Commerce.
Having lost the national debate when it came to restricting Mexicans, white supremacists — fearing that the country’s open-border policy with Mexico was hastening the “mongrelization” of the United States — took control of the U.S. Border Patrol, also established in 1924, and turned it into a frontline instrument of race vigilantism. As the historian Kelly Lytle Hernández has shown, the patrol’s first recruits were white men one or two generations removed from farm life. Some had a military or county sheriff background, while others transferred from border-town police departments or the Texas Rangers — all agencies with their own long tradition of unaccountable brutality. Their politics stood in opposition to the big borderland farmers and ranchers. They didn’t think that Texas — or Arizona, New Mexico, and California — needed Mexican migrants.
Earlier, in the mid-1800s, the Mexican-American War had unleashed a broad, generalized racism against Mexicans throughout the nation. That racism slowly concentrated along an ever-more focused line: the border. While the 1924 immigration law spared Mexico a quota, a series of secondary laws — including one that made it a crime to enter the country outside official ports of entry — gave border and customs agents on-the-spot discretion to decide who could enter the country legally. They had the power to turn what had been a routine daily or seasonal event — crossing the border to go to work — into a ritual of abuse. Hygienic inspections became more widespread and even more degrading. Migrants had their heads shaved, and they were subjected to an increasingly arbitrary set of requirements and the discretion of patrollers, including literacy tests and entrance fees.
The patrol wasn’t a large agency at first — just a few hundred men during its early years — and its reach along a 2,000-mile line was limited. But over the years, its reported brutality grew as the number of agents it deployed increased. Border agents beat, shot, and hung migrants with regularity. Two patrollers, former Texas Rangers, tied the feet of one migrant and dragged him in and out of a river until he confessed to having entered the country illegally. Other patrollers were members of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, active in border towns from Texas to California. “Practically every other member” of El Paso’s National Guard “was in the Klan,” one military officer recalled, and many had joined the Border Patrol upon its establishment.
For more than a decade, the Border Patrol operated under the authority of the Department of Labor, which in the early years of the Great Depression, before the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his appointment of Frances Perkins as secretary of labor, was a major driver pushing deportation. Perkins, even before she entered FDR’s cabinet, had already criticized Border Patrol brutality. In office, she tried to limit the abuses of immigration officials as much as she could, curtailing warrantless arrests, allowing detained migrants phone calls, and working to extend the protections the New Deal offered citizens to migrant workers, including an effort to make abusive migrant labor contracts more equitable.
Reform was short-lived. The White House, bowing to pressure from agriculturalists, placed the Border Patrol, and migration policy more broadly, under the authority of the Department of Justice. More laws further criminalizing migration reinforced the Border Patrol’s power. For example, the end of the Bracero guest-worker program, along with the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which for the first time assigned quotas to Mexico and other countries in the Western Hemisphere, now meant that thousands of seasonal Mexican workers were officially “illegal.”
Exporting Paramilitary Policing
At the same time, experience gained in migrant interdiction began to be exported internationally. The Border Patrol is often thought of, even by critics of its brutality, as a sleepy backwater federal agency, far removed from the Cold War’s ideological frontlines. But the Patrol played a role in expanding the radius of Washington’s national security doctrine — the tutoring of allied security forces in counterinsurgency tactics — and accelerating the tempo of paramilitary action. [MORE]