Borders are a physical manifestation of state social control. Regulatory organizations such as a border patrol serve as the coercive force responsible for both the border’s symbolic and actual effectiveness at controlling goods and personnel potentially transiting the nation’s boundary lines. That coercive control has ethical implications.
For the United States the maritime border of the new republic predisposed its founders toward the creation of the nation’s first form of border patrol, the Revenue-Marine. The precursor to the Coast Guard, its 10 vessels operated along the Atlantic Seaboard under the authority of a local collector of customs. Customs officers worked at the numerous authorized entry points on the border. To address land-based smuggling, mounted customs inspectors were on horseback patrolling the country along the Mexican–U.S. border as early as 1853.
Immigration officials developed a separate inspectional organization to work at the various ports of entry alongside Customs. By 1904 the Immigration Service had also developed a small border force working outside of the ports of entry in an attempt to deal with unsanctioned Chinese transnational traffic. Known as mounted Chinese inspectors, this group of mounted watchmen, or river guards, would be the predecessor to the modern Border Patrol.
In 1924 Congress authorized the creation of the United States Border Patrol as undocumented immigration by a variety of nationalities was escalating through Mexico. With the force climbing to almost 800 officers in the first three years, by 1992 there were still only about 3,600 Border Patrol agents nationwide, primarily assigned to the U.S.–Mexico border. That would change with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; the Border Patrol became an entity of the newly created U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) under the Department of Homeland Security, and its staffing rose to over 21,000. By 2012, it was the single largest federal law enforcement agency and the second-largest in the United States—surpassed only by the New York Police Department.
With the growth of the American nativism movement in the 1800s, the idea of the border became less about the imagined boundaries of American nationalism and exceptionalism and more a tool for exclusion of those not encompassed within the framework of Anglo-Protestant culture. The movement came to the forefront with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Supported by organized labor, the Exclusion Act initiated a ban on immigrating Chinese laborers. Eventually the Immigration Act of 1917 and subsequent laws effectively barred almost all Asians from the United States and prodded the surreptitious entry of excluded migrants toward the minimally guarded land borders of both Mexico and Canada. There the mounted Chinese inspectors became the coercive force behind the law. As white men predominately from the southern borderlands, they carried a cultural bias toward Anglo-Protestant ethnocentrism. Immigration law eventually also limited and controlled Mexican migration in the 20th century with that same nativism impacting an already marginalized population of American citizens and foreign nationals of Mexican origin. For the Border Patrol this would lead to a form of racial profiling, with anyone of “dark” skin in the borderlands being targeted as potentially illegally within the United States. Institutional racism extended into internal hiring practices; as late as 1981 the Tucson office of the Border Patrol still had only seven Hispanic agents among a staff of 33. Not until the new millennium would Hispanics finally constitute more than 50 percent of Border Patrol personnel.
The early Immigration Mounted Guard was part of the culture of social control in which violence was both acceptable and condoned. With the creation of the Border Patrol, liquor smuggling during the Prohibition era would serve as a catalyst for even greater violence in the following years. With a traditional homicide rate in the southwest higher than the northeastern United States, and Mexico having been in a state of revolution for a decade, a culture of violence contributed to the death of 18 Border Patrol inspectors prior to 1933. Customs officers lost another 13 in the southwest. While the violence on the northern border tended to be initiated by border officers when smugglers attempted to flee, in the southern borderlands it was instigated by both smuggler and agent.
In 2005 the use of deadly force came to the forefront when two agents shot a vehicle driver attempting to escape apprehension by fleeing on foot across the border to Mexico. Charged with attempted murder, the agents were convicted of assault with a dangerous weapon and other related charges. The patrol agents’ union defended the agents and attempted to justify their actions. Evidence established that a number of agents who were aware of the shooting had chosen not to report the incident, exposing a related culture of silence and cover-up.
The Border Patrol reported over 1,000 assaults against its officers in 2009, including the ambush and murder of one agent. In 2012 when an agent killed a teenager that was allegedly assaulting agents with rocks, the Border Patrol agents’ union argued that a thrown rock was the equivalent of deadly force and justified a lethal response. The teen’s death was reportedly the 18th homicide by agents since 2010, almost half allegedly rock throwers. The deaths led some members of Congress to raise the issue of an ongoing culture of violence within the agency itself.
Originally an administrative function with the objective of denying entry into the United States of unauthorized immigrants, the Border Patrol later reframed the view of unsanctioned entry into a criminal matter. It was not until 1929, five years after the creation of the Border Patrol, that illegal entry was made a misdemeanor and reentry after deportation a felony. The growing use of the justice system to address minor immigration violations conflated a status offender with a dangerous criminal alien. Of the 160,000 federal prosecutions in 2011, half were for immigration violations.
This process of criminalization has also justified the militarization of immigration control including direct military action in the borderlands. In 1997, a U.S. Marine clandestine observation post was established on the border under the auspices of a counternarcotic task force. When a goat herder fired a .22 caliber rifle in their direction, one Marine, believing he was under assault, shot and killed the teenager as he had been trained to do in a combat situation. From 2006 to 2008 over 30,000 National Guard troops continued to provide border enforcement support.
Besides the normal forms of corruption found in policing, the Border Patrol is susceptible to corruption specific to its border mandate. Individuals have succumbed to the financial temptations offered by drug cartels and human trafficking organizations by providing information about enforcement operations and capabilities, and in directly aiding the smugglers in moving their contraband into the United States. With the extensive increase in hiring begun under President George W. Bush, the potential for an unsuitable candidate to enter the service was also magnified. From 2005 through 2012, 144 Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection officers (the inspectional force serving at the ports of entry) were indicted or arrested for corruption. Another
2,170 officers and agents were arrested for other criminal offenses such as intoxicated driving and domestic violence. From 2005 through 2011 over 32,000 allegations were filed against a current force of 61,500 Border Patrol agents and CBP officers. Allegations include charges of detainee abuse, misuse of authority, and unauthorized use of government databases.
As the Border Patrol received increased funding for personnel, equipment, and border barriers such as fences, a strategy of managing and not simply sealing the border was developed with the goal of preventing entry into the United States through deterrence. This strategic plan included using the hostile geographical features of the southwest, such as the Sonoran Desert, to psychologically deter migrants from crossing. The strategy had the unintended effect of shifting the traditional traffic flow to those remote areas and increasing migrant fatalities. As early as 2000 the Border Patrol documented 383 known deaths of migrants transiting the borderlands. By 2009 the toll had climbed to 423; in the interim the Border Patrol had established a safety program to mitigate migrant deaths, claiming almost 4,000 rescues within its first three years.
The U.S. Border Patrol has faced many of the same ethical issues and dilemmas of other law enforcement agencies during its storied history. And as with other agencies, corruption and misconduct are as much a development of the political and social environment in which the agency functions in as it is the actions of its own agents.
- Ettinger, Patrick. Imaginary Lines: Border Enforcement and the Origins of Undocumented Immigration, 1882–1930. Austin: University of Texas, 2009.
- Hernandez, Kelly Lytle. Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol. Berkeley: University of California,
- Nevins, Joseph. Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexican Boundary. New York: Routledge,
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