Say what you will about the United States and its official policies towards immigration and public sentiment towards immigrants in general, these guys are faced with a pretty daunting task. That being said…

Given the current state of world affairs and the impact that they’ve had both on the mind-set of many of the American people and along with the creation of new offices such as the Office of Homeland Security I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the United States Border Patrol, a department of Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS).

Officially, these guys have been “protecting” the borders of the United Sates for over 75 years. Their history goes back a little further than that though…

The Early Years

It seems that in the mid to late 1800’s, our fair shores were being inundated with Chinese immigrants who were crossing over the border of Mexico into the United States in search of employment. They were willing to work long hours for minimal wages. Naturally this raised the ire of many Americans who felt that they were being deprived of these jobs but weren’t willing to work under the conditions such as the Chinese endured. Couple that with a growing labor movement within the country and you have all the ingredients necessary for the passage of The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. (See The DeadGuy’s fine w/u for more info on the act itself.)

In an effort to stem the tide and enforce the act, the United States Immigration Service (the future INS) took to putting mounted watchmen at strategic points between the United States and Mexican borders. The efforts can best be described as sporadic at best and only were undertaken when the department had enough manpower on hand. Based in El Paso, Texas, these defenders (called Mounted Guards) of our borders rarely numbered over 75 and were charged with patrolling an area that extended all the way to California.

By the time 1915 rolled around, Congress recognized that the current mode of operation was ineffective and authorized a special division within the Immigration Service. They called themselves the “Mounted Inspectors” and traversed the border on horseback. Although they were given broad powers of arrest, their main focus remained on the Chinese immigrants. ( I guess people of other nationalities trying to make their way in the country could temporarily breathe a sigh of relief but we’ll get to them later.).

These Mounted Inspectors also had a dual role. Besides traipsing up and down the borders they were also called upon to man the various official “inspection stations” that dotted the countryside. Given their limited manpower, this task proved to be too much and it wasn’t long before the military was called in to offer their assistance. The powers that be within the military were not too enamored of this new duty and felt that it took a backseat to the more important task of “military training.” Texas Rangers (not the baseball team) were also recruited in the effort. Any illegal immigrants detected by either the military or Texas Rangers were directed to the inspection stations for eventual deportation.

As the years progressed, the emphasis on illegal immigration began to lessen. The Mounted Inspectors began focusing their efforts on customs violations and intercepting and “enemy traffic.” This lasted until 1917 when tougher immigration standards such as literacy requirements and higher head taxes were put into effect..” Naturally, these standards caused the number of people trying to get into the country “illegally” to rise.

In 1918 the supervisor of the Mounted Inspectors first voiced his concerns about the ability of his men to accomplish their task. He has this to say in a letter to the folks in charge at Immigration.

“If the services of men now being drafted cannot be spared for this work, it may be that the various departments vitally interested would give favorable consideration to the formation of an independent organization, composed of men with out the draft age. The assertion is ventured that such an organization, properly equipped and trained, made up of seasoned men, would guard the border more effectively against all forms of lawlessness than a body of soldiers of several times the same number…”

Enter Prohibition and a couple of other factors…

It wasn’t long before the passage of the Volstead Act and the subsequent 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution that Prohibition became the law of the land. If you combine that passage with other events such as even tougher immigration standards that were enacted in 1921 and 1924, you can see why the duties of the Mounted Inspectors took on a larger degree of importance within the eyes of the Government.

All of these events caused Congress to pass something called the Labor Appropriation Act of 1924 that officially established the United States Border Patrol. Its sole purpose consisted of securing the borders that existed between the various inspection stations. It wasn’t long before they were also called upon to patrol the seacoast.

Who were they?

It wasn’t too hard to find recruits for the newly established Border Patrol. Ex-members of the Texas Rangers, local sheriffs and their deputies, and various appointees soon filled their ranks and their numbers swelled to 450.

What did they get?

Not too much if you ask me. The Government gave them a badge and a gun but they had to furnish their own horse and saddle. In a gesture of largesse, the Government also decided to supply them with oats and hay for their steeds. The pay topped out at a whopping $1,680 per year. It wasn’t until 1928 that the Government decided that they should wear uniforms (which they magnanimously provided).

In 1932 the Border Patrol was split into two divisions. One was charged with patrolling the borders of Mexico and remained in El Paso and the other was put in charge of patrolling the border between the United States and Canada and located in Detroit. The main objective was to stop the smuggling of illegal aliens and the bootlegging of whiskey.

In 1933, recognizing certain redundancies, President Franklin D. Roosevelt combined the Bureau of Immigration and the Bureau of Naturalization in to what we know and love today as the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization Services. Along those lines, the first Border Patrol Academy was opened in 1934. The class consisted of 34 trainees who were taught the basics of marksmanship and horsemanship.

By 1935, the Border Patrol partially abandoned horses in favor of motorized vehicles equipped with radios. Its important to note though that due to conditions of weather and terrain, horses still play an essential role in the Border Patrol to this day.

The War Years

With the outbreak of World War II, the Border Patrol was expanded to include more than 1,500 agent/officers. During the war they were charged with providing tighter control over the borders to stop any enemy infiltration. They were also assigned other duties such as manning various detention camps, guarding diplomats and helping the United States Coast Guard be on the lookout for any Axis members who might be wanting to commit acts of sabotage.

Post War/Cold War

In 1952 Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act which further expanded the duties of the Border Patrol. This legislation permitted agents to board and search any vehicle that was suspected of transporting illegal immigrants anywhere within the United States and not just crossing over the borders. Any body caught trying to enter the United States illegally was now subject to arrest as well as deportation.

Since the threat of Canadians illegally making their way into the United States was minimal, emphasis was shifted back to the borders of Mexico and 62 units of the border patrol were re-assigned to patrol said borders. In 1952, the Government wound up airlifting more than 52,000 illegal immigrants back to Mexico’s interior. This practice was ended after it ran out of money during the first year. In response and perhaps responding to diplomatic pressure, Mexico offered up train rides from either San Antonio or Los Angeles back to its interior for any illegal immigrants that were caught. This program lasted all of five months.

As we progress throughout the mid to later 50’s, a special detachment of Border Patrol personnel was assigned by the Attorney General to round up and ship out thousands of immigrants in southern California. The program spread throughout various cities and reached as far as Chicago. After all was said and done, another 50,000 or so immigrants were booted out of the country. The program was deemed a failure though since Many illegal immigrants simply turned around and came back. It seem repatriation was extremely expensive and was eventually phased out because of the cost associated with the practice.

During the 60’s, the Border Patrol duties were expanded once again. With the advent of aircraft-hijackings, President John F. Kennedy ordered that members of the Border Patrol accompany all domestic flights to prevent any takeover attempts. As drug trafficking began to rise, the Border Patrol was also charged with intercepting the goods so to speak.

As we enter the 80’s and 90’s, illegal immigration began to witness a huge increase and the Border Patrol was severely undermanned and under-equipped to deal with the situation. In response, manpower was increased and technological advances were called for. Gadgets such as infrared night vision scopes, seismic sensors and a host of other goodies were used in an effort to restrict entry.

Post September 11, 2001

What can you say? For either right or wrong, the nation has become increasingly security conscious and I’m sure the role the Border Patrol will play will be greatly expanded. Given the leaps and bounds in technology, the emphasis on surveillance and the general feeling of insecurity that pervades among many Americans, the Border Patrol will continue to try and tighten the reins around those trying to enter the United States.

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