Sat, Jun

100 Years of Enforcing Immigration and Customs Violations



ACCORDING TO LIZ - In the past hundred years the Border Patrol has moved from a handful of revered agents protecting the country’s frontiers to a tolerated but necessary agency to one rife with human rights abuses and demonized as a tool of the Bush and Trump regimes.  

How did it all start? 

The U.S. Border Patrol was officially established by Congress a century ago on May 28, with the passage of the Labor Appropriation Act of 1924 under the Labor Department to prevent illegal entry from both Mexico and Canada opening stations in Detroit in June and in El Paso that July. The following year, it started patrolling the coasts. 

The Immigration Service deployed mounted men along the Texas border and west to California as early as 1904 to prevent illegal crossings including those trying to avoid the Chinese exclusion laws, but their efforts were sporadic. 

When the Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture, sale and transport of alcohol went into effect in 1920, funding for border security became a greater priority of the federal government. 

Following President Franklin Roosevelt combining the Bureau of Immigration and the Bureau of Naturalization and the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1933, and national security threats posed by the Second World War, the Border Patrol ballooned to over 1,400 law enforcement and civilian positions. And, with the increased need for tighter control of the border including helping stop frontier incursions by enemy saboteurs, the Border Patrol added aircraft surveillance operations. 

Eight hundred Border Patrol agents were assigned to southern California in the early 1950s to round up and repatriate thousands of illegal immigrants. In 1952, agents were authorized to board domestic transport to search for and expel illegal immigrants. But many deportees just turned around and recrossed the porous border. 

After the 1959 Cuban Revolution and during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, additional stations were added along the southeastern coast. Border Patrol agents were also deputized to accompany domestic flights as instances of hijacking increased. 

With the explosion of technology in recent decades, the Border Patrol added computer algorithms, seismic sensors, and infrared night-vision scopes to locate illegal immigrants and take them into custody. 

Operation Hold the Line, initiated in 1993, in had Border Patrol agents deployed to the border to detect and deter illegal entries far from urban El Paso where it was easy to hide, and citizens could be at risk. 

Its success in stemming the flow of illegal immigrants led to a similar effort in the San Diego area, the location of half the nation’s unauthorized border crossings. 

Operation Gatekeeper began adding border fencing made from surplus pierced steel planking developed by the military shortly before World War II for rapid construction of temporary runways and landing strips. Eventually this was replaced by the modern triple fence line that runs 13 miles from the Pacific Ocean at Imperial Beach to the mountains of Otay Mesa, reducing illegal entries in the San Diego area by as much as 75%. 

After 9/11, Homeland Security became a driving concern. Once people understood that these terrorists entered the United States from Canada where slightly over 300 Border Patrol agents were expected to control 5,525 miles of predominantly rough terrain, staffing of the northern border increased six-fold within eight years. 

Reorganization of domestic security services under President George W. Bush created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003, and the Border Patrol became part of Customs and Border Protection. 

A November 2005 update to its national strategy for control of American borders specified five main objectives:

  • Apprehend terrorists and terrorist weapons illegally entering the United States
  • Deter illegal entries through improved enforcement
  • Detect, apprehend, and deter smugglers of humans, drugs, and other contraband
  • Use "smart border" technology
  • Reduce crime in border communities, improving quality of life 

This may be the 21st century, but agents on horseback still patrol remote areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Bicycles and ATVs augment foot patrols and traditional vehicles on city streets and on rough terrain. And a fleet of snowmobiles emerges in winter to patrol the northern borders. 


At first immigrants were welcomed to this country – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” 

California drew nationwide attention to illegal immigration with the passage of Proposition 187 in 1993. It denied benefits to illegal aliens, criminalized anyone in possession of forged documents and required local law enforcement to question non-nationals on their immigration status and report them to authorities. 

In recent years, the United States has seen waves of asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants driven by political chaos and devastation caused by climate change. 

That American policies are the direct cause of this – from entitled immigrants arriving from Vietnam and Afghanistan after the U.S. pulled out of civil wars it caused, to those fleeing dictatorships and puppet governments created over the past century by the CIA and U.S.-sanctioned meddling in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Cuba, Panama and Central America, Southeast Asia, Philippines, Africa, Chile, and more – is something our politicians like to gloss over. 

The primary activity of Border Patrol agents is detection and apprehension of terrorists, illegal aliens and alien smugglers at or near border crossings through surveillance and interception. 

Biden’s 2020 campaign promise to undo Trump policies such as separating families, and expanding what qualified for immigration parole on humanitarian grounds led to a surge at the southern border. In 2022, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 2.3 million migrant apprehensions in the previous twelve months, a jump of 37% from the year before. 

In the eighteen months ending September 2023, nearly 17,000 human smugglers were arrested, and more than $64 million in property and currency seized. 

Traffic checks on highways leading away from the border are conducted to identify illegal aliens attempting to travel further into the interior after evading apprehension at the border, and to seize illegal narcotics. 


Liquor smuggling was a major concern during Prohibition so a majority of the Border Patrol was assigned to the Canadian border until the 1960s when the business of smuggling aliens across the southern border expanded exponentially into drug smuggling. 

Today the DHS continues to escalate the fight against the trafficking of narcotics and other contraband from Mexico that accompanies the cartel human smuggling operations. 

The good

Almost 70% of illegal border crossings were by single adults. In the year ending September 30, 2022, more than 800 died trying to cross the southern border. Drowning and heat exhaustion were the top causes of death. 

Border Patrol agents routinely supply water, food, and medical care to aliens. In 1998, to address concerns about the number of aliens injured or killed while attempting to cross the border, a specialized Border Patrol, Search, Trauma and Rescue unit trained in emergency search and rescue was established to aid injured and stranded aliens at remote locations. 

In the year ending in September 2020, Border Patrol agents along with Air and Marine Operations personnel saved more than 5,000 people. 

The Border Patrol is also charged with protecting both law enforcement and would-be immigrants from threats posed by vigilantes in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. 

The not-so-good

The Secure Fence Act signed by President Bush in October 2006 mandated a fence along the entire 1,945-mile southern border to be built by December 2008. But only funded 700 miles. 

It has met with extensive opposition with multiple lawsuits filed by environmental and wildlife groups, worried that clearing brush, erecting fences, installing bright lights, motion sensors and cameras would scare wildlife and hinder migration. 

Not to mention citizens whose land was being expropriated, roads blocked and the use of outside instead of local contractors. 

Then-DHS secretary Michael Chertoff bypassed environmental and other oppositions with a waiver that was granted to him by Congress prioritizing speedy construction over environmental concerns and landowner rights. These only escalated with Trump’s efforts to force through further construction. 

The truly terrible

Between 2005 and 2017, the federal government paid out more than $60,000,000 in legal settlements of cases in which border agents were involved in deaths, driving injuries, alleged assaults, and wrongful detention. A Human Rights Watch report issued in October 2021 documented over 160 reports of mistreatment or asylum-seekers by Border Patrol agents. 

A Culture of Cruelty, a report from the Arizona-based illegal immigrant advocacy group No More Deaths – documenting denial of sufficient water and food; lack of medical treatment; verbal, physical and psychological abuse; separation of family members; and dangerous repatriation practices – challenges the Border Patrol’s claim that such abuses do not occur. 

Grievous physical assaults, sexual violence, abusive detention conditions and violations of due process by Customs and Border Protection are an open secret within the DHS showing a shocking normalization of abuse at the southern border. 

The disturbing photograph of a mounted Border Patrol agent appearing to use his bridle reins as a whip against a Haitian migrant crossing the Mexico-United States border made headlines around the world. 

Eventually the court of public opinion forced the Border Patrol to start using body cameras which for years the agency rejected as too expensive, unreliable, and bad for morale. They even forced state and local law enforcement to turn off their body cameras during joint operations. 

Over twenty percent of illegal border crossings are by families, with more than 5% being unaccompanied minors. Treatment of kids in custody is one of the most controversial immigration issues with huge public outcries against the Trump administration’s incarceration of minors, including young children and babies, in overcrowded and squalid facilities. 

On a single day in March of 2021, 570 unaccompanied children were stopped sneaking across the border. Seventy-six of them were under thirteen. The previous month more than 9,400 children were arrested at the border and their numbers are outpacing the ability to shelter them safely. 

There are also more and more credible reports of all levels of law enforcement colluding with vigilantes. 

The biggest question for the Border Patrol’s hundredth birthday is if there can be a resurgence of the basic values that helped shape its early years – professionalism, honor, integrity, respect for human life, and shared efforts to solve common problems. 

To do so, the United States must embrace better policies and set stringent long-term goals to stop its own government and agencies from meddling in foreign affairs, and forego wars against other nations to declare one on today’s most obvious enemy: climate change.

(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions.  In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)