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.”
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.
In Guatemala, Longan used the intelligence techniques similar to the ones he developed in Operation Wetback to train local police and military officers, creating an “action unit” that could gather information — also mostly from interrogations, many of them including torture — and act on that information in a rapid manner. Within the first three months of 1966, “Operación Limpieza,” or Operation Clean-up, as Longan called his project, conducted over 80 raids and scores of extrajudicial assassinations, including the murder, during one four-day period in early March, of over 30 political activists (I describe Longan’s time in Guatemala in detail here). Likewise, through the early 1970s, the U.S. trained Latin American security forces, the majority from countries run by military governments, at the Border Patrol Academy in Los Fresnos, Texas, where, according to the Los Angeles Times, “CIA instructors” trained them “in the design, manufacture, and potential use of bombs and incendiary devices.”
Starting in the 1970s, investigative journalists began to report on Border Patrol abuse. Such exposés were damning, but largely ignored. John Crewdson, for instance, won a Pulitzer in 1980 for a series of articles published in the New York Times, including one titled “Border Sweeps of Illegal Aliens Leave Scores of Children in Jails,” yet his 1983 book based on the series, “The Tarnished Door,” is out of print. Crewdson’s reporting on the Border Patrol and the immigration system deserves a revival, for it provides an important back-history to the horrors we are witnessing today.
Patrollers, he reported, regularly engaged in beatings, murder, torture, and rape, including the rape of girls as young as 12. Some patrollers ran their own in-house “outlaw” vigilante groups. Others maintained ties with groups like the Klan. Border Patrol agents also used the children of migrants, either as bait or as a pressure tactic to force confessions. When coming upon a family, agents usually tried to apprehend the youngest member first, with the idea that relatives would give themselves up so as not to be separated. “It may sound cruel,” one patroller said, but it often worked.
Separating migrant families was not official government policy in the years Crewdson was reporting on abuses. But left to their own devices, Border Patrol agents regularly took children from parents, threatening that they would be separated “forever” unless one of them confessed that they had entered the country illegally. Mothers especially, an agent said, “would always break.” Once a confession was extracted, children might be placed in foster care or left to languish in federal jails. Others were released into Mexico alone, far from their homes — forced to survive, according to public defenders, by “garbage-can scrounging, living on rooftops and whatever.” Ten-year-old Sylvia Alvarado, separated from her grandmother as they crossed into Texas, was kept in a small cinderblock cell for more than three months. In California, 13-year-old Julia Pérez, threatened with being arrested and denied food, broke down and told her interrogator that she was Mexican, even though she was a U.S. citizen. The Border Patrol released Pérez into Mexico with no money or way to contact her U.S. family. Such cruelties weren’t one-offs, but part of a pattern, encouraged and committed by officers up the chain of command. The violence was both gratuitous and systemic, including “stress” techniques later associated with the war in Iraq.
The practice, for instance, as recently reported, of placing migrants in extremely cold rooms — called hieleras, or “ice boxes” — goes back decades, at least to the early 1980s, with Crewdson writing that it was a common procedure. Agents reminded captives that they were subject to their will: “In this place, you have no rights.”
Some migrants, being sent back to Mexico, were handcuffed to cars and made to run alongside them to the border. Patrollers pushed “illegals off cliffs,” a patrol agent told Crewdson, “so it would look like an accident.” Officers in the patrol’s parent agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, traded young Mexican women they caught at the border to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for season tickets, and supplied Mexican prostitutes to U.S. congressmen and judges, paying for them out of funds the service used to compensate informants. Agents also worked closely with Texas agriculturalists, delivering workers to their ranches (including to one owned by Lyndon B. Johnson when he was in the White House), then raiding the ranches just before payday and deporting the workers. “The ranchers got their crops harvested for free, the INS men got fishing and hunting privileges on the ranches, and the Mexicans got nothing,” Crewdson reported.
Subsequent reporting confirms that the violence Crewdson documented continued down the years, largely unabated. The remoteness of much of the border region and the harshness of its terrain, the work that straddled the line between foreign and domestic power, and the fact that many of the patrollers were themselves veterans of foreign wars (or hailed from regions with fraught racial relations, including the borderlands themselves) all contributed to a “fortress mentality,” as one officer put it. Patrollers easily imagined their isolated substations to be frontier forts in hostile territory, holding off barbarians. They wielded awesome power over desperate people with little effective recourse. Based on information provided by local migrant advocacy groups, Human Rights Watch wrote in 1993 that in one such substation, in Harlingen, Texas, “physical abuse is often coupled with due process abuses meant to terrorize victims of brutality.” Most captured migrants, beaten or threatened with a beating, signed “voluntary departure agreements” and were “quickly repatriated.”
Between 1982 and 1990, Mexico City sent at least 24 protests to the U.S. State Department on behalf of Mexicans injured or murdered by Border Patrol agents. Just as soldiers use racial epithets for the people they are fighting overseas, Border Patrol agents have a word for their adversaries: “tonks.” It’s “the sound,” one patroller told a journalist, “a flashlight makes when you hit someone over the head.” In neighborhoods filled with undocumented residents, the Patrol operated with the latitude of an occupying army. “Mind your own fucking business, lady, and go back into your house,” one patroller ordered a resident in Stockton, California, who came out on her balcony to see him “kicking a Mexican male who was handcuffed and lying facedown on the ground.”
It wasn’t just the federal Border Patrol that engaged in such sadism, but local law enforcement as well. In 1980, a Texas lawyer affiliated with the United Farm Workers obtained videos of 72 interrogations of migrants that took place over the course of the previous seven years, recorded by the police department in McAllen, Texas. The images were disturbing: Police took turns beating one handcuffed Mexican man, bashing his head on the concrete floor, punching, kicking, and cursing as he pleaded for mercy. The tapes were made for enjoyment, as a kind of bonding ritual that would later be associated with the abuse committed against Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib: As the officers gathered “night after night,” they drank beer and watched “playbacks” of their interrogation sessions. It was, said one of the men involved, a way of initiating new recruits into the cult of border brutalism.
There have been contradictory judicial rulings, but historically, agent power has been limited by no constitutional clause. There are few places patrollers can’t search, no property belonging to migrants they can’t seize. And there is hardly anybody they can’t kill, provided that the victims are poor Mexican or Central American migrants. Between 1985 and 1990, federal agents shot 40 migrants around San Diego alone, killing 22 of them. On April 18, 1986, for instance, patroller Edward Cole was beating 14-year-old Eduardo Carrillo Estrada on the U.S. side of the border’s chain-link fence, when he stopped and shot Eduardo’s younger brother, Humberto, in the back. Humberto was standing on the other side of the fence on Mexican soil. A court ruled that Cole, who had previous incidents of shooting through the fence at Mexicans, had reason to fear for his life from Humberto and used justifiable force.
Such abuses persisted through the 1990s and 2000s. In 1993, the House Subcommittee on International Law, Immigration, and Refugees held hearings on Border Patrol abuse, and its transcript is a catalogue of horrors. One former guard, Tony Hefner, at the INS detention center in Port Isabel, Texas, reported that “a young Salvadoran girl” was forced to “perform personal duties, like dancing the Lambada, for INS officials.” (In 2011, Hefner published a memoir with more accusations of sexual abuse by, as Hefner writes, the INS “brass”). Roberto Martinez, who worked with the San Diego-based U.S.-Mexico Border Program for the American Friends Service Committee, testified that “human and civil rights violations” by the Border Patrol “run the gamut of abuses imaginable” — from rape to murder. Agents regularly seized “original birth certificates and green cards” from Latino citizens, “leaving the victim with the financial burden of having to go through a lengthy process of applying for a new document.” “Rapes and sexual abuse in INS detention centers around the United States,” Martinez said, “seem to be escalating throughout the border region.”
Brutality continued as Washington further militarized both the border and broader immigration policy — first after the 1993 signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and then years later with the creation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security after the 9/11 attacks. Since 2003, Border Patrol agents have killed at least 97 people, including six children. Few agents were prosecuted. Last year, a 19-year-old Guatemalan Maya woman, Claudia Patricia Gómez Gonzáles was killed, shot in the head by a still-unnamed Texas Border Patrol agent shortly after she entered the United States. According to a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union, young girls apprehended by the Patrol have been physically abused and threatened with rape, while unaccompanied children have experienced “physical and psychological abuse, unsanitary and inhumane living conditions, isolation from family members, extended period of detention, and denial of access to legal medical service.”
The viciousness we are witnessing today at the border, directed at children and adults, has a long history, a fact that should in no way mitigate the extraordinary cruelty of Donald Trump. But it does suggest that if the U.S. is to climb out of the moral abyss it has fallen into, it has to think well beyond Trump’s malice. It needs a historical reckoning with the true cause of the border crisis: the long, brutal history of border enforcement itself.