When Congress first created the Border Patrol back in 1924, it was staffed by a ragtag collection of former Texas Rangers, local sheriffs and mail clerks. These men, stationed at backwoods outposts along the 7,500 miles that demarcate the U.S. border, were charged with handling customs violations and preventing liquour smuggling during Prohibition. The agency was seen as the forgotten stepchild of U.S. law enforcement—understaffed, undertrained and nonessential.
Today, the Border Patrol is the country’s largest law enforcement agency, with some 46,000 Customs officers and Border Patrol agents. Their annual budget is a jaw-dropping $12.4 billion, and “securing our borders” is a top priority for U.S. politicians both Democratic and Republican. In an investigation for Politico, Garrett M. Graff traces the evolution of the Border Patrol from its roots as a bureaucratic backwater to its current status as the linchpin of our national security strategy.
As Graff deftly illustrates, the rise of the Border Patrol is a direct result of the post-9/11 obsession with “protecting the homeland.” At the time the planes hit the Twin Towers, there were only 9,000 border agents and the agency only had the financing to hold 60 detainees a day. But in the years that followed, our national security apparatus metastasized and we bore witness to a succession of inextricably linked trends: the expansion of the surveillance state, rabid xenophobia, drone warfare, egregious abuses by law enforcement personnel at home and abroad. This coincided with a spike in illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America, spurred by poverty and the savage violence of the drug wars. Our southern border became freighted with new meaning, as the frontline in keeping potential terrorists—and all other unwanted persons—from entering the country.
But, as we learned in Iraq, throwing money and thousands of inexperienced, armed recruits at a problem is not a good solution. The agency—which now fell under the jurisdiction of the newly created Department of Homeland Security—quickly went from being understaffed to uncontrollably massive. Agents, some of whom had only been on the job for months, were accused of smuggling cocaine and marijuana through Texas. They were charged with raping and sexually assaulting migrants. They colluded with cartel members to allow contraband and arms to flow freely across the border. In fact, as Graff points out, “between 2005 and 2012, nearly one CBP officer was arrested for misconduct every single day.”
To make matters worse, the Border Patrol is a historically insular institution with a poor record of publically addressing instances of abuse. But these allegations of misconduct and excessive use of force continue to this day.
Our approach to immigration enforcement and border security remains hopelessly flawed. Militarization and an influx of “boots on the ground” cannot be a sustainable response because one day those boots will not be there. The costs of maintaining such an enormous operation are staggering. And these strategies do not address the systemic reasons why thousands of immigrants make the dangerous, risky attempt to cross the border. Beginning in the 1990s, economic policies like NAFTA wreaked havoc on agricultural pricing and forced thousands of Mexican farmers to move northward; mass outsourcing to Central America meant that the only work available was poorly compensated industrial labor; and brutal drug violence, fueled by customer demand in the United States, devastated entire communities.
Oour politicians and national security agencies like to pretend this is a unilateral problem. All we need to do, they claim, is deport the undocumented migrants already living here and “secure the border.” Graff’s investigation speaks to the fallacy of the very idea that we can do—or ever have done—such a thing. As years of evidence have shown, constructing a physical boundary between the United States and Mexico is not an effective way to prevent illegal immigration. And the idea of “controlling the border” becomes ludicrous when the people supposedly enforcing it are the same ones surreptitiously allowing goods and people to enter the U.S. The transnational ties that bind us to the countries to our south are deep and enduring, forged by blood and history and economic necessity. Building a wall, or a host of new field offices or a miniature army won't do anything to change that.
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