U.S. Border Patrol

Identification: Federal law-enforcement agency with the primary responsibility of protecting U.S. borders against unlawful crossings
Also known as: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
Date: Established on May 28, 1924
Significance: Since its 1924 creation, the U.S. Border Patrol has served as the primary federal law-enforcement agency responsible for the prevention and detection of illegal immigrants, drugs, and contraband entering the United States along both the Mexican and Canadian borders. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the newly formed Department of Homeland Security merged a number of federal law-enforcement agencies with the Border Patrol to create a new combined agency called U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
The U.S. Border Patrol is a uniformed federal lawenforcement agency that was placed under the control of the Department of Homeland Security in 2001. After the terrorist attacks on the United States during that year, the Border Patrol was combined with three other federal law-enforcement agencies—the U.S. Customs inspection division, the Immigration and Naturalization inspection division, and the Department of Agriculture’s animal and plant inspection service—to form a new federal law-enforcement agency known as U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Since 2001, the Border Patrol’s primary mission has remained to detect undocumented aliens, illegal drugs, and other types of illegal contraband and prevent them from entering the United States. The reorganized Border Patrol has also been responsible for detecting, preventing from entering the country, and apprehending suspected terrorists and their weapons. All these difficult tasks have made the Border Patrol one of the most important federal law-enforcement agencies in the United States, especially in the context of the nation’s ongoing struggles against drugs and terrorism.
In the national war on drugs, the Border Patrol has continuously distinguished itself as one of the most effective law-enforcement agencies in the United States. The agency is particularly important in the struggle against rising drug-smuggling efforts along the southwestern border and has become one of the key agencies on the frontline of the war on drugs. In 2007 alone, Border Patrol agents seized more than 14,000 pounds of cocaine and more than 1.8 million pounds of marijuana. The drugs confiscated in that one year had an estimated street value of more than $1.6 billion.
The Border Patrol has also played a key role in apprehending undocumented aliens. In 2007, the agency’s agents arrested more than 850,000 people who attempted illegally to enter the United States. Over the next two years, this figure declined, but that was because of improved enforcement methods, improved infrastructure and management, and technological advances.

Historical Overview


In 1904, during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential administration, the U.S. commissioner general of immigration assigned mounted inspectors to patrol the U.S.-Mexican border. The federal government initially hired only seventy-five men to patrol the nearly two-thousand-mile-long southern border of the United States, riding horses that themen personally owned.With occasional exceptions, this work was relatively uneventful over the next decade and a half, but it changed forever at midnight January 16, 1920. At that time, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect prohibiting the sale, importation, manufacture, and transportation of all alcoholic beverages.
With the onset of Prohibition, foreign borders became important routes for smugglers willing to stop at nothing to get their illegal products to their destinations. The smuggling of alcohol into the United States became a hugely profitable criminal enterprise during the 1920’s. Not surprisingly, dealing with smugglers soon became a major problem for the badly outnumbered mounted border inspectors. To deal with the problem, Congress passed the Labor Appropriation Act on May 28, 1924. That law officially established the U.S. Border Patrol as a federal law-enforcement agency.
In 1925, Congress expanded the mission of the Border Patrol to include protection of Florida’s long shoreline and the region along the Gulf coast. The government then recruited 450 new Border Patrol agents and assigned most of them to the long Canadian border to stop the smuggling of illegal liquor into the United States from the north. Confronted by this strengthened Border Patrol presence on the Canadian border, many bootleggers shifted their smuggling operations to the Mexican border. Many of them used mules to carry alcoholic beverages directly across the Rio Grande. Meanwhile, the federal government also became concerned with increased smuggling of undocumented immigrants into the United States for profit. To deal with all these challenges, the Border Patrol continued to hire more agents.
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recombined the Bureau of Immigration and the Bureau of Naturalization into the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), under which the Border Patrol officially fell. Late the following year, the first Border Patrol Academy opened in, El Paso, Texas. In 1940, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was moved from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice. Immediately afterward, 712 new agents were added, raising their total number to more than 1,500 officers.
During World War II, the Patrol played an integral role in national security by guarding alien detention camps, protecting diplomats, restricting border immigrant entries, and working with the U.S. Coast Guard to secure the nation’s borders and coasts against potential enemy combatants. Border Patrol agents had long used both horses and motorized vehicles with radios to patrol the borders. During this period, aircraft were added and quickly became an essential part of Border Patrol security operations.
Meanwhile, the jurisdiction of the Border Patrol continued to expand. In 1952, agents were first permitted, for the first time, to board and search transportation vehicles for illegal immigrants anywhere within the United States, not just along the borders. As the nation continued to grow, so did the staffing levels investigative and patrol efforts of the agency. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the Border Patrol had evolved into one of the nation’s most important federal law-enforcement agencies.
U.S. Border Patrol

Border Patrol officers inspecting vehicles entering the United States from Mexico at Nogales, Arizona, in early 2005. Since the Border Patrol was placed under the new Department of Homeland Security in 2003, inspections at border crossings have become more intensive—along both the Mexican and Canadian borders. Inspectors are making increasing use of technology in their work and still use dogs trained to sniff out drugs and explosives. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Mission and Operations


Throughout its history, the Border Patrol has continued to change dramatically. However, its chief mission has always been to detect and deter aliens attempting to enter the United States illegally. In cooperation with law-enforcement officers from such federal agencies as U.S. Customs, Immigration and Naturalization (INS), and the Department of Agriculture, Border Patrol agents have helped to maintain operational entry points into the United States and to facilitate the entry of legal immigrants and goods while preventing the illegal trafficking of people, drugs, and other types of contraband.
In addition to managing legal entry points along the borders, the Border Patrol has been responsible for patrolling the nearly six thousand miles of the Mexican and Canadian land borders and more than two thousand miles of coastal waters surrounding Puerto Rico and Florida’s peninsula. Many agents work in isolated regions, often in difficult terrain and extreme weather conditions.
By the year 2009, the Border Patrol had experienced massive growth. After starting with only a handful of mounted agents who patrolled uninhabited areas along U.S. borders, the agency expanded to employ more than seventeen thousand agents and more than three thousand support personnel. Much of this growth took place after the mid-1990’s, as Congress increased the agency’s funding to improve border security. Along with its increased funding, the Border Patrol was required to gives its agents nineteen weeks of training at its academy in Artesia, New Mexico, which is affiliated with the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) located in Glynco, Georgia.
The Border Patrol accomplishes its primary mission of preventing immigrants from entering the United States illegally through several means:
  • continuous surveillance of international borders and shorelines
  • questioning informants and recently apprehended persons
  • rapid response to electronic sensor alarms along border fences and aircraft sightings
  • interpreting and following human tracks
Other major activities that agents carry out include conducting city patrol and transportation checks, investigating drug and contraband smuggling operations, and conducting traffic checkpoints along highways leading from border areas. During the decade leading up to 2009, agents apprehended nearly 13 million aliens attempting to enter the United States illegally. This number is especially impressive in view of the many deserts, canyons, and mountains straddling the borders. Border Patrol police work differs from that of typical urban police officers in large part because of the added dangers of wildlife and harsh weather conditions. To make accomplishing their difficult mission possible, Border Patrol agents make extensive use of such high-tech equipment as electronic sensors, video monitors, and night vision scopes to detect people crossing the borders. Meanwhile, agents continue to patrol the borders on foot, on horseback, and in various types of vehicles including suburban utility vehicles, snowmobiles, allterrain vehicles, boats, airplanes, and helicopters. They also use unmanned aerial vehicles operated by remote control computers.
Paul M. Klenowski

Further Reading
  • Andreas, Peter. Border Games: Policing the U.S.- Mexico Divide. 2d ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2009. Scholarly work offering insights into the many political forces involved with U.S.-Mexican border patrol work. Provides details about how corruption and the drug trade have been variables in border policies.
  • Bullock, Jane, and George Haddow. Introduction to Homeland Security. 2d ed. Burlington, Mass.: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2006. Introductory text offering a comprehensive overview of the Department of Homeland Security. Examines the new cabinet department’s various agencies, including the Border Patrol, and their missions as they pertain to border security and combating terrorism.
  • Maril, Robert. Patrolling Chaos: The U.S. Border Patrol in Deep South Texas. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2006. Offers an ethnographic account of Border Patrol work on the frontlines of the U.S.-Mexican border, Documenting the lives of a handful of border patrol agents, Maril gives explicit details of positive and negative aspects of their work, including the element of danger that is unavoidable.
  • Miller, Connie C. The U.S. Border Patrol: Guarding the Nation. New York: Capstone Press, 2008. Concise explanation of the history and mission of the Border Patrol as a law-enforcement entity. Excellent introductory work that provides details about the qualifications and importance of this highly regarded federal law-enforcement agency.
  • Morgan, Lee. The Reaper’s Line: Life and Death on the Mexican Border. Tucson, Ariz.: Rio Nuevo, 2006. Firsthand account of work on the frontline of the U.S.-Mexican border by a former Border Patrol agent with three decades of experience. Morgan chronicles true-life tales of both success and horror stories along the border.
  • Pacheco, Alex, and Erich Krauss. On the Line: Inside the U.S. Border Patrol. New York: Citadel Press, 2005. Told from the viewpoint of recently employed Border Patrol agents, this book provides details about the recruitment, training, and daily life of agents, as well as insights into the general problem of illegal border crossings.
  • White, Richard, and Kevin Collins. The United States Department of Homeland Security: An Overview. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2006. Scholarly but nonetheless accessible examination of the newly formed Department of Homeland Security, providing details about the department’s various agencies and the role of the Border Patrol in combating terrorism.
See also: Border fence; Bureau of Immigration, U.S.; Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S.; Coast Guard, U.S.; Drug trafficking; El Paso incident; Homeland Security, Department of; Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S.; 9/11 and U.S. immigration policy; Patriot Act of 2001.

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