February 10, 2021 – Since its creation in 1924, the U.S. Border Patrol has been steeped in institutional racism and has committed violent acts with near impunity. The racial animus of U.S. immigration policy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century formed the foundation for the agency. Federal laws banning Asian immigration were followed by the national origins quota system, which prioritized northern and western Europeans over the rest of the world. While not included in the original quotas, Mexicans, who previously could travel freely across the U.S.-Mexico border, began to experience increasing restrictions in the 1920s.
Congress created the Border Patrol in 1924 to patrol the northern and southern borders between ports of entry. Many officers came from organizations with a history of racial violence and brutality, including the Ku Klux Klan and the Texas Rangers, carrying over the culture of a racist “brotherhood” into the new agency. In the Border Patrol’s early days, it focused on the unlawful entry of Asian and European immigrants. However, in the 1930s enforcement began to shift to Mexican citizens entering along the southern border.
A culture of racism within the Border Patrol has persisted throughout its history. Repeated reports have surfaced of agents using racial slurs, sexual comments, and other offensive language. Various lawsuits and studies have demonstrated the Border Patrol’s use of racial profiling in stops within the interior of the United States. Agents have maintained connections to the white supremacist movement and the paramilitary SWAT-style Border Patrol Tactical Unit has been deployed to crack down on protests of police brutality against Black people.
The Border Patrol began as a small agency, but its budget and deportations quickly skyrocketed. Over time, the agency targeted Mexican immigrants more aggressively, using a strategy of intensive enforcement directed at high-traffic areas. Beginning in the 1980s, the Border Patrol began a profound process of militarization and increased collaboration with other law enforcement agencies. The government began an official “prevention through deterrence” strategy in 1994, with the goal of making unlawful entry to the United States so dangerous as to discourage people from trying. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks led to the restructuring of immigration agencies, putting the Border Patrol under the newly created Department of Homeland Security, further increasing the growth and militarization of the agency.
The Border Patrol continues to perpetuate violence in the form of killing, sexual assault, excessive force, and verbal degradation—all with impunity. Despite these problems, the Border Patrol has lowered hiring standards to pursue rapid staff expansion. The Border Patrol often perpetrates violence through less direct means, including medical abuse and neglect, inhumane custody conditions, and family separation.
Since its founding nearly 100 years ago, the Border Patrol has become a sprawling and immensely powerful law enforcement agency with a deeply entrenched culture of racism and abuse. Nevertheless, the agency has received ample funding from Congress and enjoys an extraordinary degree of independence. Revamping the agency will involve fundamentally reshaping how Border Patrol agents view themselves in relation to the different communities and groups of people they encounter along the border.