The U.S. Border Patrol is a branch of the Department of Homeland Security. It represents a line of defense for America’s borders. Its agents identify, capture, and sanction illegal immigrants entering the country. They also target ”coyotes,” people smuggling other people. The key sectors of the Border Patrol exist along the Mexican border in the states of Texas and California. However, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Border Patrol have started focusing on people with terrorist ties entering through states bordering Canada. Agents patrol more than six thousand miles of land. They also oversee nearly two thousand miles of coastal border surrounding the Florida peninsula and Puerto Rico. They apprehend around one million people attempting to illegally enter the country per year.

History of the Border Patrol

In the late 1800s, anti-Chinese attitudes were growing. Chinese immigrants, eager to work for very low wages, were taking jobs away from Americans. In 1882, the government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act outlawing Chinese immigration. Those still desiring to enter the United States started paying Mexican smugglers to carry them across the border. The government had mounted guards patrol for illegal immigrants. Their station was in El Paso, Texas. They never numbered more than seventy-five. By 1915, a separate group formed—the Mounted Inspectors. They would ride on horseback along the U.S. border and work at designated inspection stations.

Citizens started claiming that Chinese were not the only problem. Immigrants flooding in from European countries and Mexico were also considered problems. The Mounted Inspectors were not enough. On May 28, 1924, Congress signed the Labor Appropriation Act, turning the Mounted Inspectors into the U.S. Border Patrol. Placed under the Bureau of Immigration, the agency employed more than four hundred agents, recruiting from the Texas Rangers and border town sheriffs departments. They gave employees a badge, a revolver, and a $1,680 salary.

The agency hired people with maritime experience in 1925 when they started patrolling seacoasts. In the early 1930s, agent responsibilities widened. Due to Prohibition laws, tracking liquor smugglers became a priority. During this time, the agency located a majority of workers along the Canadian border. Following 1933, the U.S. Border Patrol was under control of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization Service. An academy opened in El Paso, Texas, in 1934.

In this part of the 1900s, due to labor shortages, the government temporarily allowed Mexican immigrants to freely cross the border. This policy was halted following the return of many Americans from war, but the immigrants kept coming. The responsibility for agents, especially those on the southern border, shifted to impeding the flow of illegal Mexican immigrants through the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1960s, focus shifted to Florida as Cuban defectors, especially during the missile crisis, attempted to make it to U.S. soil. However, illegal Mexican immigration remained a primary concern. In the 1970s through the 1990s, they continued to flood into America for legitimate economic reasons, but the underground market for drugs such as marijuana and cocaine exploded. Immigrants smuggling in drugs sharply increased. Agents were no longer just concerned with immigrants but also with the illegal substances they were bringing.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11,2001, the federal government reorganized several departments into one larger organization, the Department of Homeland Security. The reorganization placed the Border Patrol under its guidance. Due to the connection between foreign terrorists and illegal immigration, funding for the Border Patrol increased. The agency budget rose to more than $4 billion—a 200% increase from the previous decade. The number of agents doubled to seven thousand, with plans to add an additional thousand each year until 2008.

Training and Employment

Border Patrol training takes place at an academy in Charleston, South Carolina.

Classes concern foreign languages, firearms proficiency, police techniques, immigration law, criminal law, and statutory law. After graduating, a recruit then spends twenty-four weeks completing on-the-job training. In the field, an agent may carry out line watch operations, sign cut, or patrol.

With line watching, an agent remains stationary at a specific border point while looking for illegal immigrants. This involves the use of binoculars or the more complex night vision goggles or scopes. Sign cutting involves tracking illegal immigrants while looking for disruptions in the natural terrain. This includes the identification and interpretation of human footprints, broken branches, and automobile tracks. Patrols involve watching for illegal immigrants by automobile, boat, helicopter, or plane. Electronic sensors may call agents carrying out any of these activities to a specific location. New technology allows agents to place electronic surveillance sensors at high-traffic areas. If an illegal or a coyote leading a group of immigrants across the border trips one, a signal alerts agents.

Specialized arms of the Border Patrol exist. One is the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC). This division is a national and international tactical division. They respond to special circumstances that arise within the U.S. borders. They also travel covertly around the world, working with other federal governments. Foreign governments use them to train their agents, to help in riot dissolution, and for drug cartel infiltration. Another division is the Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue group (BORSTAR). Agents in this group perform specialized rescues of agents and illegal immigrants caught in compromising situations in dangerous terrain.


The U.S. Border Patrol is receiving more attention than ever before. Funding multiplies as concerns about terrorism continue. In addition, agents have better education and a higher pay scale than at any point in history. However, the agency still faces a variety of problems. They include frequent military incursions, skilled drug traffickers, and a lack of personnel.

Research indicates that the Mexican military violates international law with armed incursions into the United States. More than one hundred incursions have been officially recognized. However, off the record, agents for the Border Patrol indicate that more than that have happened. Speculation exists that the Mexican military is involved with illegal drug trade on the border. The official position of the Mexican government is that their troops are helping in the war on drugs.

Aside from the Mexican military, agents constantly deal with skilled drug smugglers, also referred to as ”mules.” Smugglers, sometimes working for cartels, import drugs produced in Canada and Mexico. They also bring in drugs, such as cocaine, for distributors located in areas such as Brazil and Columbia. Apprehending them is problematic. Using the same technology as agents, they have the ability to easily evade agents before being spotted. Regardless, agents do have success against some smugglers. In 2001 alone, agents seized more than eighteen thousand pounds of cocaine and more than one million pounds of marijuana. These appear to be large numbers, but researchers speculate they are miniscule in comparison to what actually gets into the United States.

Critics believe we could catch more illegal immigrants if the border patrol had more agents. Though the size of the Border Patrol increased following September 11, 2001, they say it has not increased enough. Some citizens have taken matters into their own hands. Groups such as the Arizona Minutemen are designating themselves volunteer agents. The goal of these groups is to help stop not only traditional Mexican illegal immigrants but also new waves of illegal immigrants with possible terrorist ties from areas such as Asia, Syria, and Iran. The value of these groups and their ability to formally work with the Border Patrol remains in question.

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