When the United States Border Patrol started in the early 1920s, the primary targets of the nation's immigration laws were not illegal Mexican immigrants.
In fact, Mexican agricultural workers, who were valued by American farmers, were exempt from key restrictions, namely the national quota system that strictly limited the number of immigrants allowed to enter the U.S. each year.
However, by the middle of the 20th century, the U.S. Border Patrol had shifted its focus and was concentrating its efforts on policing undocumented Mexican immigrants, a practice that continues to this day, UCLA historian Kelly Lytle Hernández writes in "Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol" (University of California Press, 2010).
Drawing on long-neglected archival sources in both the U.S. and Mexico, Lytle Hernández uncovers the little-known history of how Mexican immigrants slowly became the primary focus of U.S. immigration law enforcement and demonstrates how racial profiling of Mexicans developed in the Border Patrol's enforcement of the nation's immigration laws.
"This narrow enforcement of U.S. immigration restrictions transformed the broad political category of the illegal immigrant into a racial caste system that currently ensnares persons of Mexican descent in the United States," says Lytle Hernández, an associate professor of history.
The results of these policies are evident today in the debate over Arizona's recently enacted law allowing police officers to check anyone's immigration status. While the law's supporters argue that racial bias will not result from local police assuming immigration enforcement activities, Lytle Hernández argues that "race is at the heart of U.S. immigration control efforts."
Launched in 1924 as the law-enforcement arm of the U.S. Immigration Service, the Border Patrol was tasked with enforcing the federal National Origins Act, which established a national quota system aimed at restricting immigration from certain geographical regions and countries — not including Mexico, whose surplus of farm labor was seen as a boon by U.S. agricultural interests.
"The national quota system privileged immigrants from Western Europe and attempted to stop or dramatically curtail immigration from all other areas of the world," Lytle Hernández writes. "However, the powerful lobby of southwestern agribusinessmen tempered the quest to create a 'whites-only' immigration policy by aggressively supporting an exemption for immigrant workers from Mexico."
In the agency's early years, Border Patrol officers policed a wide range of immigrants, and with little supervision or guidance from federal authorities, they were left to develop their own enforcement practices and priorities. In California and the Pacific Northwest, officers focused on policing undocumented Asians, particularly Chinese, as well as Europeans. In Florida, they searched for Haitians trying to enter the U.S. illegally.
And in Texas, despite the law exempting many Mexican workers, officers set their sites on undocumented Mexicans, although "they could have raided brothels or policed the primary racial targets of U.S. immigration restrictions, namely Asians," Lytle Hernández writes.
Among the reasons, she says, was the fact that many local officers responsible for enforcing immigration laws were working-class white men who "not only opposed unregulated Mexican immigration but gained significant power in their local communities by policing the region's primary labor force."
That policing tended to take place less at the border itself than along the backcountry trails and borderland roadways, where Border Patrol officers used a "Mexican appearance" as the rationale for stopping and questioning hundreds of thousands of individuals, an approach that placed the broader Mexican American community under suspicion.
In addition, Lytle Hernández writes, these officers were not averse to using immigration law enforcement to violently defend the racial divides between Mexicans and whites in the borderlands. In fact, the Border Patrol became something of a refuge for officers with violent tendencies.
In "Migra!", she relates the story of Texas Border Patrol officer Harlon Carter, who as a teenager shot and killed Ramón Casiano, a 15-year-old Mexican American, during a dispute. Carter was sentenced to serve up to three years in jail, but an appeals court later reversed his conviction on a technicality.
Carter later followed in his father's footsteps and joined the Border Patrol, directing the agency's Operation Wetback in 1954, a multi-state sweep that aimed to capture and deport undocumented Mexican immigrants. After retiring, he led the National Rifle Association toward a more radical position on gun-ownership rights.
Lytle Hernández also recounts the story of Patrol Inspector Charles Askins, who once boasted that his official body count was "twenty seven, not counting (blacks) and Mexicans." Despite his violent background, in 1935 Askins would become a firearms instructor at the Border Patrol Training School in El Paso, Texas, through which all new recruits passed.
As the hosts of the training school, the Texas officers had a major influence on the development of Border Patrol tactics and priorities, leading to increased enforcement against undocumented Mexican immigrants nationwide.
Over time, the increased targeting of illegal Mexican workers was influenced by other important historical factors as well, says Lytle Hernández.
Prior to World War II, the majority of Border Patrol officers worked along the U.S.–Canada border. But the Bracero Program, launched in 1942 by the U.S. and Mexican governments to allow Mexican workers to enter the U.S. as temporary contract laborers, helped shift the Border Patrol's national focus toward the U.S.–Mexico border, Lytle Hernández writes.
The government-sanctioned program brought more than 2 million Mexican workers into the U.S. Only healthy, landless and surplus male agricultural workers from Mexican regions not experiencing a labor shortage were qualified to apply.
But many Mexican workers who didn't meet the requirements of the Bracero Program tried to illegally cross into the U.S.
During these years, the Mexican government demanded that the U.S. Border Patrol intensify its efforts to deport undocumented Mexican immigrants who were not part of the program. The Border Patrol began raiding farms and worked with Mexican authorities to deport Mexican nationals to the interior of Mexico.
In 1953, Mexico also established its first national border patrol to discourage Mexicans from crossing into the U.S. Mexican authorities, Lytle Hernández writes, were key partners in policing unsanctioned Mexican immigration.
"While the Mexican government demanded protection for Mexican braceros from discrimination and abuse by U.S. employers, Mexican border officials helped the U.S. Border Patrol to erect fences designed to reduce illegal immigration by making undocumented border crossings more dangerous," she writes.
Not only were deported Mexican migrants abandoned far from their homes and the border, Lytle Hernández says, but the fences forced migrants to cross the border in more isolated areas. During the 1950s, patrol officers increasingly began to find dead migrants in the deserts and mountains.
The raids, and the increasing number of deportations, enraged American farmers who benefited from Mexican labor and who had relied on Border Patrol officers to allow workers to stay in the country until harvest season had ended.
While farmers decried the loss of workers and criticized the Border Patrol for racial profiling, Mexican American groups, including the American G.I. Forum, an influential Mexican American veterans organization, supported the increased enforcement, arguing that undocumented Mexican immigrants were taking good jobs away from Mexican Americans.
In the summer of 1954, the Border Patrol launched Operation Wetback to apprehend illegal Mexican immigrants, setting up roadblocks in California and western Arizona. As part of the campaign, officers nabbed almost 11,000 illegal immigrants in one week. Officers also fanned out into Texas, Illinois and Mississippi in search of undocumented immigrants and by the end of the summer, they declared that 1 million Mexican nationals had been caught. "The day of the wetback is over," officials stated.
In "Migra!", Lytle Hernández argues that Operation Wetback was more a publicity stunt than an actual intensification of immigration control efforts.
"Operation Wetback of 1954 was little more than a larger than usual deployment of the Border Patrol's familiar and failing tactics of migration control," she writes, adding that patrol officials also inflated the number of Mexicans caught.
The number of deportations dropped in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Instead of trying to deport large numbers of Mexican nationals, the Border Patrol focused instead on arresting illegal immigrants who were trying to smuggle drugs into the U.S. or commit other crimes along the border.
The "criminal alien" in the U.S.–Mexico border region, wrote Lytle Hernández, became the primary target of U.S. immigration law enforcement efforts.
Border Patrol officers found very few criminal aliens but they launched a major publicity campaign to overhaul their public image as a crime-fighting organization. Congress supported the shift from migration control to crime control by linking deportation to non-immigration crimes and providing additional resources to the Border Patrol for drug interdiction.
The focus on criminal aliens also linked U.S. immigration law enforcement to the "war on crime" launched by President Richard Nixon.
"The expansion of the Border Patrol since the 1960s had less to do with immigration and more to do with the rise of crime and punishment as a key site of social control in the United States during the late-twentieth century," Lytle Hernández writes.
As part of her research for the book, Lytle Hernández dug through boxes stored in archives, garages and closets, where U.S. Border Patrol records had sat undisturbed for decades.
She also conducted research at abandoned archives in Mexico City. When she began her research, the historical records of the Mexican Department of Migration (Instituto Nacional de Migración) had yet to be sorted and organized; they had survived years of disregard in a forgotten and leaky warehouse.
Lytle Hernández continues to work with the department and Mexican scholars to organize 4,000 boxes, which contain an estimated 400,000 files.
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