Keeping a Wary Eye on the Growing Border Patrol, a Little History

By Nick Braune

According to the McAllen paper, The Monitor, some 5,000 people in the Rio Grande Valley applied for jobs with the Border Patrol in the last four months. That it is not completely surprising since the agency pays almost $50,000 a year and has embarrassingly low entry-level requirements, a high school diploma. (Compare that to other federal enforcement agencies which require a college degree at minimum.)

As I have reported in previous columns, there has also been some question, arising from within their own ranks, about how well the new recruits are being screened and mentored. And The Monitor has also noted lately that there were four Border Patrol officers in the Valley arrested for felonies in 2008. Five, if you count the brother of one of the arrested agents. The brother is also in the Patrol and was arrested in neighboring Zapata County for taking $23,000 in bribes from drug traffickers. Four of the five arrested last year were involved in drug trafficking.

Why is it important to keep an eye on the Border Patrol? Well, it has been beefed up massively as part of the “virtual wall” initiated by the Bush crowd, a trend which probably will continue under Obama and his conflicted Homeland Security nominee, Janet Napolitano. And the Patrol’s rapid growth is also ominous because it is taking place during this unethical period of “criminalizing” immigrant labor violations. (“Search” for several other online articles about the Border Patrol and “Operation Streamline” in the Texas Civil Rights Review site.)

The Patrol has traditionally been hapless, and its mission unclear. Founded in 1924, its intended mission was not really to prevent Mexican immigrants, but European and Asian immigrants, from entering. Also worth noting is that it has always policed the working class – note its conflict recently with the California Day Laborers Organizing Network, which is accusing the Border Patrol of blatant profiling and operating on the basis of a quota. One often hears the chant “Abajo La Migra” in farm worker circles, and it makes sense: founded as part of the Labor Department and staying there for its first 16 years, the Border Patrol has always kept labor it its ken and served the employers.

During the 1930s it remained “poorly staffed, poorly equipped, poorly administered and largely disorganized.” (For this article I’m following Juan Ramon Garcia’s classic book, Operation Wetback, written in 1980.) And the Patrol soon developed an embarrassing reputation, which still survives in Border areas, that it will enforce the laws except when powerful interests, certain growers, don’t want it to. Even the Border Patrol’s clothing was inconsistent (generally lacking the usual military or police uniforms).

But in 1940, the Immigration and Naturalization Services was moved from the Labor Department to the Justice Department. Garcia explains that Roosevelt, when WWII was nearing, was worried about Italians and Germans entering the country, not Mexicans. However, the Patrol also did not even do well in WWII. Why? First, many agents wanted to join the real military and quit, depleting the ranks. But secondly, the government, during the war, was happy to have documented and undocumented Mexicans coming into the U.S. to work, freeing up other workers to go into the military, so the Patrol agents were held in limbo, reinforcing their do-nothing image. And lastly, no doubt it was a little unclear what kind of important national security or law enforcement role the Patrol played.

Although we might think that joining the Justice Department would have been an ego boost for the Patrol, actually it made them feel even more like a second-rate enforcement agency, compared to the famed and focused FBI, for instance. And Garcia notes that the Justice Department did little to promote the Patrol — it is not very glamorous tracking down hungry and unarmed people.

Often half-blindfolding itself, it let in enough undocumented workers to serve the growers’ interests while also making sure there were not too many immigrants. And Garcia says, “It was not unusual for them to allow undocumented workers to roam the Valley and concentrate their efforts on keeping the undocumented away from the industrial jobs up North.” Could this — controlling the flow of labor north — be the origin of today’s “checkpoints,” the ugly, racially profiling, permanent roadblocks on highways about 80 miles north of the Border? (There were no such checkpoints coming south from Canada.)

It was really not until “Operation Wetback,” a racist military operation in 1954, coordinated by General “Jumping Joe” Swing, that the Border Patrol started to get some recognition and status. (Swing, a “professional Mexican hater” who served with General Pershing chasing Pancho Villa decades before, ran a military style sweep and a flashy publicity campaign against “wetbacks.” (Even President Eisenhower used this crude term, although he apparently apologized for it once.) Interestingly, today we hear of “border security” keeping terrorists from coming up from Mexico; in 1954, they warned us of communist infiltrators coming over the border.

General Swing, within a few short months, scattered hundreds of thousands of Mexicans — he bragged it was well over a million — deep into Mexico. Today we would call it “ethnic cleansing.” A thousand people a day were moved in and out of the McAllen detention camp. Swing even used ships, one called The Constitution, to drop immigrants off in Vera Cruz, 800 miles from the Tex-Mex border. (According to Garcia, The Patrol kindly let those who were dropped off have at least three dollars with them when they reached a part of Mexico they had never seen before.)

After participating in that touted 1954 success, the Border Patrol began to be seen as a bit more “respectable,” in the sense that it was said to have been successful in something. The uniforms got spiffier. But it has always been considered seedy, in the pocket of business, and it has had an inferiority complex and a chip on its shoulder; and consequently, when we see rapidly growing numbers of agents in the Rio Grande Valley, with vans and green uniforms and side arms, we feel uneasy.

[Much of this article appeared in the Mid-Valley Town Crier.]

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