A Thankless Task

'Migra!' places the U.S. Border Patrol in context

If you had to choose one book as a starting place for an intelligent discussion about immigration issues, you would do well to begin with Migra! by UCLA assistant professor of history Kelly Lytle Hernandez. Hernandez has written the first critical history of the United States Border Patrol—and it's eye-opening.

A vast mythology hangs over the Border Patrol—some manufactured by the agency itself, some created by its detractors, and some by its supporters. Migra! strips away the murk and presents a portrait of a perennially struggling federal law-enforcement agency that has never really had a clear mission regarding how it was supposed to do its job.

The origins of the Border Patrol lay at the darkest intersections of race, immigration, economics, politics and labor in the United States. Established in May 1924, the agency's beginnings were inauspicious. With little money and a broad, poorly defined mandate, the Border Patrol originally had no statutory authority to act. The first officers were on station by July 1924, but it wasn't until more than a year after it was established that the Border Patrol was finally vested with any sort of police powers.

Prior to Prohibition, there was little in the way of law enforcement on a federal level. Much of this was due to the opposition of Southerners to any kind of federal authority. This legacy of the Civil War (racism, rejection of government authority) has undercurrents that echo through to the present day and is exemplified by current debates in Arizona about state versus federal enforcement authority over immigration.

Mexican immigration in the early 20th century was mostly an informal back-and-forth economy that arose out of the failed promises of the Mexican Revolution. As the Mexican elite focused on rebuilding the country after years of horrific bloodshed, the poor and the unskilled remained disenfranchised. Manuel Gamio, an anthropologist and adviser to the Mexican government, observed that the emigration of poor campesinos to work in the north created three benefits for Mexico.

First, economic reality was that the average Mexican family needed roughly $123.75 a month to be above the "misery line." Workers actually made something more like $17.67 a month. Those who went to work in the U. S. could make around $105 a month. Doing the numbers, it was a no-brainer that labor emigration benefited those Mexicans who otherwise wouldn't have an economic chance in hell.

Next, Gamio also saw emigration as a prudent political strategy. It functioned as a safety valve for poverty-stricken people who otherwise might be tempted to engage in violence.

Third, emigration could be a way to remake and modernize Mexico socially and culturally through Mexican workers who gained North American sensibilities and material goods while laboring in el Norte, and ostensibly returned, bringing those values and goods with them.

American farmers and ranchers took advantage of and benefited from this situation, drawing on this convenient pool of cheap labor.

The Border Patrol, birthed from a past that included the violent and racist Texas Rangers, had little direction from the federal government in its early days. The agency quickly became regionalized, and policies and personnel were drawn from the local area. The Border Patrol became a tool of local farmers and ranchers for keeping poor Mexican immigrants in line, often through violence.

Migra! charts the evolution of the Border Patrol into a regional policing force that utilized violence, various social controls and eventually technology to keep unsanctioned Mexicans in line. Mass labor migration was over time transformed into mass illegal immigration, criminalizing poor brown people. This created the market for an immigrant-smuggling industry early on. The later Bracero Program was an attempt to legitimize certain workers demanded by American agribusiness, but the program ultimately failed and created a whole new raft of problems.

While direct violence declined somewhat, new enforcement strategies forced immigrants into more isolated regions, allowing nature to exact a human toll of death and misery.

The story that emerges in Migra! is surprisingly complex and nuanced. It was enlightening to learn that we have been doing the same dance around these issues for almost 100 years.

The Border Patrol was handed a thankless, impossible task, and they are literally trapped in the middle by the forces of history. Hernández has done a great service by exploring this previously unknown facet of border history and putting it square in the middle of its cultural, historical and human context.

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