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The Father of the U.S. Border Patrol

History of the U.S. Border Patrol

Recently, documents about the U.S. Border Patrol's (USBP) early history were discovered at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC.  Many of the documents found provide unequivocal evidence that will correct historical inaccuracies previously accepted as USBP history throughout the decades.  These documents will illustrate the proud and rich history of the USBP and the individuals who shaped it.  This web posting is the first in a series designed to share USBP history, which until recently, had been lost in time.

The Father of the Border Patrol

Frank Walton Berkshire (1870-1934)
Frank Walton Berkshire (1870-1934)

Frank W. Berkshire was born in Petersburg, Kentucky on October 22, 1870. [1] By 1901, Berkshire had become a Chinese inspector with the Immigration Service, assigned to Chicago, Illinois.[2]  In 1903, Berkshire transferred to Brooklyn, New York, still as a Chinese inspector.[3]  By 1911, Berkshire had returned to El Paso with the title of Supervising Inspector.[4]  By 1918, Berkshire had become the Supervising Inspector of the Mexican Border District, what is now referred to as the Southwest Border.[5]  It was in this role that Berkshire would develop and refine a plan to address the growing problem of aliens circumventing the ports-of-entry and illegally entering the United States.

As early as February 1918, Berkshire had informed the Commissioner-General of the Bureau of Immigration of the need to form a unit with the intent of preventing violations of "…Customs, Immigration, Public Health and other Federal Statutes…" by patrolling the border.[6]  Berkshire was familiar with the mounted inspectors (also called mounted guard and mounted watchmen) and the Chinese inspectors.[7]  In addition, there was an immigration patrol of which Berkshire thought highly.[8]  His solution to control the border was not a suggestion to evolve or increase the size of any of those forces, but instead to create something entirely new, a border patrol. 

On April 29, 1918, after numerous discussions with the Commissioner-General, Berkshire submitted a "Proposal to Establish an Immigration Service on the Land Boundaries."[9]  This first proposal recommended that a force of 1,608 men would be necessary to patrol the border.[10]  The plan suggested patrolmen should be paid between $900 to $1,500 per year dependent upon whether the government provided a horse and equipment ($15,000 to $25,000 today).[11]  As the Supervising Inspector of the Mexican Border, his plan did not include staffing estimates for the Northern Border.  In addition, no records have been located to indicate a similar Supervising Inspector existed for the Canadian Border.

Berkshire's proposal sparked a series of meetings in Washington, DC that included representatives from the Departments of Justice, State, War, Treasury, Navy, and Labor.[12]  The proposal was unanimously agreed upon and declared the most practicable that had been suggested.[13] Interestingly, the Commissioner-General stated that the Bureau of Immigration had submitted a very similar plan to the Department of Labor in 1914 and 1915, which the Department had approved.[14]  However, the author of the plan was never identified, nor records of the plan located in the National Archives.

On June 7, 1918, Berkshire submitted his first detailed plan to implement the "proposed Border Patrol."[15]  It is in this document that the "Border Patrol" was presented as a proper noun, with capital letters.  Berkshire's proposal included numerous patrol inspector ranks, guards, cooks, clerks and stablemen.  The plan also included equipment such as automobiles, trucks, motorcycles, wagons, and horses.  The plan specified the locations and numbers for all personnel and equipment.  The total came to 1,950 employees at a cost of $4 million, including equipment ($66 million today).[16]

On October 6, 1918, the Commissioner-General further defined the need to create a patrol force on the Canadian and Mexican Borders to enforce the Passport-Permit Regulations, Immigration and Chinese Exclusion Laws, and to "aid in the enforcement of other distinctly wartime measures."[17]

On November 3, 1918, in response to the Commissioner-General's directive to modify the earlier plan to the "least possible number of men," Berkshire submitted another proposal to create a Border Patrol of only 264 men.[18]  To save additional money, Berkshire's plan recommended absorbing the 71 mounted watchmen employed or authorized into the Border Patrol so that only 193 new personnel would need to be hired.[19]  His plan also specified where to station inspectors, by city, on the Southern Border.  The plan was reduced from the original $4 million to a mere $700,000 ($11.5 million today).[20]  The Commissioner-General agreed with the plan and submitted it to the Secretary of Labor on November 8, 1918.[21]  The Commissioner-General's memorandum recommended that $500,000 budgeted to enforce the Passport Permit Regulations be used to fund the Border Patrol.[22] 

On November 12, 1918, Acting Secretary John W. Abercrombie approved the plan and authorized the creation of the Border Patrol within the Bureau of Immigration.[23]  However, as history shows, the Border Patrol was neither created nor funded in 1918, even with the Acting Secretary's approval. 

By 1920, there were few Chinese inspectors and mounted watchmen, and the immigration patrol had been disbanded, yet Berkshire still saw a need for more to be done to address people surreptitiously entering the United States.  In an effort to define the Immigration Service's responsibility and to frame the problem, Berkshire explained that nearly every person arrested near the border for violating an agricultural, customs, health or prohibition law, had also violated an immigration law.[24]  Berkshire expressed concern another Federal agency would overshadow the Immigration Service and would inevitably take the lead for border enforcement.[25]

From 1920 to 1922, a committee comprised of representatives from the Public Health Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Customs Service, the Prohibition Enforcement Service, the Federal Horticultural Board, and the Immigration Service held meetings about how best to approach enforcement near the border.[26]  The Commissioner-General of the Bureau of Immigration was commonly present at these meetings and Berkshire's Border Patrol concept formed the agency's viewpoint.[27]  By October 1922, the committee recommended the formation of a border patrol.[28]

On May 28, 1924, Congress passed an appropriations bill (Public Law 68-153) providing funding to increase the "land-border patrol" functions the Bureau of Immigration had been conducting, in one manner or another, for years.[29]  Using this funding, the vision of Frank W. Berkshire was realized when the Commissioner-General ordered the hiring of patrol inspectors, and the Immigration Border Patrol was born.

[1] Ancestry.com

[2] Page from 1901 Official Register of the United States

[3] Page from 1903 Official Register of the United States

[4] Page from 1911 Official Register of the United States

[5] National Archives records, February 5, 1918 Berkshire memorandum to the Commissioner General

[6] Ibid

[7] National Archives records, July 5, 1913 Berkshire memorandum to the Commissioner General

[8] National Archives records, August 4, 1920 Berkshire memorandum to the Commissioner General

[9] National Archives records, April 29, 1918 Berkshire memorandum to the Commissioner General

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] National Archives records, April 30, 1918 Commissioner General memorandum to the Secretary

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] National Archives records, June 7, 1918 Berkshire memorandum to the Commissioner General

[16] Ibid

[17] National Archives records, October 6, 1918 Commissioner General letter to the field

[18] National Archives records, November 3, 1918 Berkshire memorandum to the Commissioner General

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid

[21] National Archives records, November 8, 1918 Commissioner General memorandum to the Secretary

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] National Archives records, August 4, 1920 Berkshire memorandum to the Commissioner General

[25] Ibid

[26] National Archives records, August 26, 1921 Secretary of Treasury memorandum to the Secretary of Labor

[27] National Archives records, May 27, 1922  Commissioner General memorandum to Berkshire

[28] National Archives records, October 4, 1922 Berkshire memorandum to the Commissioner General

[29] Public Law 68-153

Last modified: 
May 24, 2018