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Preventing Illegal Border Crossings

BP SUV patrolling near San Diego border.

On May 26, 1924, Congress made sweeping changes to immigration policy for the U.S. The Congress enacted legislation that imposed numeric limits on immigration and created a category of “entry without inspection,” labeling those who cross U.S. borders without being processed at official ports of entry. Two days later, Congress designated funding for “additional land-border patrol” to enforce “the laws regulating immigration of aliens into the United States, including the contract labor laws.”  This became the Border Patrol, which today is one of the operational offices within CBP.

Exigencies at the U.S. borders quickly led to an expansion of the role of the Border Patrol. The legal prohibition against alcohol increased illicit cross border activity during the 1920s, and soon the Border Patrol was cooperating with other federal law enforcement to prevent smuggling. By 1926, the Border Patrol had almost doubled in size from its initial cadre of around 100 men. A substantial force was deployed around Detroit, which had been identified as smuggling hub for both liquor and illegal aliens. In the years leading up and throughout World War II, the Border Patrol became a frontline against espionage and “fifth column” infiltrators.

After World War II, the Border Patrol saw its enforcement parameters expand as it refocused on the enforcement of immigration laws. In 1952, the Border Patrol is allowed to patrol all territory within 25 miles of a land border, as well as permitted to board and search a conveyance for illegal aliens.

The 1960s witnessed a different type of threat, and the Border Patrol was enlisted to protect the American public. During the summer of 1961, a series of hijackings occurred that seized air flights to take them across the border and outside of the United States. To mitigate this threat, President John Kennedy announced at a press conference that he had “ordered today on a number of our planes a Border Patrol man who will ride on [commercial flights]” to interdict hijackers. Six months later, the Border Patrol began training specialized for eighteen volunteer flight inspectors for the Federal Aviation Administration. (A subsequent “sky marshal program” was instituted by the Customs Service at the direction of President Richard Nixon.)

In 1990, the Border Patrol’s role in national security was expanded when Congress passed another immigration act. This legislation defined terrorism and listed it as a cause for inadmissibility and removal. With the immigration inspectors at the ports of entry, the Border Patrol took on the responsibility of stopping terrorists at the border. This legislation was strengthened following the first bombing of New York City’s World Trade Center in 1993.

The second attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, brought more changes to the work of the Border Patrol. Within 36 hours of 9/11, the agencies that would merge into CBP began working together to secure the nation and return travel and trade to normality. Under the auspices of Operation Safe Passage, hundreds of Border Patrol agents were relocated to airports across the country as part of this effort.

The 9/11 attacks on America led the federal government to redefine security for its international borders. During the time period between 9/11 and the creation of CBP, emphasis moved to gathering information and assessing risks before cargo, travelers and their transport reached the border. As noted by (future) CBP Commissioner Robert C. Bonner, the U.S. could “no longer afford to think of the border merely as a physical line separating one nation from the other.” Referred to as “pushing the border outward,” this paradigm was designed to identify potential threats and address them before they reach America.

When the Border Patrol was transferred to CBP in March 2003, it became an essential part of this strategy. CBP expanded the Border Patrol into a strategically focused, all-threats, deterrence, detection and interdiction corps. Growing to more than 21,000 agents, the Border Patrol protects nearly 6,000 miles of Mexican and Canadian international land borders and the coastal waters surrounding the Florida peninsula and Puerto Rico. In addition to preventing illegal border crossings, Border Patrol agents provide humanitarian and rescue services to individuals on the border, as well as work in partnership with state, local, and tribal law enforcement.

To support comprehensive border security activities, CBP has built the roads, fences, border barriers and other infrastructure. The extended capability has substantially deterred illegal entries, particularly on the Southwest border. The number of Border Patrol encounters with people trying to enter the country illegally dropped by 78 percent between fiscal years 2000 and 2012. The Border Patrol also increased drug seizures. Now, CBP-wide seizures total nearly six tons of drugs each day.

Last modified: 
July 30, 2014