Saturday, February 25, 2006

US Border Enforcement: From Horseback to High Tech

Deborah Meyers of the Migration Policy Institute has published a fine little essay on the history of the US Border Patrol, whose growth has skyrocketed over the last 30 years. Her historical perspective affords a refreshing alternative to the usual heated rhetoric on the topic. For example, I think it's easy to forget that there was no formal immigration enforcement on the Mexican border before 1904, and that:
Mexicans were able to enter the United States without quantitative limit prior to the 1965 amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act (implemented in 1968). And it was not until 1976 that Congress extended the strict, 20,000 per-country limit and preference system to countries in the Western Hemisphere, including Mexico.

By the late 1970s, migration pressures mounted in Mexico due to the new numerical restrictions. Apprehensions and deportations increased dramatically from earlier in the decade to more than one million annually. President Carter introduced a plan in 1977 to address illegal immigration that included enhanced enforcement efforts at the US-Mexico border.

By 1978, Congress had appropriated funds for 2,580 new Border Patrol staff, accounting for one-quarter of total Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) staff at that time.
So the frenzy about closing the southern border is pretty recent stuff - there was never a time when that border was closed, no golden era to hearken back to. It's just that 40 years ago, the same people crossing could have done so legally. It's also easy to forget how expensive this new approach has been, and how recently, in the scheme of things, policymakers have chosen to undertake that burden. The Border Patrol's budget, she reports, has grown more than 500% just in the past two decades.

Indeed, according to Meyers' data, when President Jimmy Carter launched the recent era of growth in 1977, perhaps fewer than 1,000 agents covered both northern and southern US borders. That figure quadrupled by the late '80s, then tripled again following passage of the Immigraton Reform and Control Act. By 2002, the article reports, the number of agents had risen to more than 11,600, plus another 6,000+ inspectors staffing various entry points.

I'm pretty sure that makes the Border Patrol the nation's largest law enforcement agency. One third of federal court cases now involve enforcing immigration status. I should mention that this big picture look makes it clear why President Bush's proposal for 1,500 more agents is on it's face insufficient if strict border enforcement is to be the sole response to illegal immigration - a symbolic gesture unlikely to resolve the issue to anyone's satisfaction.

Read the rest if you're interested in the topic. It's an informative, even-handed look at border enforcement containing a lot of history and data I didn't know.

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