U.S. Border Enforcement: From Horseback to High-Tech
This report provides an overview of United States border enforcement throughout the 20th century, highlights how it has changed since the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) nearly two decades ago, and further examines its unprecedented expansion in the aftermath of 9/11. The author concludes with a set of policy questions stemming from this review.
The report finds that the enforcement of immigration laws has been concentrated on the U.S.-Mexico border since its earliest days. Congress established the Border Patrol in 1924 to enforce newly established immigrant entry quotas. Border enforcement issues once again became a national priority in the late 1970s when migration pressures and refugee flows significantly increased. In 1986, the deterrence of unauthorized migrants became a key focus under IRCA, with the bill calling for substantial increases in border management appropriations, personnel, and infrastructure. Growing anti-immigrant sentiments in the 1990s led to policies centering on “prevention through deterrence” and “targeted enforcement.” Finally, the September 11 attacks solidified the notion that immigration functions must be treated as a key aspect of national security and addressed security gaps through greater information-sharing, changes to visa policies, international cooperation, enhanced document security, and entry-exit tracking of foreign travelers and visitors.
Based on this historical review, the report suggests that border enforcement has generally reflected the political priorities, legislative changes, and context of the broader economic and political environment. Yet, the overwhelming focus on border-area interdiction of illegal immigrants and narcotics fails to address the deeper problems underlying these symptomatic issues. Ironically, the author believes that border enforcement efforts may actually have contributed to the growth in unauthorized population.