Hernández, Kelly Lytle. Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010).
A leading American historian of race, policing, immigration, and incarceration in
the United States, Kelly Lytle Hernández’s Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol
tells the story of how Mexican immigrant workers emerged as the primary target of the
United States Border Patrol and how, in the process, the United States Border Patrol
shaped the history of race in the United States. Migra! also explores social history,
including the dynamics of Anglo-American nativism, the power of national security, and
labor-control interests of capitalistic development in the American southwest. In short,
Migra! explains the intricate relationships United States Border Patrol officers faced
within a developing system of immigration law enforcement.
Migra! is divided into three parts, with part one focusing on the highly regional
and local period of Border Patrol operations from 1924-1941. Prior to the establishment
of the United States Border Patrol, the United States-Mexico border marked a political
boundary that migrant Mexican workers needed to cross for seasonal labor. With the
founding of the Border Patrol in 1924, its first generation of officers were tasked with the
prevention of unlawful entry by aliens into the United States. There were many methods
of unlawful entry and many classes of people explicitly prohibited from entering into the
United States. To compound the growing problems faced by the Border Patrol, they
would have to operate on limited funds. According to one Border Patrol officer from the
early years, officers merely “walked around looking wise.”1
Hernández provides an interesting sketch of the officers of the Border Patrol.
Most were local men who had come of age in the United States-Mexico borderlands.
Many were integrated into the borderlands communities and familiar with its people,
customs, and traditions. Unlike the agri-businessmen who profited from Mexican
migrant labor, early Border Patrol officers were neither elite members of borderland
communities nor active participants in the core economies. These working-class white
men vigorously opposed unrestricted Mexican immigration and interpreted immigrants
as labor competition. United States Border Patrol officers fostered collaborative
relationships with farmers and ranchers as a social and political law enforcement tactic.
Hernández contends that United States Border Patrol officers had no training and
little supervision. Officers would patrol the political boundary, known as line watches,
between the two nations. These line watches were ineffective because of the size of
their jurisdictions and the sheer size of the borderlands between Mexico and the United
States. Soon it became clear to Border Patrol officers that most illegal migrant activity
developed in the greater borderlands regions than along the boundary between Mexico
and the United States. “Instead of enforcing the boundary between the US and Mexico,
BP officers patrolled backcountry trails and conducted traffic stops on borderland
roadways to capture unsanctioned Mexican immigrants as they travelled from the
border to their final destination.” American citizens of Mexican descent. In addition, Border Patrol officers would use
selective immigration law enforcement in exchange for respect.
Migra! is not simply focused on United States Border Patrol history, but the
shared history of a bilateral attempt at controlling migration between Mexico and the
United States. With the establishment of the United States Border Patrol and the
tightening of American immigration control, Mexican officers were forced to patrol
emigration. Hernández explains the three main benefits behind Mexican emigration.
Emigration to the United States provided an economic opportunity for Mexicans. In postwar
Mexico, Mexican laborers suffered low wages and poverty. Emigration was seen as
the only option for many Mexican citizens. Next, with many poor laborers emigrating to
the United States, the rural countryside was drained of citizens, thus avoiding potential
political rebellions. Finally, Mexican labor officials saw emigration as a way to remake
Mexican society. Those who crossed the border into the United States for seasonal
labor work would learn cultural and economic lessons that could be shared upon their
return to Mexico.
Part two of Migra! focuses on the nationalization of the United States Border
Patrol during and after World War II. Due to the perceived threat of emigrants from any
nation, Border Patrol resources were amplified and law enforcement personnel was
diverted toward the Mexican and United States borderlands. With increased patrol of
the borderlands, many Mexican migrants were unable to cross the border for seasonal
work. This created a shortage of Mexican labor that United States agri-businessmen
could not afford. The Bracero Program would serve as a binational program to manage
the cross-border migration of Mexican laborers.
United States labor officials approached the Mexican Department of Migration
about a controlled and managed system of legal migration. The Bracero Program
offered Mexicans the opportunity to legally work in the United States. Braceros were
healthy, landless, and surplus male agricultural workers from areas in Mexico not
experiencing a labor shortage. Braceros met the labor need to American agribusinessmen,
but Hernández counters that the Bracero Program was a system of labor
exploitation, a project of masculinity and modernization, and a site of gendered
The United States Border Patrol built upon the opportunities provided by the
Bracero Program to gain greater control over unsanctioned border crossings. United
States Border Patrol officers and Mexican Border Patrol officers instituted a close
working relationship to transform the permeable US-Mexican border into a clear
boundary. According to Hernández, the Mexico-United States boundary was now seen
as a bridge that linked rather than divided.
In part three of Migra!, Hernández explains that the bilateral migration control
between Mexican and United States Border Patrolmen created economic problems for
American agri-businessmen. Farmers and ranchers rebelled against their loss of
influence over migration control. With new Border Patrol officers who were not the “good
ol’ boys” of the past United States Border Patrol, the relationship between officers and
farmers was marked by tension. Farmers expected cooperation instead of interference
from United States Border Patrol officers. The officers were too effective, too inflexible,
and too unconcerned with the farmers’ position to turn a blind eye to immigration law
enforcement. Farmers in south Texas likened their plight to Southern slave owners’
struggles against Northern aggressors during the Civil War-era.
Finally, Hernández details how the United States Border Patrol was about to fight
back against farmers’ rebellions to restore control, goodwill, friendship, and legitimacy in
the borderlands community.
Turning toward crime control in a momentous shift in the
development of the United States Border Patrol, the Border Patrol won the support of
Texas and stabilized its position in the Mexico-United States borderlands. With the held
of law enforcement strategies such as Operation Wetback and Operation Cloud Burst,
the United States Border Patrol triumphed through negotiation, compromise, and
Migra! provides an in-depth study of United States immigration law enforcement.
It explains the cross-border dimensions of migration control, and details the Border
Patrols growth in the borderlands. Border Patrol policies are shown as intrinsically
embedded in the expansion of federal law enforcement in the twentieth century.
Hernández concludes that the United States Border Patrol’s rise evolved according to
economic demands and nativist anxieties, but also operated according to individual
interests and community investments of Border Patrol officers.
Migra! is essential reading for understanding the foundation that the United
States Border Patrol was built upon. However, Migra! is short-sighted in that it will not
provide readers with an explanation of the current situation in the Mexico-United States
borderlands. This is the only downfall in this magnificently written and impeccably