How the Border Patrol has evolved over 100 years from horses to AI

How the Border Patrol has evolved over 100 years from horses to AI

The Border Patrol celebrates its centennial on May 28. Its evolution in technology, staffing size, and methods has tracked the changing politics and priorities of the United States.

The agency remains in the news today, given record levels of illegal immigration and voter attention on border security in the 2024 presidential election.

Why We Wrote This

The U.S. Border Patrol turns 100 this week. How has the agency changed over time and what role does it play now in an election year when border security is of high voter interest?

The agency patrols 6,000 miles of U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico between ports of entry, along with 2,000 miles around the coasts of Florida and Puerto Rico. A typical agent’s day might include surveillance, apprehensions, or on-the-ground detection strategies aimed at finding people and goods that have crossed without permission.

Staffing levels grew from just over 4,000 agents in 1992 to nearly 19,000 today. Technology such as mobile sensors and drones also transformed work in the field. An expansion of artificial intelligence may mark a new era.

Like U.S. law enforcement more broadly, the Border Patrol has long grappled with political and professional scrutiny.

Revelations of some agents’ racist vitriol toward migrants, along with allegations of sexual misconduct against women employees, have rocked public trust in recent years. “We do not tolerate misconduct within our ranks,” a Customs and Border Protection spokesperson says in an email. 

The first U.S. Border Patrol agents were paid about $30,000 in today’s dollars and supplied their own horses and saddles. Washington paid for oats and hay.

The Border Patrol still uses horses, sometimes controversially – as well as all-terrain vehicles, trucks, and boats. As the agency turns 100 years old in May, its evolution in technology, staffing size, and methods has tracked the changing politics and priorities of the country. 

The Border Patrol remains in the news today, given record levels of illegal immigration and voter attention on border security in the 2024 presidential election.

Why We Wrote This

The U.S. Border Patrol turns 100 this week. How has the agency changed over time and what role does it play now in an election year when border security is of high voter interest?

What does the Border Patrol do?

The agency patrols 6,000 miles of U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico between ports of entry, along with 2,000 miles around the coasts of Florida and Puerto Rico. A typical agent’s day might include surveillance, apprehensions, or on-the-ground detection strategies aimed at finding people and goods that have crossed without permission.

The Border Patrol recorded more than 2 million encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border for each of the past two fiscal years, though a dip in illegal crossings this spring bucks a seasonal trend. Many individuals are fleeing persecution or are economic migrants – and are taken advantage of by criminal groups that coordinate illegal crossings, Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens told CBS News in March. 

Aiding and processing these individuals, en masse, distracts the Border Patrol from potential criminals or illegal drugs evading detection, Chief Owens said. 

Beyond the detection of illegal immigration and the processing of migrants, the Border Patrol seizes contraband, such as drugs. (Most drugs, however, are seized at ports.)

The Border Patrol also mobilizes to save the lives of migrants found in distress, such as from heat exposure. The agency reported last fiscal year the rescue of 37,324 people along the southern border. For fiscal year 2022, the government also reported 139 deaths linked to Border Patrol operations, with the largest share attributed to medical distress.

“A lot of folks don’t, I think, fully understand the job of a United States Border Patrol agent,” Chief Owens told CBS. “They’re more than just law enforcement.”

Chief Owens is currently under investigation by Customs and Border Protection for potential ethics violations over his relationship with a Mexican businessperson, reports NBC News. 

“CBP has confidence in our senior leaders and holds them to the highest standards of integrity and professionalism,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to the Monitor.

How has the agency changed?

Beginning in the late 1800s, the U.S. started to cement its federal role over immigration. The nation began enacting restrictive laws that barred Asian immigrants and set quotas for others.

This new era put the “federal government in a position where they now actually have to enforce that law,” says Alan Capps, an adjunct professor of history at George Mason University.

Precursors to the Border Patrol included mounted guards and inspectors. “In 1924, there was already a really strong federal presence along the border,” says Jim Dupree, history lecturer at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

The first federal Border Patrol, formed in 1924 through new funding for the Department of Labor, focused on patrolling U.S. borders in search of migrants. Early agents included former Texas Rangers. 

World War II cued a new chapter: In 1940, the agency transferred to the Department of Justice. The Border Patrol guarded camps that detained Japanese Americans and immigrants – camps that the government later apologized for. 

Border enforcement evolved over decades alongside immigration policy. The 1990s saw a hardening of the southern border aimed at curbing illegal immigration, a crackdown led by then-President Bill Clinton. Following 9/11, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security. This new entity established Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol. Agents’ focus expanded to include preventing terrorism.

Border policy has fluctuated sharply between the Trump and Biden presidencies. Yet Border Patrol agents under both administrations expelled asylum-seekers and other migrants during the pandemic due to a public health policy.

Staffing levels grew from just over 4,000 agents in 1992 to nearly 19,000 today. Technology such as mobile sensors and drones also transformed work in the field. An expansion of artificial intelligence may mark a new era.

How is the Border Patrol perceived?

Like U.S. law enforcement more broadly, the Border Patrol has long grappled with political and professional scrutiny. As of 2019, about 37% of voters surveyed in southwest border states had little or no trust in the Border Patrol to “protect the rights and civil liberties” of everyone equally. 

Revelations of some agents’ racist vitriol toward migrants, along with allegations of sexual misconduct against women employees, have rocked public trust in recent years. In 2021, the agency stopped using horses in Del Rio, Texas, after photos surfaced of mounted agents charging at Haitian migrants. 

Immigrant advocacy groups like the Kino Border Initiative, which operates in Arizona and Mexico, have also documented agents’ alleged abuse of migrants, including “misuse of lethal force.” Still, the nonprofit’s 2023 report recognizes many agents “are professionals who seek to follow best practices.”

The Border Patrol should embrace more transparency and oversight to protect migrants and its agents, says Pedro De Velasco, education and advocacy director at Kino Border Initiative.

“We do not tolerate misconduct within our ranks,” responded a CBP spokesperson, adding that the agency can’t comment on individual cases. “When we discover any alleged or potential misconduct, we immediately refer it for investigation and cooperate fully with any criminal or administrative investigations.” 

Public contempt, as well as operational strains, contributes to low morale among agents, according to a 2019 report by The New York Times. Those factors may help explain why the Border Patrol has struggled with recruitment, though polling from March suggests most Americans – nearly two-thirds – support hiring more agents.

Customs and Border Protection, meanwhile, promotes up to $30,000 in recruitment incentives. The agency anticipates a wave of upcoming retirements based on hiring cycles that began in the early 2000s. 

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