Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol
By Kelly Lytle Hernandez, University of California Press, 2010, 284 pages
Review by Curt Prendergast
In one of the few books to profile the institution of the U.S. Border Patrol, Kelly Lytle Hernandez provides a much-needed narrative of one of the most influential organizations in the national immigration debate.
The foundation of Hernandez’s book is archival research at the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Border Patrol Museum, and the Mexican Department of Migration. Through this research she was able to bring the voices of Border Patrol agents since the 1920s into the current debate on immigration.
She begins her book with a discussion of Superman, a “fantastical tale of an orphaned infant alien who grew up to become an American hero.” The adulation heaped upon this fictional character is juxtaposed with the derision reserved for real-life undocumented Mexican immigrants.
Hernandez, a professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Los Angeles, takes a historical perspective on the evolution of the Border Patrol from a small group of agents focused on controlling the entry of Chinese immigrants to a national police force dedicated to pursuing undocumented Mexican immigrants.
Through this process the Border Patrol “shaped the story of race in the United States.” This story is framed by the “dynamics of Anglo-American nativism, the power of national security, the problems of sovereignty, and the labor-control interests of capitalist economic development in the American southwest.” These dynamics came together to form a “sanctuary of violence” against Mexican immigrants in the form of the Border Patrol.
Among this book’s many valuable contributions to the national immigration debate is the story of the Farmers’ Rebellion in Texas and New Mexico during the 1940s and 1950s. Up until then, Border Patrol agents had been “local boys” who were part of local social networks and understood the needs of the ranchers and farmers who hired undocumented immigrants. Due to a national restructuring of the Border Patrol, agents were drawn from all over the country and did not have personal connections with local residents. As a result, the delicate balance that had existed for decades was broken.
By the time of the Farmers’ Rebellion “goodwill and friendship between the patrol and borderland ranchers and farmers was gone.” Where before ranchers and farmers let the Border Patrol agents know when it was time to remove the undocumented immigrants that worked for them, usually after the harvest was completed, now the Border Patrol came onto their land at their own discretion. The story of how local farmers and ranchers fought the Border Patrol through lawsuits, armed encounters, and other forms of resistance shows the complexity of the relationship between the Border Patrol and local border populations.
The book also shows the different narratives used to justify Border Patrol practices. From enforcing laws against Chinese immigration to protecting against “criminal” immigrants to fighting the War on Drugs to searching for terrorists, the Border Patrol has had to adapt to shifting mandates from the federal government. This can be seen in the movement of the Border Patrol from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice to the Department of Homeland Security.
In the early 1950s, the Border Patrol developed a narrative in which they were the liberators of undocumented immigrants from oppressive labor practices. This narrative helped Border Patrol agents “who felt that their mission justified them because–as was true during the struggle against southern slave owners–only force would bring an end to the resurrection of slavery in the fields.” This narrative was opposed by farmers who felt that the Border Patrol committed “racism at home and fostered communism abroad.”
In general, the story presented in this book sounds like the Grapes of Wrath, except that for undocumented Mexican immigrants the Great Depression never ended.
The book was written by an academic historian, but the author obviously went to great lengths to make her book accessible to the public. It is useful for historians and academics interested in border and immigration issues, as well as the lay person who wants to learn more about the background of current immigration news. The main contribution of the book is that it provides a chronology of the Border Patrol that includes insights from the agents themselves. Most pertinent to the present, it sheds light on the role of the Border Patrol in providing the hard numbers that form the foundation of the immigration debate.