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The myth of immigration as a security issue

How did security become the rallying cry for the US government to restrict immigration in the post-war period?

Daniel Denvir30 January 2020

The myth of immigration as a security issue

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In 1981, the Hesburgh Commission declared that “undocumented migration flouts U.S. immigration law [and that] its most devastating impact may be the disregard it breeds for other U.S. laws." 2 In the 1990s, politicians increasingly portrayed “illegal immigration” as an intrinsic source of criminality, as President Bill Clinton and his Republican antagonists sought to out-tough each other. It was a war on crime that demonized an immigrant threat, spurring border militarization and mass incarceration alike—all while deepening the connections between the criminal justice system and immigration enforcement, which traditionally was a largely civil matter.  

"Every day, illegal aliens show up in court who are charged,” said Clinton in a 1995 radio address. “Some are  guilty and surely some are innocent. Some go to jail and some don’t. But they’re all illegal aliens, and whether they’re innocent or guilty of the crimes they were charged with in court, they’re still here illegally, and they should be sent out of the country.”3

Amid high murder rates and long-term economic restructuring, Clinton not only fueled anti-crime sentiment but also helped ensure that crime had a black and Latino face. He described ungoverned streets and an insecure border as the sources of a violent and narcotic threat, and proposed policing, imprisonment, and deportation as solutions. Critically, Clinton cracked down both on “criminal aliens” who committed crimes and on “illegal immigrants” as a whole by insisting that all were by definition criminals: "people whose first act is to break the law as they enter our country,” as he put it.

The histories of building walls along the border to keep foreigners out and erecting cages to contain those who live here already are inextricably entangled. As historian Kelly Lytle Hernández shows, they long have been so. Dominant politics, portraying a combined domestic and foreign criminal threat, built and legitimated a massive machinery of repression that operated through the Border Patrol, immigration agents from INS (later ICE), civil detention centers, local police, federal law enforcement, and a system of local, state, and federal jails and prisons. By the end of Obama’s first term, immigration enforcement and criminal justice institutions would be almost seamlessly linked. The result was a deportation machine unprecedented in both efficiency and size.  

The government response to September 11 under George W. Bush affixed these systems of domestic and border repression to the national security state and the military’s war on terror—a war in and against Muslim-majority nations abroad that ultimately boomeranged into a politics of mass Islamophobia at home. This story begins at the border with Mexico, where the criminalization of human migration and the war on drugs became pretexts for a spectacular increase in the size of the Border Patrol and the construction of hundreds of miles of fencing. It ends by explaining how the wars on drugs and “illegal immigrants” failed to prevent the entry of either, leading to demands for yet more escalation rather than a reexamination of whether the wars should be waged at all.

In recent decades, the border has become more an idea than a place. Since the 1970s, it has served as a lens through which Americans see their myriad, growing fears. At the same time, politicians have weaponized the border to serve political ends. Nativism is a recurrent feature of American history. But it was only in recent decades that the sort of border that Donald Trump would make use of came into existence. It was the politics and policies of those who came before him—including Clinton, Bush, and Obama—that paved the way for criminal violence and terrorism to displace economic insecurity as nativism’s central focus.  

Creating the crisis

The continental United States has two land borders. But when people talk about “the border,” they typically refer to the one shared with Mexico. That border has existed as a geographic place cutting across a certain set of longitudes and latitudes, with slight adjustment, since the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the 1853–54 Gadsden Purchase rendered the US conquest of roughly half of Mexico’s territory a legal reality.

Through the nineteenth century, the nation’s land borders marked the limits of an expanding settler empire’s contiguous territory. They were not a source of anxiety about immigration. In a sense, they were the opposite: they were a frontier, marking the territorial boundary of an empire-in-waiting that only white settlement could make a reality. Even in the early twentieth century, when the federal government first instituted light patrols, it was to catch barred Chinese who might slip in—not Mexicans.4 Congress first created the Border Patrol in 1924 just two days after it passed the Immigration Act of 1924, a law that imposed racist national origins quotas targeting eastern and southern Europeans and extended the bar on Asian immigration to formally exclude nearly the entire region.5

Mexicans were not barred, but many crossed without authorization anyway, preferring to avoid securing a passport and paying an expensive visa fee and head tax that were first instituted in 1917.6 The Border Patrol targeted barred Chinese and restricted Europeans and also liquor smugglers.7 Yet it became more than anything a force for social control over Mexican “illegals,” regulating and disciplining the Mexican labor supply, not attempting to end it. For white working-class agents, it was also about “community, manhood, whiteness, class, respect, belonging, brotherhood, and violence,” writes Hernández. “Border Patrol officers in the Texas-Mexico borderlands thus broadly policed Mexicano mobility instead of enforcing the political boundary between the United States and Mexico.”8 It was only the “fears of invasion and subterfuge” surrounding World War II that “transformed the U.S. Border Patrol from a series of small and locally oriented outposts into a national police force with the resources to pursue immigration control on a much larger scale.”9 And it was only with the wartime creation of the Bracero program that, at the Mexican government’s prodding, more agents were assigned to the border with Mexico than the one with Canada, leading the number of Mexicans returned south to skyrocket.10

Yet before violent battles between drug cartels, military, and police erupted in Mexico, and before militarization took root north of the line, the border had for many Americans been simply a gateway to a short vacation. During Prohibition, the streets of Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana were lined with high-end clubs. For decades, party seekers made their way from San Diego through the busy San Ysidro port of entry to Avenida Revolución’s expansive street party. Just east in Tecate, women on the Mexican side hung their wash on a fence that stood less than five feet tall and was intended to block cattle rather than people. Nearby, the fence was simply a steel cable that children employed as a swing.11  

For many, the international boundary was long a bridge to a sister city, perhaps where an actual sister lived. It was easily traversed for family visits, or for lunch.12 Through the 1960s, the Border Patrol was a minor agency barely known to many who lived outside the borderlands.13 After mass Mexican migration became criminalized in the 1960s, however, immigration became a growing concern most everywhere. At the border itself, the situation slipped into what looked like a spontaneous invasion as massive numbers of undocumented Mexicans surged past an overwhelmed Border Patrol. In reality, the scene was the direct outcome of the US government criminalizing long-standing Mexican migration by squeezing off legal immigration pathways.

In the late 1950s, roughly 450,000 Bracero migrants and 50,000 permanent residents entered from Mexico each year. In 1964, the Bracero program was terminated.14 In 1965, the first-ever caps were placed on Western Hemisphere immigration as part of the Hart-Celler Act, which repealed the racist national origins quotas. In 1976, Congress criminalized a larger swath of Mexican migration by establishing a global ceiling of twenty thousand visa slots per country. President Gerald Ford signed the bill, but he also complained that the cookie-cutter low cap imposed on Mexicans failed to take into account the “very special historic relationship” between the two countries.15

The effect, as Douglas Massey and Karen Pren write, “was predictable”: undocumented migration exploded.16 In 1960, total apprehensions in the Southwest stood at 21,022, rising to 40,020 by 1965. By 1970, they had risen to 201,780, and to 690,554 by 1980. In 1983, they topped one million and would remain in the seven figures, save for a few dips, until the era of mass unauthorized Mexican migration ended with the Great Recession’s onset.17

Meanwhile, Mexico created the Border Industrialization Program to create jobs that would compensate for the shuttered Bracero program. The result was the rise of what would become a massive maquiladora industry, through which US corporations export components to Mexican border factories duty-free and then re-import the manufactured product into the country, paying a tariff only on the value added in Mexico. This created a population boom in border cities like Juárez and Tijuana and allowed US corporations to take advantage of cheap Mexican labor without hiring Mexican migrants inside the country: a “disembodied export of the Mexican workforce.”18

As the United States began to sharply restrict Mexican migration in the mid-1960s, a new service economy took hold, hollowing out the middle of the labor market and expanding the ranks of low-wage workers to occupy its bottom rungs, which in turn spread demand for Mexican workers far beyond Southwestern agriculture.19 Mexico’s export of migrants facilitated economic restructuring on both sides of the border, functioning as an “escape valve” for a Mexican economy with insufficient good jobs and providing “a reserve army of workers, at the disposal of the U.S. economy, the training costs of which are mostly borne by Mexican society.”20 Mexican workers, like Chinese in the late nineteenth century, were emblems of a distrusted new system. The border, an ordinary place for people who lived there, became a symbol of trouble for millions who didn’t. Still, until the 1990s, it could be crossed with little difficulty. Perhaps not on the first try but then, if caught, on the second.21

“All we ever do is delay them a little,” said a Border Patrol supervisor in San Ysidro, the largest site of illegal crossings, in 1983. “I’ll never forget this one guy we caught four times. The last time we got him, he just threw his hands up in the air and shook his head. I felt sorry for him . . . But that’s rare. He just had bad luck. Usually they make it through on their second try.”22

Many understood that the new system was plainly nonfunctional—including, quite remarkably in retrospect, INS officers’ union head Michael Harpold, who complained that “relatives of legal U.S. residents who had been waiting years to immigrate legally were forced to come in illegally in order to join their families.”23 Thanks to the “colorblind” equality that followed 1965 reform, Mexican applicants for visas—to which they had rights by virtue of their US citizen relatives—were confronted with backlogs that by 2017 stretched as long as twenty-one years.24

The result was a chaotic nightly scene. As darkness fell one night in 1984, hundreds of migrants—mostly Mexicans but also Central Americans fleeing poverty, war and repression—gathered by Tijuana’s Colonia Libertad neighborhood where beer, tacos and used coats were for sale.25 Heading to Los Angeles’s Pico Boulevard and other points north, they met up with the polleros—like coyote, a Spanish word for what English-speakers disparagingly call a smuggler—who would guide them across borderland canyons as agents waited across the line in San Diego. Some would be caught and would promptly try again.26

The futile dynamic seemed almost choreographed, with polleros reportedly timing their attempts to coincide with agents’ shift changes. The San Ysidro cat-and-mouse game, however, was taking a violent turn, as bandits targeted migrants for theft, assault, rape and murder, and engaged in shootouts with San Diego police. Neither the possibility of apprehension nor the violence deterred the migrants. “Fear is not having beans on the table,” said one Mexican from the state of Guerrero.27

Meanwhile, the militarization of the border increased alongside the criminalization of Mexican migration. It was a war zone, Americans remarked, something like a not-so-distant Vietnam. Or, perhaps, like the long hot summer of black urban uprisings in 1967. The fight was waged with buried electronic sensors, helicopters, four-wheel drive vehicles, and infrared scopes that might identify migrant groups as large as thirty, ghostly figures against a green backdrop.28

Much of the Border Patrol’s equipment was initially developed for military use—sensors to surveil the Ho Chi Minh Trail, scopes for Marine Corps snipers at Khe Sanh.29 It was, said INS commissioner Alan C. Nelson, an effort to stop “the greatest surge of people in history across our southern border.”30

“It’s part of the Rambo mentality . . . that every problem that confronts this country can be solved through law enforcement or military action,” said Herman Baca, chairman of the Committee on Chicano Rights in San Diego. “It parallels Vietnam. Our government policy makers are fighting a war that they don’t understand . . . And you know who won in Vietnam.”31

Border Patrol violence was rampant. One agent said that it was commonplace for agents to carry unregistered “throwaway” guns: “They explained to me that if you shoot an alien ‘by accident,’ all you have to do is throw away that gun next to him and say he was shooting at you.” An immigration inspector confirmed the account, saying that he had been taught how to do so in the academy. “I’ve seen many such shootings,” said one former agent, “and these are unarmed people, people who come across just to get jobs.”32 Rape accusations were commonplace, as was the trading of access to the United States for sex. Migrants were called “wetbacks,” “wets,” and “tonks,” referring to the sound agents’ flashlights make when they smash against detainees’ heads.33

Those who spoke out reported being ignored and fired. A supervisor alleged that one “tends to overempathize with people trying to get into this country legally or illegally” and so “does not have the proper attitude to become a successful immigration inspector.”34

Complaints of abuse were so rampant that in 1980 two Hispanic agents were sent undercover, dressed as Mexican workers, to investigate the San Clemente, California, checkpoint on the I-5 highway.35 The result was that the agents on duty allegedly beat them with a chair and a flashlight, resulting in criminal charges for that assault and for others allegedly committed against civilians, including a fifteen-year old US citizen.36

A Border Patrol agent charged in a separate case of physical abuse allegedly told a trainee that beatings were necessary “because the criminal justice system doesn’t do anything about these people.”37 “These people,” however, would soon become one of that system’s priority targets.


2. Congressional Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, “U.S. Immigration Policy and the National Interest: The Final Report and Recommendations of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy with Supplemental Views by Commissioners,” March 1, 1981, 42.

3. William J. Clinton, “The President’s Radio Address,” May 6, 1995,

4. Kelly Lytle Hernández, Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010, 36–37.

5. Carla N. Argueta, “Border Security: Immigration Enforcement between Ports of Entry,” Congressional Research Service,, April 19, 2016, 2.

6. Hernández, Migra!, 81, 89–91.

7. Ibid., 63, 70.

8. Ibid., 41, 46, 50, 55.

9. Ibid., 104–5.

10. Ibid., 116, 122.

11. L.A. Times Service, “Fences Separating Mexico, U.S. Little Barrier in Some Areas,” Hartford Courant, November 28, 1980.

12. John M. Crewdson, “In Sister Cities of El Paso and Juarez, 400 Years of History Erase a Border,” New York Times, July 18, 1981.

13. Charlie Hilinger, “Little Known Agency: The American Border Patrol,” Austin Statesman, June 24, 1967.

14. Douglas S. Massey and Karen A. Pren, “Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Policy: Explaining the Post-1965 Surge from Latin America,” Population and Development Review, 38(1), 2012, 1–29.

15. Robert Scheer, “Law Part of the Problem: Illegal Aliens’ Half-Life,” Los Angeles Times, November 12, 1979.

16. Douglas S. Massey and Karen A. Pren, “Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Policy: Explaining the Post-1965 Surge from Latin America,” Population and Development Review, 38(1), 2012, 1–29.

17. United States Border Patrol, “Southwest Border Sectors: Total Illegal Alien Apprehensions by Fiscal Year (Oct. 1st through Sept. 30th),” Notes 297

18. Raúl Delgado-Wise and Luis Eduardo Guarnizo, “Migration and Development: Lessons from the Mexican Experience,”, February 1, 2007.

19. Douglas Massey et al., Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2003, 15.

20. Raúl Delgado-Wise and Humberto Márquez Covarrubias, “The Reshaping of Mexican Labor Exports under NAFTA: Paradoxes and Challenges,” International Migration Review 41(3), 2007, 673–5.

21. Joseph A. Reaves, “Battle on the Border,” Chicago Tribune, April 26, 1983.

22. Ibid.

23. Scheer, “Illegal Aliens’ Half-Life.”

24. Priscilla Alvarez, “What the Waiting List for Legal Residency Actually Looks Like,” Atlantic, September 21, 2017.

25. Clara Germani, “Desperate People and a Porous Border,” Christian Science Monitor, December 17, 1984.

26. Ivor Davis, “Checker Game on the U.S. Border with People as the Pieces,” Globe and Mail, March 31, 1984.

27. Germani, “Desperate People and a Porous Border.”

28. Jay Mathews, “Illegals from Mexico: As Hard to Count as to Stop,” Washington Post, June 27, 1986.

29. David Harris, “Zone of War: Struggle over Mexican Migrants” New York Times, February 17, 1980.

30. Patrick McDonnell, “All-Out Border War to Stem Alien Flow Is High-Tech Affair,” New York Times, April 13, 1986.

31. Ibid.

32. John M. Crewdson, “Violence, Often Unchecked, Pervades U.S. Border Patrol,” New York Times, January 14, 1980.

33. Daniel Gonzalez and Rafael Carranza, “Is the Term ‘Tronc’ an Acronym or a Derogatory Term for Migrants?,”, May 19, 2018.

34. Crewdson, “Violence, Often Unchecked, Pervades U.S. Border Patrol.”

35. Ibid.; Harris, “Zone of War.”

36. John M. Crewdson, “3 Agents of Border Patrol Charged With Beating 8,” New York Times, July 25, 1980. 298 

37. John M. Crewdson, “2 in Border Patrol Are Found Guilty in First Case on Brutality to Aliens,” New York Times, January 30, 1980.

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All-American Nativism
It is often said that with the election of Donald Trump nativism was raised from the dead. After all, here was a president who organized his campaign around a rhetoric of unvarnished racism and xen...

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