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University of California Press
Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol / Edition 1

Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol / Edition 1

by Kelly Lytle Hernandez
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This is the untold history of the United States Border Patrol from its beginnings in 1924 as a small peripheral outfit to its emergence as a large professional police force. To tell this story, Kelly Lytle Hernández dug through a gold mine of lost and unseen records stored in garages, closets, an abandoned factory, and in U.S. and Mexican archives. Focusing on the daily challenges of policing the borderlands and bringing to light unexpected partners and forgotten dynamics, she reveals how the U.S. Border Patrol translated the mandate for comprehensive migration control into a project of policing Mexicans in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520266414
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/03/2010
Series: American Crossroads , #29
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 209,473
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Kelly Lytle Hernández is Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Associate Director of the Chicano Studies Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship.

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A History of the U.S. Border Patrol

By Kelly Lytle Hernández


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94571-5


The Early Years

Hired in El Paso, Texas, in September 1924, Emmanuel Avant "Dogie" Wright was one of the first officers of the United States Border Patrol. Born and raised in the Texas-Mexico borderlands, Dogie had deep roots in the region where he worked for twenty-seven years as a U.S. Border Patrol officer. Dogie's great-grandparents, Elizabeth and John Jackson Tumlinson, had joined Stephen Austin's 1822 expedition into the northern Mexican province of Coahuila y Tejas (Texas). Dogie's great-grandparents were among the original Anglo-American colonists, commonly known as the "Old Three Hundred," in Austin's Texas project. Although many in the Austin expedition were southern slaveholders hoping to rebuild their prosperous plantations in Texas, the Tumlinsons were simply modest farmers: when they arrived in Texas, their property consisted of some cattle, hogs, horses, and farming utensils. Troubles began soon after the Tumlinsons settled in a district along the Colorado River. The Colorado District was offered to the settlers by the Mexican government but claimed by the Comanches, Tonkawas, Apaches, and Karankawas, who dominated the region along with an assortment of smugglers and frontiersmen. Several months after the colonists arrived, three men guarding a shipload of the colonists' provisions disappeared. Their disappearance frightened the settlers, and, to better protect themselves they formed a government and elected John Jackson Tumlinson as mayor (alcalde). John Jackson had yet to take office when two more settlers were found dead. In defense of the colonists and their interests in the region, John Jackson proposed the establishment of a permanent roving patrol. He was killed soon after by a group of Karankawa and Huaco Indians, but the roving patrol that he founded lived on to become the Texas Rangers.

The Texas Rangers shaped and protected Anglo-American settlement in Texas. They battled indigenous groups for dominance in the region, chased down runaway slaves who struck for freedom deep within Mexico, and settled scores with anyone who challenged the Anglo-American project in Texas. The Rangers proved particularly useful in helping Anglo-American landholders win favorable settlements of land and labor disputes with Texas Mexicans. Whatever the task, however, raw physical violence was the Rangers' principal strategy. As the years unfolded, the stories of the Tumlinson family, Anglo-American settlement in Texas, and the Texas Rangers remained closely intertwined: no fewer than sixteen of John Jackson's descendants protected the interests of Anglo-Americans in Texas in the service of the Texas Rangers. Among them were Dogie Wright and his father, Captain William L. Wright, each of whom served as Rangers in southern Texas.

Anglo-American settlement was slow to develop in south Texas. A few ranchers had pushed southward in the mid-nineteenth century, but most Anglo-American farmers saw little value in the dry and distant lands near the U.S.-Mexico border. Not until the late nineteenth century, when new irrigation techniques and refrigerated rail cars promised to transform the arid border region into a profitable agricultural zone, did Anglo-American farmers begin to imagine and seek their fortune in south Texas. When they arrived, Anglo-American farmers confronted a well-established Mexicano ranching population that did not easily acquiesce to the changes the Anglos envisioned. The violence of the Texas Rangers played a pivotal role in transforming south Texas into a region dominated by Anglo-American farmers.

Born at the dawn of the Anglo-American push into south Texas, Dogie Wright came of age during one of the most brutal periods of the Texas Rangers' history. Walter Prescott Webb, a sympathetic chronicler of the Texas Rangers, described these years as peppered with "revenge by proxy," a strategy by which Rangers indiscriminately killed Mexicanos to avenge the transgressions of others. One of the Rangers' most notorious episodes of bloodshed took place just two months after Dogie was born.

On June 12,1901, a Mexicano rancher named Gregorio Cortez stood at the gate of his home in Karnes County, Texas. There, he resisted arrest for a crime that he did not commit. The sheriff persisted, drew his gun, and shot Gregorio's brother in the mouth when he charged at the sheriffto protect Gregorio. Gregorio shot back and killed the sheriff, an act that was sure to bring the Texas Rangers to his doorstep. When they came, Gregorio and his family (including his wounded brother) were gone: all that remained was the dead body of the sheriff. The news of Gregorio's deadly defiance quickly spread across southern Texas, and Dogie's father, Captain William Wright of the Texas Rangers, joined the search for Gregorio Cortez. For ten days, the Texas Rangers and posses numbering up to three hundred men hunted for him. When they could not find him, they sought revenge by proxy, arresting, brutalizing, and murdering an unknown number of Mexicanos.

These were the days when Dogie Wright took his first breaths in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. In the years to come, he helped his father and the Rangers take care of their horses, and as a young adult, Dogie himself became a Ranger. At the age of twenty-three, Dogie joined the U.S. Border Patrol. Descended from the Old Three Hundred, embedded in the history of the Texas Rangers, and born in the shadow of one of the borderland's most brutal battles between Anglos and Mexicanos, Dogie carried a long and complicated history into his work as a Border Patrolman. He was joined by hundreds of other borderlanders hired as Border Patrol officers during the 1920s and 1930s. Like Dogie, they had grown up and lived in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands before they became Border Patrol officers. Their pedigree was not that of the landholding elite but of the Anglo-American working class, who often used law enforcement as a strategy of economic survival and social uplift in the agriculture-based societies of the borderlands. And they had grown up with white violence toward Mexicanos. The broad congressional mandate for migration control provided the outer contours for their work, but the decentralized structure of the early U.S. Border Patrol granted Dogie and the others significant control over the development o fU.s. immigration law-enforcement practices. Far from the halls of Congress, the early officers of the Border Patrol enforced U.S. immigration restrictions according to the customs, interests, and histories of the borderland communities where they lived and worked. Therefore, the story of the early years of the U.S. Border Patrol begins in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.


When the Old Three Hundred first entered Texas in 1822, what would later become the southwestern United States was still part of northern Mexico. From Alta California's Pacific Coast to the Texas plains, many Anglo-Americans coveted the rich natural landscape of the Mexican northwest. The most covetous argued that it was the duty and "manifest destiny" of Anglo-Americans to rule the North American continent from sea to sea. Their imaginings drew strength from the triumph of the Anglo-American colonists in Texas who, in 1836, successfully fought a war for independence against Mexico. Nine years later, the United States annexed the Republic of Texas, but President James Polk (1845–49) wanted more. Inspired by the theory of Manifest Destiny, Polk in January 1846 sent troops into disputed territory below the newly acquired state of Texas. The Mexican army engaged the U.S. troops, but the battle quickly turned into a war that the debt-ridden Mexican government could not afford to fight. United States armed forces occupied Mexico City in 1848 and declared victory over Mexico in the U.S.-Mexico War of 1846–48.

The U.S.-Mexico War was a war of conquest that forced Mexico to cede nearly 50 percent of its northern territory to the United States. The new U.S.-Mexico border was drawn down the belly of the Rio Grande between the Gulf of Mexico and El Paso, Texas, and from there the border pushed west across the deserts and mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Above this line, an estimated one hundred and fifty thousand Mexicans and one hundred and eighty thousand members of free, indigenous tribes lived in the newly declared American territory. Transferring land ownership from their hands to those of Anglo-Americans would be the final element of conquest in the new American West.

Anglo-American settlers used a variety of techniques to acquire land rights from Mexican and indigenous landholders. While violence, the reservation system, and genocide were popular methods of dispossessing indigenous populations, Anglo-Americans most often gained access to Mexican land rights through marriage, debt payment, fraud, or purchase. By the late nineteenth century, the transfer of ownership from Indians and Mexicans to Anglo-Americans was nearly complete.

The new landholders tended to own large tracts of land. The small, family-owned farm never took root in the American West. Instead, the land barons of the West held tracts averaging tens of thousands of acres, and their visions of agriculture in the region centered upon building massive enterprises that Carey McWilliams described as "factories in the fields." The factory floor was land enriched by eons of geologic shifts. For example, millions of years before the U.S.-Mexico War opened California to Anglo-American farmers, the Pacific ocean and its many tributaries had washed across the alluvial plains of the San Joaquin Valley in central California, depositing a rich silt of minerals and organic matter. Several hundred miles to the south, much of the Imperial V alley ranked as one of the hottest and driest deserts in all of North America, but the long natural history of the region had buried enormous potential in the dust. The Gulf of California once stretched north and covered much of the Colorado Desert. In time the gulf receded, but the Colorado River spilled into the region and formed Lake Cahuilla, a massive lake a hundred miles long, thirty-five miles wide, and three hundred feet deep. Lake Cahuilla is estimated to have existed for several thousand years before drying up and leaving behind dry but fertile land. Similarly, natural migrations by the Rio Grande, its tributaries, and the Gulf of Mexico left rich silt deposits in the region later divided by the U.S.-Mexico border.

Millions of years of geologic history may have enriched the land barons' land and kindled dreams of agricultural empires in the American West, but water was uncontrolled in the region. Erratic climatic shifts from floods to droughts created unpredictable and thus unsustainable conditions for the development of capitalist agricultural production. The land barons' dreams of industrial farming in the American West depended upon controlling the flow of water through the region.

Congress passed the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902 to fund large irrigation projects in the West. As dams, canals, and reservoirs controlled the waters, landholders quickly transformed the rich but arid lands into fields of grains, fruits, vegetables, and cotton. By 1920, the southwest served as an orchard and winter garden to the world. With almost thirty-one million acres of crops valued at more than $1.7 billion in California and Texas alone, the southwest was the nation's most productive and profitable agricultural region. During the 1920s, the fortunes reaped from the southwestern soil swelled to new heights as acres of crops boomed to a combined total of more than thirty-nine million in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

The rapid expansion of the factories in the fields depended upon an ever-increasing number of migrant workers to seasonally plant and harvest the crops. In California, agribusinesses had once had access to various sources of labor. In the late nineteenth century, landholders had hired California Indians and Chinese immigrants to harvest everything from wheat to fruit and sugar beets. The near success of a genocidal campaign against California Indians, however, had reduced their total population to fewer than nineteen thousand by the turn of the twentieth century, and a violent wave of anti-Chinese politics pushed through the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which severely limited the availability of Chinese laborers. Some of the Chinese workers fled south into Mexico, where they worked on U.S.- and Mexican-owned farms in the Mexicali Valley just below the California-Mexico border, but the Chinese presence in California agriculture declined significantly in the following years.

some landowners attempted to replace Chinese immigrants and Indian workers with black migrants from the southern states, but there was significant popular resistance to black settlement in California, and the state's agribusinessmen searched elsewhere for a labor supply. Next they experimented with Japanese laborers, encouraging slightly more than twenty-seven thousand Japanese nationals to enter the United States between 1891 and 1900.19 Japanese immigrants upset the expectations of agribusinessmen by quickly organizing themselves in the fields to demand higher wages and by making inroads into the business of farming as small landowners and tenants. As agribusinessmen negotiated in the fields, Anglo-American communities, primarily, San Francisco, strongly protested the arrival of Japanese immigrants and created an international incident between the U.S. and Japanese governments by prohibiting Japanese children from attending white schools. In 1907, the U.S. and Japanese governments addressed the mounting tensions between Anglo-Americans and Japanese immigrants in San Francisco by signing the Gentleman's Agreement of 1907, an international treaty by which the Japanese government agreed to significantly curtail Japanese immigration to the United States. Restrictions upon Japanese immigration effectively ended the experiment with Japanese field-workers, while the passage of California's 1913 and 1920 Alien Land Laws significantly curtailed the remaining Japanese presence in California agriculture by prohibiting "aliens ineligible for citizenship"—that is, Asians—from owning or renting farmland. Pushed out of California farming, some of the Japanese followed the Chinese to Mexico and became tenant farmers on U.S.-owned farms in the Mexicali Valley. North of the border, however, labor unrest, immigration restrictions, international treaties, community prejudice, and state law effectively ended the short experiment with Japanese farm laborers.

The end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 launched an era of empire that established new migration corridors between the Philippines and California. Whereas only five Filipinos lived in California in 1900, an estimated thirty thousand Filipinos resided in the state by 1930. Most were male sojourners who came to work. They took jobs as farmworkers and domestic servants, but Filipino migrants proved to be skilled labor organizers who constantly upset the agribusinessmen's search for a docile labor force. California's agribusinessmen barely said a word when Congress effectively ended Filipino migration to the United States with the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934.

All told, as California agribusiness developed, the California Indian population was plummeting to its nadir; Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino workers were prohibited from entering the United States, and black settlement was unwanted. A few experiments with white farm collectives had been tried throughout the state but, by and large, agribusinessmen were looking for temporary, cheap, and marginalized workers who would come and go with the harvests. It was within this context that California's agribusinessmen developed a dependence upon Mexican laborers migrating across the U.s.-Mexico border. By the mid-1920s, Mexicans comprised the vast majority of agricultural workers in the Golden state. of the estimated eighty thousand workers migrating across the state picking alfalfa, melons, and cotton in the imperial valley, peas, cotton and asparagus in the san Joaquin valley, and citrus in Los Angeles County and the inland Empire, between 80 and 95 percent were Mexicans by the mid 1920s.


Excerpted from Migra! by Kelly Lytle Hernández. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Map of the U.S.-Mexico Border Region xvi

Introduction 1

Part 1 Formation 17

1 The Early Years 19

2 A Sanctuary of Violence 45

3 The California-Arizona Borderlands 70

4 Mexico's Labor Emigrants, America's Illegal Immigrants 83

Part 2 Transformation 101

5 A New Beginning 103

6 The Corridors of Migration Control 125

7 Uprising: A Farmers' Rebellion 151

Part 3 Operation Wetback and Beyond 169

8 The Triumphs of '54 171

9 “The Day of the Wetback Is Over” 196

Epilogue 218

Notes 235

Selected Bibliography 285

Index 299

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"If you had to choose one book as a starting place for an intelligent discussion about immigration issues, you would do well to begin with Migra! by UCLA assistant professor of history Kelly Lytle Hernandez. [It] is surprisingly complex and nuanced."—Tucson Weekly

"A Useful resource for any scholar seeking to understand the complex dynamics of race, migration, and law in the twentieth century."—Law & History Review

"Hernandez offers well-documented accounts and analysis that bring considerable value to obtaining a resolution to the problem."—New York Journal of Books

"Migra! stands as a major contribution, successfully revising our understanding of border policing."—Journal of American History

"Migra! is undoubtedly a valuable book, especially as a storehouse of information and as an introduction to a new, international perspective on American immigration. Sections of it will undoubtedly become the foundations of research that will continue to broader our understanding many years into the future."—American Book Review

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