U.S. Congress Establishes the Border Patrol Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. Congress established the U.S. Border Patrol to prevent undocumented immigrants from Latin America and Canada from entering the United States.

Summary of Event

The United States Border Patrol was created in 1924 to curtail illegal immigration from Latin America and Canada. Previously, a force of fewer than forty mounted inspectors rode the borders looking for Chinese migrants attempting to enter the country in violation of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Mexican workers were so valuable to the economy of the American Southwest that little effort was made to prevent them from crossing the Rio Grande to work as agricultural laborers for cotton and sugar beet growers. The addition of a literacy test to immigration requirements in 1917, during World War I, made it more difficult for farmhands to enter, but they could easily avoid the test by sneaking into the country at night. Enforcement was lax because farm owners depended on a cheap labor supply for their economic livelihood. [kw]U.S. Congress Establishes the Border Patrol (May 28, 1924) [kw]Congress Establishes the Border Patrol, U.S. (May 28, 1924) [kw]Border Patrol, U.S. Congress Establishes the (May 28, 1924) [kw]Patrol, U.S. Congress Establishes the Border (May 28, 1924) U.S. Border Patrol Immigration;illegal Border Patrol, U.S. [g]United States;May 28, 1924: U.S. Congress Establishes the Border Patrol[06070] [c]Government and politics;May 28, 1924: U.S. Congress Establishes the Border Patrol[06070] [c]Civil rights and liberties;May 28, 1924: U.S. Congress Establishes the Border Patrol[06070] [c]Business and labor;May 28, 1924: U.S. Congress Establishes the Border Patrol[06070] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;May 28, 1924: U.S. Congress Establishes the Border Patrol[06070] Box, John Davis, James J. Green, William Hudspeth, Claude Hughes, Charles Evans

In the early 1920’s, illegal immigration from Mexico far exceeded the average of fifty thousand legitimate immigrants per year. In 1921, the U.S. Congress adopted a restrictive immigration policy based on a national quota system. Some legislators asserted that the peoples of the Western Hemisphere should be included in the limitations, but their argument did not succeed because of opposition from the State Department and from agricultural interests in Texas, Arizona, and California. Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes told Congress that limiting immigration from Latin America would harm U.S. attempts to improve diplomatic relations with that part of the world, and farmers and growers claimed that they needed a steady supply of migrant labor from south of the border to stay in business. For these reasons, both the Senate and the House agreed to put no immigration restrictions on New World peoples.

When Congress passed a law in 1924 establishing a system of immigration quotas based on national origins, it again excluded people from the Western Hemisphere. Immigration Act (1924) A proposal to include Latin Americans and Canadians under this more restrictive policy failed by large margins in both the House and the Senate. Hughes once again testified in opposition to the amendment and repeated his statement that the foreign policy of the United States demanded favorable treatment for migrants from Western nations. A new element entered this debate in Congress, however, as several legislators, led by Representative John Box of Texas, emphasized what they perceived as the racial and cultural inferiority of the Mexican population. The discussion in Congress focused on Mexicans because they made up the largest portion of immigrants from nations in the Western Hemisphere. Almost one hundred thousand had crossed the border legally in 1924, and thousands more had entered illegally to avoid paying the eighteen-dollar visa fee required of all immigrants under the new law. Fewer than five thousand Central and South Americans came into the United States that year, and they were not perceived as a threat.

Advocates of ending both legal and illegal immigration argued that Mexicans were taking away American jobs and working for starvation wages. The American Federation of Labor, American Federation of Labor under its new president, William Green, and the American Legion American Legion were major proponents of this viewpoint. “Scientific racists,” who believed that white America was disappearing, argued about the dangers of “colored blood” polluting the population and contaminating the American way of life. Most Mexicans had some Indian blood in their ancestry, and, according to racial theorists of the time, Indians were inferior to Nordic types in intelligence and physical ability. The 1924 law was aimed at keeping the “inferior” races of southern and eastern Europe out of the country. It made no sense, therefore, to allow free access to inferiors from other parts of the world. These arguments had been successful in winning approval of the 1921 quota system, whereby each nationality group in the United States was limited in immigration each year to 3 percent of its total number in the United States according to the 1910 census. The 1924 law reduced the total to 2 percent of the population according to the census base of 1890. Congress decided to remove Latin America and Canada from these restrictions principally because of the belief that cheap Mexican labor was necessary to keep American farmers prosperous.

Labor unions Labor unions;opposition to immigration had frequently challenged that view. During the 1921-1922 depression in the United States, unions began a campaign to include Latin Americans under the immigration quota system. They had a strong ally in Secretary of Labor James J. Davis, a former union president. In 1922, Davis ordered all unemployed Mexicans to leave the United States. Resentment and violence mounted because of the economic hard times, and in some Texas towns starving Mexicans were physically expelled. When the short depression ended and job opportunities opened up, agricultural interests petitioned Congress to reopen the borders. Mexican labor was too valuable to the economy to exclude completely, because Mexicans did the jobs Americans simply would not do, and for wages that Americans would not accept. The Spanish-speaking aliens would not become permanent residents, Congress was reassured, and they offered no political threat because the poll tax still in effect in Texas and other southern states prevented them from voting. Sugar beet growers and cotton farmers tried to appease the labor unions by arguing that the aliens were unskilled laborers and therefore not a threat to American workers.

The same reasoning kept Canadians from inclusion in the new immigration system. These immigrants were mostly from French-speaking Quebec and worked in New England textile mills for very low wages. Most of the congressional debate centered on Mexicans, with little discussion of immigration from the north. The major fear in Congress seemed to be that large numbers of “peons” from south of the border were entering the United States illegally and that they posed a threat to American values and customs because they were Catholics and spoke a foreign language. Something had to be done to stop the flood, but the economic interests of southwestern farmers would also have to be protected. If, for foreign policy and economic reasons, Latin Americans could not be in the quota system, the reasoning went, perhaps the borders of the United States could be secured from illegal immigration by tighter controls. The smuggling of impoverished workers from south of the border was a major problem, and no agency of the American government existed to control it.

Concern over the flow of laborers from the south led to the establishment of the U.S. Border Patrol on May 28, 1924. Congressman Claude Hudspeth, who owned a large farm in East Texas but was not dependent on Mexican labor, proposed the agency’s creation and got Congress to provide one million dollars for this new branch of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization in the Department of Labor. The Border Patrol initially had 450 officers whose main job was to ride the Mexican border on horseback to seek out smugglers and the hiding places of illegal aliens. Patrol officers were told to expel any alien who could not prove that he or she had paid the visa fee.

Opposition to the Border Patrol proved to be considerable. Ranchers and farmers protested and interfered with the arrests of their laborers. The growers bitterly assailed the increasingly difficult requirements for legal immigration. The 1924 law mandated not only a ten-dollar visa fee, which had to be paid to an American consul in the nation of origin, but also a six-dollar head tax for each applicant. Few Mexicans could afford these fees, given that their average wage was twelve cents for a ten-hour day in their homeland, thus illegal entry and the smuggling of laborers increased. By paying a small sum to a smuggler, a Mexican peasant could avoid the fees and the literacy test and easily find jobs paying more than a dollar per day in Texas, Arizona, and California.

In its first year of operation, the small Border Patrol staff reported turning back fifteen thousand aliens seeking illegal entry, but an estimated one hundred thousand farmworkers successfully evaded the border guards. In an attempt to improve the Border Patrol’s success rate, in 1926 Congress doubled the number of officers and made the agency a permanent part of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization.


During its first three years of operation, the Border Patrol turned back an annual average of fifteen thousand Mexicans seeking illegal entry. It did not have enough personnel to end all illegal entry, and Mexican workers were too valuable to the economy of the Southwest to eliminate completely. Ranchers and farmers who benefited greatly by using Mexican labor continued to oppose the patrol’s efforts to pick up and deport field hands who preferred to deal with smugglers rather than pay the visa fee and head tax.

In 1926, the Immigration Service backed away from strict enforcement of the law and entered into a “gentlemen’s agreement” with agricultural interests in California and Texas that called for registration of all Mexican workers in the states. Each worker would receive an identification card that allowed him or her to work in exchange for an eighteen-dollar fee payable at three dollars per week. When Congressman John Box of Texas heard about this “immigration on the installment plan,” he was outraged and called for an end to the “outlaw’s agreement.” He denounced Mexicans as racially inferior to white Europeans and warned that their illegal influx had been so large that it threatened to reverse the results of the Mexican War of 1846-1848. After that conflict, the United States had acquired California, Arizona, and much of the rest of the Southwest, but now, according to Box, “blood-thirsty, ignorant” bandits from Mexico were becoming the largest population in those areas and retaking them.

In part because of such fears, in 1929 Congress voted to double the size of the Border Patrol and demanded a crackdown on illegal entry. Congress was also responding to union demands for increased border security. Steel corporations had recently begun to recruit Mexicans from the Southwest to work in places such as Chicago and Gary, Indiana, where they were paid less than Anglo-Americans. As the pool of European immigrant labor became more restricted because of requirements concerning national origins, northern industrialists began to see Mexico and Latin America as new sources of cheap labor, much to the annoyance of labor unions. For many impoverished Mexican agricultural workers, the economic rewards seemed worth the risk, and many moved north to Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. In response, the Texas state legislature passed a law that required labor recruiters to pay a fee of one thousand dollars before they could begin operating in the state. The growers and farmers did not want all their cheap labor to move north.

Congress also passed a new law, suggested by the State Department, according to which anyone caught entering the United States after having been deported previously could be charged with a felony and be liable for up to two years’ imprisonment. This legislation greatly decreased illegal entry into North America. The Border Patrol was also authorized to cover the borders of Florida and Canada. The gentlemen’s agreement was ended, and full immediate payment of fees was again required of all immigrants. These measures, plus the economic insecurity brought about by the worldwide depression that began in 1929, temporarily ended the conflict over illegal immigration from Mexico and other nations of the Western Hemisphere. The issue did not reemerge as an important problem until after World War II.

The most significant impact of the creation of the U.S. Border Patrol was that it made illegal entry into the United States much more difficult than it ever had been before. A government agency now had the authority to arrest and deport illegal aliens. U.S. Border Patrol Immigration;illegal Border Patrol, U.S.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill & Wang, 2004. Examines trends in and influences on U.S. immigration policy from late in the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Includes tables and charts, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Divine, Robert. American Immigration Policy, 1924-1952. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1957. Detailed history of immigration policy, the debate about the national-origins system, and attempts to include the Western Hemisphere under immigration law provisions. Good background material on the most significant immigration laws and their enforcement. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fogel, Walter. Mexican Illegal Alien Workers in the United States. Los Angeles: University of California, Institute of Industrial Relations, 1979. Provides brief description of the history, activities, and purposes of the Border Patrol. Contains useful information on the attitudes of Mexican workers and their reasons for illegally entering the United States as well as statistics concerning apprehensions and deportations. Focuses mainly on California.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. 2d ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988. Classic account of anti-immigrant hostility in the United States describes the attitudes of Texans and Californians toward their neighbors south of the border. Offers extensive discussion of anti-Catholic motivations for immigration restriction. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perkins, Clifford A. Border Patrol: With the U.S. Immigration Service on the Mexican Boundary, 1910-1954. El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1978. Presents the recollections and adventures of a former Border Patrol district officer. Discusses the founding, staffing, and organization of the Border Patrol and the contributions of some of its early members. Provides useful information on the education, attitudes, and responsibilities of officers and relates many anecdotes concerning the methods they use.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reisler, Mark. By the Sweat of Their Brow: Mexican Immigrant Labor in the United States, 1900-1940. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976. Detailed, well-written history of Mexican immigration and the problem of illegal aliens. Discusses the organization and purpose of the Border Patrol and summarizes its accomplishments and problems. Presents an excellent discussion of the motivations of agricultural interests and restrictionists and provides complete statistics on the impact of enforcement on the movement of people across the border. Includes extensive bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tichenor, Daniel J. Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. Examines the history of immigration policy in the United States since the nation’s founding, focusing on the factors that have influenced attitudes toward immigration and immigrants. Includes tables, figures, and index.

Immigration Act of 1917

Emergency Quota Act

Immigration Act of 1924

Mass Deportations of Mexicans

Categories: History