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Border Patrol Used Variety of Methods to Control Immigration
Article first published in Vol. 14, 1996.
By Elizabeth Dezler and Sheryl Wilcox
In 1962, tracks showed a two-legged cow traveling through the desert near El Paso. Then footprints of a man walking backwards in the desert appeared. The stuff of tabloid headlines? No, just some of the attempts by illegal immigrants to cross into the U.S. from Mexico. Shortly after finding the cow tracks, Border Patrol agents apprehended a man with cow hoofs strapped to his feet. The backward footprints came from another man who had a second pair of shoes attached backwards to the bottom of his regular shoes.
Loading undocumented immigrants onto an Army bus in Fort Hancock, Texas. Photo courtesy of the Border Patrol Museum.
For over 200 years, immigrants have come to America to better themselves economically. Between 1820 and 1979, some 49 million people entered this country, making America a nation of immigrants. But beginning in 1875, the U.S. began to pass laws restricting immigration. Convicts and prostitutes, the indigent and the insane were excluded. Other laws restricted the number of immigrants on the basis of origin.
In 1904, the U.S. Commissioner General of Immigration established a group called the Mounted Guards to keep illegal Chinese and Mexican immigrants, who were fleeing the pre-revolution turmoil in Mexico, from gaining access to America along the southern border. Numbering only 75, this modest group of men could not sufficiently do the job required of them.
Eighteen years later, on May 28, 1924, the Department of Labor Appropriations Act created the U.S. Border Patrol . The operation consisted of 450 inspectors with its central station in El Paso. The area covered by the patrol at first was the United States-Mexican border, but was later expanded to include the United States-Canadian border. In 1925, the Gulf and Florida Coasts were added, giving the patrol 8,000 miles of border to secure.
Dale Swancutt, local Border Patrol researcher, says the agents were known as "inspectors." When they joined the service, they received a badge, a pistol, and oats and hay for their horses, which they had to provide themselves. By the 1950s and 1960s, the Border Patrol had established strict requirements for agents and had embarked on a rigid training program.
Elmer H. Hoffman, retired Border Patrol inspector, says his training included immigration law, Spanish, and use of firearms at the Military Police Academy on Fort Bliss. Horses had been replaced by jeeps, and in 1954, the Cessna airplane became an important vehicle to the Border Patrol. The jeeps had radio transmitters, allowing the men in the airplanes to relay information to the ground crew.
Hoffman recalls having to pull "observer duty" in which he would have to fly as a passenger to get an idea of what the border looked like from above. This procedure gave the inspectors views of trails and hiding places of illegal immigrants they would not have seen from the ground. Hoffman says every inspector had to go through this process every month or so.
Ten years later, inspectors had developed other means of tracking undocumented immigrants. James Shelby, a retired Immigration Patrol inspector who was stationed at Fort Hancock in the early 1960s, says that the first thing he did after his arrival there was to learn every inch of the country.
Thus, when tracking undocumented immigrants, he could jump ahead because he would already know where the water holes were, the location of ranch houses that would hire the immigrants - or at least feed them - and the people who would give him information as to their whereabouts so he would be able to find them.
Recounting what a typical day was like for an inspector, Shelby says, "Regardless of what we did, 'sign cutting' was done every morning." William Crawford in his book on the Border Patrol explains "sign cutting" as finding, understanding and following the footprints, signs or tracks of people who enter the country illegally.
David Hellyer, another Border Patrol historian, say sign cutting is an ancient Indian art, and the "experienced cutter becomes a student of nature, an amateur weather forecaster, an expert in desert lore." Shelby adds, "We had a four-man station and had to cover 58 miles of river and about 106 miles of 'drag' roads. We cut every inch of them everyday. It was 12 to 16 hour days and it was good work."
A "drag" was a well concealed homemade road through desert areas where illegal immigrants on foot habitually entered the United States. The roads were called drag roads because the inspectors dragged something wide and heavy over the road to wipe away any marks so the road would be smooth and they could spot fresh tracks instantly.
The inspectors recorded the time when a road was dragged, and later, if tracks were found, they were able to estimate how old the tracks were. The roads were smoothed out at the end of the day and cut first thing in the morning. Shelby says, "Dragging was about the only way you could get a real handle on time. If you did not have a rain or dust storm, you would have no way of knowing how old tracks were."
Sign cutting and dragging were the primary methods used to detect and apprehend illegal immigrants in the 1960s, but the Bracero Program allowed Mexican workers to enter the U.S. legally to work for the agricultural industry.
This program allowed the Border patrol to devote more time to apprehending those entering illegally. Shelby says that at the beginning of the harvest season, the Border Patrol would check to see that every worker was properly documented and then only made spot checks the rest of the year.
With the elimination of the Bracero Program in the 1960s, illegal entry began to increase along the borders. At the beginning of the 1960s, between 30,000 to 40,000 illegal immigrants were being arrested per year. By 1966, that number had climbed to over 80,000 illegal entries, and as many as 160,000 in 1969.
What had worked in the 1950s and 1960s to control illegal immigration is primitive compared to today's technological advancements. The new technology includes infrared cameras, seismic sensors and computerized fingerprinting and photography.
In an article in the San Antonio Express News, John MacCormack says illegal entrants often do not even realize that the Border Patrol are there with the new thermal imaging camera that detects the number of persons and any weapons they may be carrying. The officers are able to see in total darkness and plan their strategy to make their apprehensions.
The thermal imaging camera takes infrared waves, a form of invisible radiation given off in different intensities according to temperature, and via a computer, the agents can see images which resemble a film negative on a screen. The camera can be mounted on vehicles, providing the officers more flexibility in their pursuit of undocumented immigrants.
Agent Rick Lucio from El Paso says that "the greatest thing as our night vision. We have trucks that are equipped with a telescopic antenna and inside the trucks we have monitors and all that has to be done is to rotate the antenna around and the agents can see in total darkness. It's like watching television and anything that moves or generates heat is vivid on the screen."
Ken Baake, in a 1995 El Paso Herald-Post article, described other high-tech methods the Border Patrol uses to apprehend undocumented immigrants. Seismic sensors buried in the sand in both El Paso and San Diego on the U.S.-Mexico border detect even the slightest footfall or vehicle motion.
A computerized fingerprinting and photography system enables agents to keep track of people who frequently attempt to cross the border illegally. It displays the fingerprint image of a detained person on a computer screen alongside a photograph of the person.
The technology used is not the only means the Border Patrol has to stop illegal entry. "Operation Hold the Line " went into effect on September 19, 1993, under the leadership of Silvestre Reyes, former Border Patrol chief. It was expected that 10,000 illegal immigrants would cross the river as they did every Sunday and waiting for them were more than 400 agents positioned every 100 yards along the border. The purpose was to prevent illegal immigration with a substantial border presence.
Illegal immigration into El Paso since "Operation Hold The Line" began appears to have decreased substantially. Before the blockade started, approximately 1,000 undocumented immigrants were captured every day compared to 150 a day after the program began.
Throughout the past century, undocumented immigrants have used clever schemes to mislead inspectors and cross into the U.S. And as remarkable as the technological advancements and "Operation Hold The Line" are, many illegal immigrants still get through.
The Border Patrol is trying everything from the latest computers to horse patrols, which were doubled to 16 rides in April 1996. While the methods today and in previous decades have been effective in containing some of the illegal immigration, there are no easy answers to the problem.