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A History Of The Border Patrol


The struggle by immigration authorities to detain asylum-seekers is the latest in a very long story. Americans have contended with migrants and at times argued with each other over border security. Vigilante groups have even targeted immigrants. That's the premise of the 2001 movie "Texas Rangers" starring Dylan McDermott.


DYLAN MCDERMOTT: (As Leander McNelly) Governor's commissioned the Rangers to do the protecting, mister. Now, you disband these men.

INSKEEP: The Texas Rangers are one of many law enforcement agencies with a legal role to play. The front-line role belongs to a federal agency, the Border Patrol. And we're going to ask Cokie about its history. Commentator Cokie Roberts answers your questions about how politics and the government work.

Hi, Cokie.


INSKEEP: Before we get to the questions from our listeners, how old is the Border Patrol anyway?

ROBERTS: Well, it's been around in different incarnations, really, since the beginning of the republic. The Customs Service was established in the very first Congress in 1789. And then, in the 19th century, immigration inspectors were established - and then, the early 20th century, agriculture inspectors. And of course, Prohibition came in there, too, and people were checking for alcohol.

Then, in 1924, the official Border Patrol was created. And then, it branched out into patrolling from the air and at sea and all of that.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm glad you mentioned a bunch of different agencies there besides the Border Patrol because there are multiple agencies today - which leads to our question from Mike Koeppen (ph) who writes - why is there an ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and a Border Patrol? Don't they do the same thing?

ROBERTS: No. The Customs and Border Protection includes Border Patrol, which is supposed to look at the places between entry points. The people who are at the airports checking your passport when you come in, they're part of Customs and Border Protection. And then ICE is supposed to be checking people once they're already in the country and enforcing immigration and customs laws.

Now, look. Both agencies overlap. They're part of the sprawling Department of Homeland Security that was established after the 9/11 attacks. And at the border, there's a good deal of overlap these days with the proliferation of detention centers because of this exploding need to take care of the huge number of families coming into the country.

INSKEEP: And detention is the subject of a question from Hector Ramirez (ph) who asks - what are the lessons learned, if any, about providing safety and well-being for the people, children, families and people with disabilities who are detained while securing the U.S. border?

ROBERTS: Well, it's not a pretty history, Steve. Despite a strong statement by DHS on its commitment to civil liberties and the responsibility of Border Patrol agents to quote, "avoid racial profiling in conducting stops, searches and other law enforcement investigation or inspectional activities," there've been lots of lawsuits over the years about the treatment of detainees and the conditions in detention facilities.

Some are definitely better than others. But right now we're just talking about huge numbers overwhelming all of this. DHS estimates they stopped 100,000 people coming over the border in March. That's the highest in 10 years.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks.

ROBERTS: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and the government work by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.