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Background

Learn about U.S. borders, post-9/11 border security, the war on drugs and more.

U.S. Borders

The United States shares 1,952 miles of border with Mexico and 5,526 miles of border with Canada (including 1,539 miles of border in Alaska). Altogether, there are 326 officially sanctioned ports of entry, including both air- and seaports as well as 163 land crossings, where pedestrians, cars and commercial vehicles may cross. The majority of land crossings are owned by the government; some are privately owned and leased. Informal border crossings, such as rowboat ferry services at points along the Rio Grande, were tolerated for many years before being shut down as part of the increased focus on security in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Responsibility for protecting the U.S. border and preventing illegal entry is shared by several government agencies, all of which are part of the Department of Homeland Security. The agencies include the Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (formerly part of the Immigration and Naturalization Service) and Customs and Border Protection (which incorporates two previously separate agencies, the Border Patrol and the Customs Service). Each of these agencies plays a part in securing American borders and enforcing compliance with regulations on immigration, travel and commercial traffic at the border.

In 2006, the latest year for which complete figures are available, over 46 million people entered the United States from Mexico on foot; 180 million entered in passenger cars; and about 3 million entered aboard commercial buses.

Sources:
» "New Tactics to Control Immigration Are Unveiled." New York Times. February 23, 2008.
» "Because of 9/11, a Uniting River Now Divides." New York Times. August 1, 2002.
» "Rio Grande Town Fights for Survival." All Things Considered. November 23, 2007.
» "Despite Progress, Weaknesses in Traveler Inspections Exist at Our Nation's Ports of Entry." Testimony before the Committee on Homeland Security, House of Representatives. United States Government Accountability Office. January 3, 2008.
» U.S. Department of Transportation. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

 

Redford, Texas

Sunset in Redford, TX Credit: Courtesy of Heyoka Pictures

Located in Presidio County in the sparsely populated southwestern region of Texas, Redford had a population of 132 people in the 2000 census. Educational levels are relatively low, and unemployment is relatively high, though neither figure is far out of line with Presidio County as a whole. Eighty-eight percent of the population in Redford identified as Hispanic in the 2000 census, and 94 percent speak a language other than English at home. Presidio County has a low population density, with an estimated population of 7,700 people spread across over 3,800 miles. Agricultural work provides much of the work for those who have jobs outside the home. Recreation and tourism, largely driven by visitors traveling through Presidio County en route to Big Bend National Park in nearby Brewster County, provides some local income. Redford is about 70 miles south of Marfa, the Presidio County seat.

The border area surrounding Redford had been inhabited by indigenous people for many centuries prior to the arrival of Europeans. Some evidence suggests that the border region is among the oldest continually inhabited agricultural communities in North America.

Residents along the border in southwestern Texas were accustomed to having few restrictions on crossing the border into Mexico and back. Rowboat ferries commonly shuttled workers or visitors across the Rio Grande for one or two dollars. In May of 2002, the Border Patrol raided known informal border crossings in the region, arresting 20 people in an attempt to close off unregulated access across the line. Since then, the only access across the border is the official crossing in the town of Presidio, about 15 miles away.

Sources:
» "Because of 9/11, a Uniting River Now Divides." New York Times. August 1, 2002.
» Quick Facts: Presidio County, Texas. U.S. Census Bureau.
» Fact Sheet: Redford, Texas. U.S. Census Bureau.

 

Military on the Border

Tank on U.S.-Mexico border, taken by camera 11, Sherry in NM, Courtesy of Border Film Project

The border between the United States and Mexico has been a source of contention for much of the past two centuries. In the 19th century, the independent state of Texas and the U.S. government both fought with Mexico over the boundary. After the United States annexed Texas, the nations fought a war over territory, with the result that the internationally recognized southern border of the United States shifted further south, from the Nueces River to the Rio Grande. In the 1910s, there were cross-border incursions by Mexican forces, including those led by Pancho Villa, and the American military.

After that time, military forces were not used to patrol or guard the border until the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan sought to use them to augment efforts to suppress drug smuggling. One reason the forces had not been used in that capacity was the Posse Comitatus Act, originally passed in the aftermath of the Civil War to prevent the federal government from using members of the military for domestic law enforcement purposes. The act was amended in 1981 by Congress, and altered by a 1986 presidential order, to allow the armed forces to offer assistance in drug interdiction efforts.

In 1997, Cpl. Clemente Banuelos, a United States Marine, part of a four-man team on a mission to help catch drug smugglers near the Rio Grande in Presidio County, shot and killed an American citizen, Esequiel Hernandez. It was the first time an American citizen was killed by an American soldier since the 1970 shootings by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio.

Hernandez, an 18-year-old high school student, was herding goats near the border when he fired two shots from his rifle in the direction of the Marines, who were concealed with camouflage about 200 yards away. The incident prompted substantial criticism, as local residents complained that they were unaware of the deployment of soldiers in the area, and others argued that the presence of armed soldiers itself was inappropriate. Military and government officials claimed that the incident was an unfortunate accident, and that the soldiers themselves were not to blame.

In the aftermath of Hernandez's death, the government withdrew troops from the border. In 1998, the military and the Department of Justice settled a lawsuit with the Hernandez family, agreeing to pay an annuity with a total value of approximately $1.9 million. Almost a decade later, in 2006, President George W. Bush announced plans to deploy as many as 6,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexican border to offer border enforcement assistance.

Sources:
» "After Marine on Patrol Kills a Teen-Ager, a Texas Border Village Wonders Why." New York Times. June 29, 1997.
» "Bush's Plan to Seal Border Worries Mexico." New York Times. May 15, 2006.
» "Soldiers on the Border." The Texas Observer. September 8, 2006.
» "Tougher Tactics Deter Migrants at U.S. Border." New York Times. February 21, 2007.

 

Border Enforcement Today

The major priorities of border enforcement today are anti-terrorism, discouraging illegal crossings by non-U.S. nationals seeking to work in the United States and drug interdiction. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, is the agency that is primarily responsible for patrolling the borders and enforcing entry restrictions. The force includes approximately 15,000 Border Patrol agents, and plans are in place to expand the force to 18,000 agents by the end of 2008 — roughly twice as many agents as in 2001.

Two other major components of U.S. border control are the increased use of fencing and the use of technological surveillance. Political pressure over the presence of undocumented immigrants has grown in recent years, as have calls for more fencing and border security. The government recently completed a pilot study of 28 miles of a high-tech fence in Arizona, which incorporated ground sensors, mobile towers and radar. A separate effort is under way to build 370 miles of fencing along parts of the border from Texas to California. Both projects have been sharply criticized — the pilot study for its technical shortcomings, and the longer fencing project for its simplicity and the projected incursion into private property.

Sources:
» "New Tactics to Control Immigration Are Unveiled." New York Times. February 23, 2008.
» "In Texas, Weighing Life With a Border Fence." New York Times. February 13, 2008.
» "Officials Split on Viability of Border-Fence Project." New York Times. February 29, 2008.

 

The War on Drugs

The interdiction of illegal drugs has been a key focus of American border policy for the last two decades. Prior to that time, large segments of the border were porous and scarcely patrolled; inspection and enforcement were concentrated at official crossings. In 1986, however, the Reagan administration announced a broader effort to combat illegal drug trafficking. The government argued that the growth in the drug trade and exorbitant profits had led to a dangerous escalation in violence committed by drug traders in the border region.

The expansion of the war on drugs incorporated for the first time elements of a militarized border — including the cooperation of civilian and military authorities from 22 separate agencies.

Sources:
» "U.S. Aides Accuse Mexico as Drug Trade Surges." New York Times. May 12, 1986.
» "U.S. Details Plan to Combat Drugs at Mexico Border." New York Times. August 14, 1986.





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— Kieran Fitzgerald, Filmmaker