100 Year Anniversary of Border Patrol Violence and Impunity: Fighting For Our Dignity

From the inception of the U.S. Border Patrol to the present day, border communities continue to bear witness to the unchecked violence that this agency perpetuates against residents, visitors and newcomers alike. May 28, 2024, marks the 100 year anniversary of Border Patrol. For border communities, however, that day marks a century of fighting for our dignity.  

The contemporary border between the United States and Mexico was established in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. From that year until the formal creation of the U.S. Border Patrol in 1924, mounted watchmen along the border and Texas Rangers participated in explicitly racist violence. They served as slave catchers to keep enslaved Black people from fleeing south to freedom. They prevented Chinese workers from coming north after the railroads were built and Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. They targeted what they referred to as ‘Indian warriors’ for violence and they lynched Mexicans.

These early border agents were a tool for social control and at no time were they ever held accountable. In fact, in 1919, the Texas Rangers were investigated by the state legislature for committing abuses like organizing massacres, making prisoners vulnerable to lynch mobs, shooting prisoners, shooting people just for being Mexican, but the legislature refused to pursue those charges. Not much has changed. Border agents have enjoyed impunity for more than a century.


On May 28, 1924, Congress passed the Labor Appropriation Act, establishing the U.S. Border Patrol, charged with guarding the Canadian and Mexican borders. The first Border Patrol agents were drawn from the racist, violent, and unaccountable Texas Rangers who set the norms within the agency that continue to this day. Here are ten examples:


In the 1930s, Border Patrol beat, shot and hung migrants with regularity. Many agents were members of the Ku Klux Klan, active in border towns from Texas to California. In one instance, border agents tied the feet of a migrant and dragged him in and out of a river until he confessed to entering illegally.


In the 1940s, border agents patrolled internment camps in which thousands of Japanese Americans were forced to stay during World War II. They deported both Japanese who were U.S. citizens and Japanese from Latin America that the United States extradited from other countries to use in prisoner exchanges with Japan.


In the 1950s, Border Patrol ran Operation Wetback to violently deport over 1 million workers to Mexico, including U.S. citizens. Agents used military-style tactics to arrest and shove people into buses, trains, boats and planes to deport them. During this time, Congress gave Border Patrol powers to search without warrants inside the U.S.


In the 1960s, Border Patrol agents began to train security forces from other countries at facilities in the U.S. They taught them torture techniques to extract information and engage in operations such as ‘Operación Limpieza’ which resulted in 80 raids and scores of extrajudicial assassinations, including the murder of 30 political activists.


In the 1970s, investigative journalists began to report on Border Patrol abuse, including regular beatings, murder, torture and rape. They reported on the practice of separating children and denying migrants food and water to extract information. They also reported on agent ties to the Klan and to vigilante groups.


In the 1980s, the Border Patrol, beginning in San Diego, created evidence collection teams to protect agents and the agency from civil liability in use of force cases. They were called Critical Incident Teams and they acted without legal authority as shadow units to cover up for agents and to undermine investigations.


In the 1990s, Border Patrol adopted death as a deterrence strategy. Under Operation Gatekeeper, Border Patrol built walls and saturated metropolitan areas with agents, pushing migrants to treacherous and remote terrain where they risked death. This has led to hundreds of people dying every year, and many thousands since 1994.


In the 2000s, following the events of 9/11, Border Patrol became a component of the newly created Customs and Border Protection, an agency of the new Department of Homeland Security. Since that time, the number of Border Patrol agents doubled to 18,000, and with it an increase in the abuse of power.


In the 2010s, border agents beat, tortured and suffocated Anastasio Hernández Rojas, and then attempted to cover it up. This prompted advocates to start counting fatal encounters with border agents, which now total more than 300 since 2010 and include U.S. citizens, children, women and men. No agent has ever been held responsible.


In the 2020s, Border Patrol asserted greater power, deploying agents around the country to respond to protests against police violence. Evoking images of slave patrols, horse-mounted agents brutally rounded up Haitian asylum seekers. In Fiscal Year 2023, border agents recorded a record level of force with more than 1,000 incidents.


In the face of this violence, communities along the southern border are challenging the abuse and impunity of border agents, and we’re fighting for our dignity. The Southern Border Communities Coalition is leading this fight in ten important ways: 

  1. Shining a light on Border Patrol abuse and impunity through our Border Lens
  2. Accompanying families in their pursuit of justice, including in a landmark case.
  3. Exposing illegal cover-up teams, prompting their shutdown and multiple investigations
  4. Conducting national polling that shows the lack of trust in border agents. 
  5. Moving a bipartisan humanitarian bill into law to save lives and identify deceased. 
  6. Advocating for transparency, resulting in Border Patrol use of body-worn cameras
  7. Challenging presidential abuse of power used to build walls, and protecting our win.
  8. Asserting our dignity in testimony to the United Nations for human rights violations.
  9. Protecting migrants from human rights violations in Open Air Detention Sites. 
  10. Advancing a New Border Vision that uplifts the dignity of border communities. 


Communities along the border call for an end to more than a century of racist, violent and unaccountable border policing. It’s time to center human rights that uphold our dignity. President Biden can honor our communities by taking the following actions: 

End the racism: Federal guidance to law enforcement that generally prohibits racial and identity profiling makes an exception for the border region, leading to discrimination. Eliminate the exception in the Department of Justice guidance. 

End the violence: Federal use of force standards relying on “reasonableness” are deficient and deadly. Change the standard to conform to international law and limit use of force to only that which is necessary and proportional to protect lives. 

End the impunity: Federal criminal investigations of border agents have long been compromised by Border Patrol teams that are neither independent nor impartial. Prohibit their continued involvement and pursue obstruction of justice charges.

Learn more about our calls to action in the SBCC report to the UN and at


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