There’s a lot of arguments these days by contentious politicians over how to secure our southern border. Our common border with Mexico is about 1500 miles long — interestingly less than half the length of border we share with Canada, stretching from Pohenegamook, Maine, to Seattle, Washington.
Both borders have to be secured, albeit the southern is receiving more attention these days, and that job falls to the Border Patrol or, officially, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Those of us living in Mesilla Valley have an opportunity to understand this law enforcement agency better than most other Americans. Drive Trans Mountain highway to the east side of El Paso and, just before the road ends at U.S. 54, you’ll find a boxy, yellow brick building to the north. This is the National Border Patrol Museum and Memorial Library.
In 1978, 34 retired Border Patrol inspectors met in Denver, forming the Fraternal Order of Retired Border Patrol Officers. Among their goals was establishment of a museum. They began collecting artifacts and, in 1985, the National Border Patrol Museum opened its doors in the basement of the old Cortez building in downtown El Paso. It was forced to vacate the location in 1992 over a dispute with the landlord. Not to be deterred, the museum trustees leased the land on which the museum now stands. It opened its doors at the new location in 1994.
The museum documents and commemorates the Border Patrol. It offers a collection of vehicles used to check illegal border crossings: cars, trucks, planes, and helicopters — as well as vehicles smugglers have used to unlawfully enter the country: notably, boats, motorcycles, and cars. It also has exhibits of uniforms and weapons as well as a selection of art with Border Patrol as the subject.
There’s also its history, displayed in easy-to-read panels. From them, you’ll learn once there was no border to speak of between Mexico and the U.S. Before 1846, New Mexico was first a province of New Spain and then a territory of Mexico. But the U.S. was pressing west, and Texas was tangled up in conflicts with Mexico over whether it was a Mexican state or an independent republic.
In 1846, the Mexican—American War erupted. When it was over — and when the Gadsden Purchase was concluded — the U.S. shared a 1500-milelong border with Mexico. No one really seemed to care. Rustlers and bandits crossed and re-crossed the imaginary dividing line with impunity.
By 1904, the U.S. Immigration Service set watchmen on horseback to patrol the border and prevent illegal crossings. Their efforts, however, were irregular and undertaken only when money was available. These watchmen were called Mounted Guards. They operated out of El Paso and, though there were never more than 75 in the force, they patrolled west to California, trying to restrict the flow of illegal Chinese immigrants.
Over the next few years, Border Patrol efforts were better coordinated. Although smuggling efforts and illegal entry continued, much of the land was far too rugged and remote to patrol effectively.
Then, in 1919, the U.S. Constitution was amended, prohibiting the importation, transport, manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages beginning midnight January 16, 1920. That amendment, along with Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924 restricting the flow of immigrants, solidified the Border Patrol and its mission. In 1924, it was officially called the Border Patrol and its duties expanded to include patrolling seacoasts.
Since our two borders are more than 1500 miles apart, the government established a border office in Detroit and retained its presence in El Paso. During Prohibition, most of the Border Patrol was assigned to prevent smuggling of liquor over the Canadian border. But smuggling was also commonplace along the Mexican border. Bootleggers slipped their forbidden cargo across the Rio Grande using pack mules.
During World War II, the Patrol provided tighter border control, manned alien detention camps, guarded diplomats, and assisted the U.S. Coast Guard in searching for Axis saboteurs. Aircraft proved extremely effective and became an integral part of operations.
In recent years, increased smuggling activities pushed the Border Patrol to the front line of the U.S. war on drugs. It has become the primary druginterdicting organization along the Southwest border and continues to impede narcotic traffickers.
Illegal immigration has also increased along the Mexican border. Donald Trump recently compared his “plan” to remove undocumented immigrants to Operation Wetback, a program of the Eisenhower administration begun in the mid-1950s. Tens of thousands of immigrants were expelled by boat, plane, train, and bus. But the desire of Mexican nationals and people from Central America to find work in the U.S. and feed their poor families continues, and the unsecured border remains a problem. In today’s environment, political solutions seem improbable if not impossible.
As it has evolved over the last 30 years the National Border Patrol Museum has become the repository for memorabilia and memories of more than 80 years of the Patrol’s history. And aren’t we glad the Border Patrol decided to build their museum in El Paso, adjacent to our border with Mexico, rather than next to our border with Canada in Minot, North Dakota, with its much colder winters.