By Jacobs, W. E

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U.S. Borders: An Overview.

By Jacobs, W.E.
Walter, Andrew

Points of View: U.S. Borders, 2011, p1-1, 1p

US Borders: An Overview

Beginning in the 1990s, and continuing into the twenty-first century, large numbers of people have entered the United States from Mexico without authorization. By some estimates, this is the largest single wave of immigration recorded in the past 200 years. Estimates of the number of illegal immigrants in the United States range as high as 20 million; most estimates, however, are closer to 12 million.

Immigration has been a political issue in the United States since a wave of Irish and German immigration in the 1830s. Opposition has often centered on ethnic and religious prejudice, or fears that immigrants would take jobs away from those that already inhabited America. Laws to control immigration have ranged from outright bans on some nationalities, to numerical quotas imposed according to one's country of origin during the 1920s. The most recent wave of immigration from Mexico has resulted in demands for political action to curb illegal immigration and to enforce existing immigration laws. Proposals for how best to accomplish these goals have focused on physical barriers, such as a continuous fence along the US-Mexico border accompanied by more border patrolmen, to erecting barriers to employment by demanding that companies in the United States be held accountable for hiring immigrants without proper credentials.

Understanding the Discussion

Border Patrol: A uniformed police agency of the federal Department of Customs and Border Protection. The US Border Patrol (USBP) is charged with enforcing federal laws governing people entering the United States. In practice, however, the term most often refers to agents patrolling the border between the United States and Mexico.

Guest Worker Program: A proposal based on laws in Europe that would allow citizens of foreign countries to enter the United States temporarily and to take jobs as "guest workers," without obtaining any rights to future citizenship.

Minuteman Project: A private organization of individuals that undertakes surveillance of the US-Mexico border, nominally to assist the official Border Patrol in spotting people trying to enter the United States illegally. The organization has generated intense controversy, criticized by some as vigilantes, praised by others as helping government agents.


The history of the United States is a history of immigration, beginning with English colonists landing in Virginia and Massachusetts in the early seventeenth century to avoid religious persecution. Since then, there have been several great waves of immigration to the United States. The first occurred in the 1830s and 1840s, as large numbers of people from Ireland and Germany entered the United States. The fact that most Irish, and many Germans, were Roman Catholic, disturbed some American Protestants and gave rise to the "Know Nothing" movement, aimed at depriving newcomers of the right to vote.

The California Gold Rush of 1848 attracted a large number of Chinese immigrants to California, who, after the Gold Rush died out, found work building the transcontinental railroad. Their presence generated resentment among European-Americans and resulted in a series of state laws that explicitly discriminated against people from China. The federal Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882 banned any further Chinese immigration for ten years (the law was later renewed, but, in 1943 was repealed by the Magnuson Act) and gave birth to the concept of "illegal immigration." Similar prejudice resulted in a treaty with Japan to stop Japanese immigration.

Another wave of European immigration in the decades following the Civil War (1861-65) brought many immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe. This wave coincided with a period of rapid industrial economic growth in the United States, known as the Industrial Revolution, and proved to be the biggest wave of all.

Between 1900 and 1910, almost nine million immigrants entered the United States. The peak of the immigration was 1907, when 1,285,349 immigrants were counted. The mass numbers of new immigrants sparked resentment and fear that they would compete with native-born Americans for jobs and political influence.

Subsequently, Congress began to set numerical limits on immigration, with specific "quotas" assigned to each country. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 limited the total European immigration to 150,000 per year and set quotas for each country at two percent of its US population as of 1890. The practical impact of the act resulted in large quotas for those countries such as England and Germany, for example, that already had many immigrants in the United States, and much smaller quotas for Italy and the Eastern European countries that lacked a strong existing population in the United States. As it turned out, however, the principal impetus behind immigration was about to fade away: The Great Depression of the 1930s severely curtailed immigration, since there were virtually no jobs available.

It was also during the period of anti-immigrant sentiment after World War I, in 1924, that the United States first established patrols along its borders with Canada and Mexico. Previously, people from Mexico in particular had freely been able to come to the United States, usually to find employment as seasonal agricultural workers, known as "migrant laborers," picking crops in California, for example, and then returning home after the harvest.

US Borders Today

The current wave of large-scale immigration, beginning in the 1990s, has predominately come from Latin America, and especially Mexico. Unlike earlier decades, when many Mexican citizens had entered the United States as agricultural workers to harvest crops, those arriving since 1990 have moved into many urban areas. Surveys show that these immigrants, arriving with official "green cards," often take low-paying jobs left unfilled by American workers. In many cases, men come to the United States in order to earn money to send to their families in Mexico. In other cases, women cross the border to give birth so that their children will have automatic American citizenship.

Estimates of the number of people living in the United States illegally range as high as 20 million, although the figure most often cited is around 12 million. The fact that illegal immigrants are not officially registered, of course, makes it impossible to determine an accurate figure.

In a virtual replay of reactions from a century ago, there has been strong political opposition to illegal immigration. Opponents have pointed to ethnic criminal gangs and to illegal drug smuggling as evidence that the new immigrants pose a threat to the security of the United States. The prospect that terrorists from around the world could easily enter the United States from Mexico is also cited as a reason to tighten immigration laws and restrictions. In Arizona, particularly, unofficial groups calling themselves "Minutemen" (a reference to those that comprised the colonial American militia in the Revolutionary War) have sent volunteers armed with binoculars (and often rifles) to conduct surveillance of the border and notify Border Patrol agents of suspected illegal immigration.

The fact that most new immigrants continue to speak their native language is sometimes cited as evidence that the new wave of immigration poses a cultural threat to the United States. This has given rise to demands that English be adopted as the official language of the United States, even at a time when both businesses and the media have adapted to the new, ethnically diverse population by offering services in Spanish and other languages.

One proposal popular with those that advocate physically controlling the border is to build a tall fence along the entire 2,000 mile border between the US and Mexico. Although the United States Department of Homeland Security has expressed opposition, portions of such a fence have already been built along several stretches, including the area near San Diego, California. Critics argue the 2,000 mile fence is impracticable, would alienate the government of Mexico and would only redirect immigrants to other routes into the US. In 2006, bills authorizing the construction of 700 miles of fencing or barriers along the border passed in the United States Senate and the House of Representatives, and were signed into law by President Bush. Construction of the fence caused significant damage to the environment and, in January of 2009, $50 million was appropriated to help alleviate the environmental harm already done.

Other proposals to control the border focus on penalizing US companies that hire people who lack the legal right to live in the Unites States. The motive of these proposals is to make it much harder for immigrants to find work, and thus to discourage them from immigrating illegally. A variation of this idea has come from former President George W. Bush, who proposed adopting laws similar to European "guest worker" programs, which allow a designated number of foreigners to enter the country temporarily in order to take jobs that employers cannot fill with American workers.

Meanwhile, incidents of violence along the border continue, the majority of which are related to Mexico's illicit drug trade. In February 2011, a federal immigration official was shot and killed while on patrol in Lardeo, Texas. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and President Barack Obama were highly critical of the incident, stating that those responsible will be brought to justice. Meanwhile, many of Obama's critics state that he has not done enough to address the issue of border control and immigration.


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By W.E. Jacobs/Co-Author: Andrew Walter

Andrew Walter, Esq., is an attorney licensed to practice in the state of Connecticut. He received a bachelor of arts degree in international management, with a minor in English, from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter,

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