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Review: "Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol"

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Review of "Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol."

Review of "Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol."

Migra! Book Synopsis

Throughout historian Kelly Hernandez’s book, Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol, the author provides a detailed analysis of the complex history and development of the U.S. Border Patrol. In the process of chronicling this federal agency’s rise to power, Hernandez’s work explores the fundamental relationships that Border Patrol officers forged with immigrants and describes “how Mexican immigrant workers emerged as the primary targets” of immigration enforcement by the mid-twentieth century (Hernandez, 2). In the agency’s inchoate phase, Hernandez posits that the Patrol struggled “to translate the mandates and abstractions of U.S. immigration law into everyday immigration law-enforcement practices,” (Hernandez, 2). As a result, she argues that the Border Patrol was often forced to develop strategies and tactics that reflected local and regional customs in order to comply with their obligations to border enforcement (Hernandez, 2). As such, Hernandez argues that “the development of the Border Patrol…is best understood as an intrinsically social and political process” in which “social anxieties, political tensions, and economic interests” all coalesced and helped forge the Patrol’s identity as a law enforcement agency (Hernandez, 5).

Hernandez's Main Points

From its violent and spiteful early years to the federal government’s attempt to professionalize the agency during World War Two into a cohesive, national task force, Hernandez argues that the evolution of the Patrol eventually led to the racialization of immigration enforcement as the “legal/illegal divide” became blurred by the agency’s relentless desire to curb border crossings. As more and more Mexicans made the dangerous journey across the Rio Grande or the deserts of Southwestern America (in search of work and a better life), the increased pressure of providing border security led to a dramatic rise in arrests and deportations (through buses, airlifts, trains, and boats); often with the full cooperation of the Mexican government and its own border agents. However, Hernandez argues that as economic problems (from both Mexico and the United States), drug trafficking, and crime began to increasingly grow, pressure to detain/deport Latinos from the United States developed in tandem as well. Consequently, Hernandez’s work demonstrates that this pressure to criminalize immigrants and prevent illegal border crossings led Patrol officers to assert a newfound level of control and coercion over Latinos (including Mexican-Americans). As such, Hernandez argues that legal (and illegal) Latinos increasingly faced higher levels of racial profiling, police targeting and brutality, as well as unwarranted searches and seizures as Border Patrol officers increased their enforcement efforts (culminating with "Operation Wetback"). Hernandez concludes with a discussion of the American prison system and argues that increased apprehension rates (and detainment) of illegal immigrants, in turn, greatly increased the problems facing the carceral system; namely issues of racism and inequality (Hernandez, 233).

Hernandez’s book fits nicely within current historiographical trends that stress the importance of economic factors in “the shaping of contemporary U.S. immigration” enforcement (Hernandez, 3). However, while Hernandez acknowledges the tremendous role that agribusiness and farmers played in the development of illegal immigration, she counters the economic arguments of historians by arguing that immigration enforcement was influenced by additional factors, including: “employers, immigrants, Border Patrol officers, bureaucrats, Mexican politicians, nativists, Mexican American activists, and many others” (Hernandez, 4.) Thus, as she points out, to relegate the development of the U.S. Border Patrol and immigration enforcement to a singular cause is both fallacious and unsupported by evidence.

Personal Thoughts

All in all, Hernandez provides a rich and detailed analysis of the U.S. Border Patrol that traces its development from humble beginnings to the modern era. The author’s work is well-written and engaging with its content, and her chapter-by-chapter analysis of the social and ethnic issues surrounding border enforcement is both intriguing and compelling. I was particularly impressed with Hernandez’s writing style and her ability to transform statistical information, data, and general research into a narrative-driven format that is both detailed and easy to read. I also enjoyed Hernandez’s incorporation of statistical tables and charts to present her findings in a quantitative manner. This, in turn, helped elucidate many of the ideas and arguments that she made throughout her book. More importantly, however, I was particularly impressed with the fact that Hernandez approaches the issue of illegal immigration from a largely neutral stance throughout her work; incorporating documents from both the United States and Mexico to construct her analysis and thesis. This was particularly interesting for me since the perspective of the Mexican government is too often neglected in historical renditions of illegal immigration. Therefore, I found this perspective to be both an enriching and refreshing change in regard to mainstream accounts of this issue.

In regard to negatives, my only complaint was that Hernandez spends very little time discussing the later history of the Border Patrol; in particular, the 1990s and early 2000s. Although she does manage to touch on these issues in the concluding sections of the book, more details pertaining to Border Patrol tactics (and modern issues of illegal immigration) would have offered an interesting point of comparison between the past and present history of the Patrol. As such, I found her subtitle “A History of the U.S. Border Patrol” to be a bit misleading.

Nevertheless, even with these small shortcomings, Hernandez’s contributions to the field are profound and will likely influence future scholarship for years to come. I give this book 5/5 stars and highly recommend it to anyone interested in modern American history. Definitely check it out if you get a chance!

Questions for Further Discussion

1.) What was Hernandez's thesis? What are some of the main points that she makes in this book? Did you find her arguments to be persuasive? Why or why not?

2.) Was this work engaging?

3.) Does Hernandez organize her book in a logical manner?

4.) What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of this monograph? Can you identify any areas that Hernandez could have improved upon?

5.) What type of primary source materials does Hernandez rely on in this book? Does this reliance help or hinder her main argument?

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6.) Did you learn anything new from reading this book?

7.) What type of scholarship does Hernandez challenge in this piece?

Suggestions for Further Reading

Broyles, Bill and Mark Haynes. Desert Duty: On the Line with the U.S. Border Patrol. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2010.

Kirkpatrick, Terry. Sixty Miles of Border: An American Lawman Battles Drugs on the Mexican Border. New York, NY: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2012.

Miller, Todd. Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Homeland Security. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Publishers, 2014.

Works Cited:

Hernández, Kelly. Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

© 2017 Larry Slawson


Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on April 22, 2017:

Very good book review, Larry. I'd like to read the book some day. I agree there are many factors that contribute to illegal immigration, deportations, and arrests. The author may have had trouble verifying the most recent problem situations. That is the only area where I felt you were left wanting more. Sometimes I research current events about a present day crisis, for instance, illegal boarder crossing of drugs. It's amazing how the drug cartel can sneak things across without anyone knowing anything about it. Sometimes it takes several years to get a complete reading of chronological causes and effects for the most recent years.

Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on April 21, 2017:

Thank you Mel! That sounds really interesting. You should definitely check out this book then. In regard to the early Border Patrol and its officers, it is very eye-opening to say the least.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on April 21, 2017:

I am writing a novel with Border Patrol characters in it, so this subject interests me. Looks like a good read. Great review.

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