The Antecedents of the U.S. Border Patrol, 1812-1940

Alan Capps

Advisor: Zachary Schrag, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Alison Landsberg, Katherine A. Benton-Cohen, Christopher Hamner

Johnson Center, #326
April 20, 2018, 10:00 AM to 12:30 PM


This dissertation examines the antecedents of the U.S. Border Patrol. By reviewing the period 1812-1940, I consider the alternatives the U.S. Congress could have but did not embrace, concerning the establishment of a border patrol force. In doing so, I clarify the process by which the antecedents reveal the developmental evolution of a federal agency designed to enforce the comprehensive rule of federal law not just specific areas of federal law, a concept that for many critics implied a national police force.

Among the alternatives studied in this dissertation are the employment of the U.S. Marshals service, initially the only constitutionally empowered agency to enforce federal laws, and the early reliance on questionable state and local militias along the northern border with Canada. Additional alternatives I examine include the volatile and independent-minded Texas Rangers along the majority of the southern border with Mexico, and the early role of the federal army when called upon to assist in the enforcement of federals laws along both borders.

Even full jurisdictional control of immigration policies by the federal government in the 1880s, resulting in a series of increasingly restrictive federal immigration laws through the end of World War One, failed to warrant the establishment of dedicated land border force to enforce immigration restrictions. Only after the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 were monies appropriated to expand the nascent ad hoc force within the Bureau of Immigration into a Border Patrol with the sole objective of enforcing immigration laws. Through congressional debates, federal reports, executive actions, and witness testimonies, I detail the subsequent protracted bureaucratic struggle between the Departments of Labor and Treasury in the late 1920’s and early 1930s over the proposed consolidation of agencies and enforcement powers into one unified U.S Border Patrol.

This dissertation reflects on the little-known antecedents of the U.S. Border Patrol and contributes to a more concise understanding of its evolution from an interdepartmental agency responsible for one area of federal law into a federal law enforcement agency.