Originally published by The Washington Post
Several people were arrested this week after they placed a banner on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal on the Fourth of July calling for abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Protesters forced the closure of the ICE building in Portland, Oregon, and more Democratic politicians have been embracing an “abolish ICE” message as the midterm elections approach.
It’s not the first time a federal immigration agency has faced demands to disband and undergo a massive transformation. Throughout U.S. history, critics of federal immigration authorities, especially Latinos, have sought reforms or abolition in response to new laws and changing federal policies some deemed discriminatory.
Here is a look at the history of immigration enforcement protests in the U.S.:
U.S. BORDER PATROL
Congress created the U.S. Border Patrol in 1924 at a time when an increased law enforcement presence was needed on the boundary with Canada to combat bootleggers during Prohibition. Around the same time, the U.S. passed restrictive immigration laws in 1921 and 1924 that required more enforcement.
Many of the early agents were recruited from organizations such as the Texas Rangers and local sheriffs and deputies, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s history of the Border Patrol. The government initially provided the agents a badge and revolver. Recruits furnished their own horse and saddle.
The early years were fraught with tensions, however.
In her book “Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol,” historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez describes how the government was under pressure in the 1920s from nativists and the Ku Klux Klan to halt “non-white” immigrants from entering the country. And Iowa State University historian Brian Behnken, author of “Fighting Their Own Battles: Mexican Americans, African Americans, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Texas,” notes that many Mexican-Americans associated the U.S. Border Patrol with Texas Rangers who terrorized Latino communities along the border during in the early 1900s.
The new agency hired ill-trained agents who also used violence and engaged in corruption, including notorious Border Patrol agent Charles Askins, who infamously wrote in his autobiography that “I was really in favor of banging a suspect over the ears with a six-shooter and then asking him (about) when he crossed out of Mexico.”
The problems prompted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor and an eventual shakeup. By World War II, the agency was providing tighter control of the border, manning detention camps, guarding diplomats, and assisting the U.S. Coast Guard in searching for “Axis saboteurs.”
In 1939, Guatemalan-American activist Luisa Moreno organized the first conference of Spanish-speaking people in the U.S. and heard from residents who complained about violence by Border Patrol agents. After hearing testimony, labor leader Emma Tenayuca called for “the abolition of all restriction” imposed on Mexican-Americans who lived in territory that used to be Mexico.
Latino activists protested two massive deportation operations of Mexican immigration, during the Great Depression and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration. In both cases, activists attempted to hide targeted immigrants and called on federal and local officials to halt the deportation operations while pushing for agency reforms.
Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback” sought the removal of Mexican immigrants through military-style tactics. An estimated 300,000 migrants, some American citizens, were placed in overcrowded planes, boats and trains to unfamiliar parts of Mexico. Critics said both operations led to increased distrust among Mexican-Americans and federal immigration authorities.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, activists from the militant Chicano Movement pointed to both deportation programs as a reason why more Latino elected officials were needed to combat “la migra,” or immigration authorities.
Not all Latino advocates opposed immigration enforcement moves.
Mexican-American civil rights attorney Gus Garcia visited the White House in 1952 to press President Harry S. Truman to step up immigration enforcement. He and other reformers believed white farmers used Mexican migrants to keep wages down and prevented poor Mexican-Americans from getting employment.
Labor leader Cesar Chavez shared the same sentiment, believing illegal labor was hurting efforts to organize poor Mexican-American and Filipino-American workers. In 1974, some Chavez associates created a “wet line” along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona to discourage Mexican migration through violence.
By the 1980s, moderate Latino advocacy groups began inviting federal immigration authorities to their annual conventions to allow them to recruit Latino staff. According to 2016 federal data, Latinos make up slightly more than 50 percent of the U.S. Border Patrol. For border regions with high unemployment rates, a Border Patrol position offers high pay with benefits and job stability.
In 1992, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Border Patrol violated the civil rights of students at an El Paso high school by stopping them without good cause to determine their citizenship. The students said agents routinely abused students and staff and accused them of being immigrants in the country illegally just because they were Hispanic.
To ease the public relations disaster over racial profiling, the Clinton administration appointed future Congressman Silvestre Reyes to head a dysfunctional El Paso Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol. He was the first Mexican-American to hold the position.
Reyes strategically positioned agents on the border to intercept immigrants as part of a strategy that would come to be known as “Operation Hold the Line.”
But critics say the move forced migrants from urban areas to isolated stretches in the desert that exposed them to dangerous conditions, later resulting in thousands of deaths. “That really was the beginning of the turning of the screws and every year it got worse and worse and worse,” El Paso immigration attorney Carlos Spector said. “Now, the law is the tool of repression.”
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the former Immigration and Naturalization Service agency was broken up into three components within the new Department of Homeland Security. The new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency was formed and its authority has grown with every president since George W. Bush.