From Suspect to Perpetrator: How History Shaped the Modern U.S. Border Patrol Agent

In this series commissioned by Catherine Ramirez and A. Naomi Paik, contributors examine the legacy of the Immigration Act of 1924 and the simultaneous launching of the Border Patrol, which, together, inaugurated the most restrictive era of US immigration history until our own.
I was a modern agent of the state.

When the editors of Public Books first approached me about contributing an article on the Border Patrol, I immediately thought of Ervin Zubiate-Rocha, a graduate student I have worked with closely. Ervin was a Border Patrol agent for a year, and that experience instilled in him a desire to produce knowledge that would highlight past injustices and empower the public. As a path to do so, he decided to pursue a graduate degree in history.

What follows is a collaboration that attempts to show how we are all products of history. We decided that the best way to show that a history we are not aware of looms over us, and can sweep us away, was to have Ervin present his personal (hi)story, while I would contextualize that experience with historical data on the founding of the Border Patrol. Given that I have taught in El Paso for more than 20 years and Ervin was born and raised here, we wanted to center the city in this rendering.

—Ernesto Chávez

On February 26, 2021, while standing in the middle of my home office, I looked fixedly into the lens of my computer and raised my right hand, swearing an oath to defend and support the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. It was an awkward affair. But, due to the recent surge of COVID-19 cases, the Department of Homeland Security was finally forced to hold a virtual onboarding session for the incoming class of Border Patrol trainees.

While swearing my allegiance to the nation, a strange mix of emotions circulated through my mind. After years of living in precarious economic conditions, I was at least partially relieved to have finally exited the seemingly never-ending cycle of poverty that had plagued my family. Yet, as the son of Mexican immigrants, I was troubled by the fact that my fortune would come at the expense of those who shared the same aspirations my mother did, only a few years earlier.

In an effort to remain optimistic, I focused on the best-case scenario for the years ahead. Perhaps most of my time would be spent inside a patrol vehicle, reading a book or listening to music, like the stories I’d heard from people already in the patrol. When eventually forced to perform my duties, I would strive to be the friendly face that people were not expecting. Then, after a few years, I could make my way to another agency and have the opportunity to make a real difference. At least, this was the future that I was sold.

When he joined the Border Patrol, Ervin Zubiate-Rocha did not realize that the future he was sold was a product of history, rooted in El Paso, that had merely caught him in its swirl.

It is well known that the Border Patrol that he joined had emerged as part of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act. But the intricacies of the patrol’s creation are more obscure. Its birth can be traced to the passage of the Prohibition Act of 1920, which enforced the 18th Amendment’s restrictions on the sale of alcohol and ensured its smuggling, leading to violence.

The Border Patrol was a launching pad for a kid from El Paso.

During Prohibition, the El Paso border was especially troublesome and guarded by Prohibition agents and the Customs Patrol (which would later be discontinued), who were helped in their efforts by the Immigration Service’s mounted guard. These incidents were brought to the attention of Claude B. Hudspeth, who represented El Paso in the US Congress. After consulting with the Immigration Service District Director George J. Harris, Congressman Hudspeth pushed to have a rider attached to the Labor Appropriations Act of 1924, which read, “at least one million dollars of this amount shall be expended for additional land border patrol, of which one hundred thousand dollars shall be immediately available.”1

Hudspeth’s shadow over El Paso looms large, but this aspect of his career is not well known. Instead, he is celebrated for the other work he did for the city: while a member of the Texas State Legislature, Hudspeth was instrumental in securing funding for the Texas College of Mines and Metallurgy, which morphed into the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).2 Today, if Hudspeth is remembered at all, it is because of the county named after him to the east of the Sun City; the UTEP hall that bears his name; and his mansion, designed by the famous architectural firm of Trost & Trost, which still stands. Thus, Hudspeth had a hand in creating two institutions that are omnipresent in El Paso and that would help shape Ervin’s life.

Another El Paso resident, Clifford Alan Perkins, also helped create the mold that would later shape Ervin into that idealized, hypermasculine being known as a Border Patrol agent.

In 1908, 19-year-old Perkins left his home in Wisconsin for El Paso. Suspected of suffering from tuberculosis, he sought out the health benefits believed to be available in high dry climates like west Texas. In the “lusty, brawling boom town” of El Paso, Perkins first worked at the post office, and then, two years later, he transferred to the Immigration Service. In early 1911, he began working as an Immigration Service inspector in Tucson, whose task was to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act.3 Two years later, Perkins was moved back to El Paso, where he witnessed the impact of the Mexican Revolution and Prohibition on the city.

Perkins was working in El Paso as the Border Patrol was being imagined. At its creation in 1924, the director of the Immigration Service (Harris, who had consulted with Congressman Hudspeth) put Perkins in charge of inventing the new agency’s policies. Perkins not only shaped the agency but set the ideal for what a Border Patrol agent should be. Using the Canadian Mounted Police, the Michigan State Police, and the Pennsylvania Constabulary as his guide, Perkins designed the Border Patrol’s para-military uniform: forest-green coat with blue cuffs and epaulets, a matching shirt and black tie, riding breeches, leather puttees, Stetson hats with a Cordovan-brown hat band, army-issued shoes, and Sam Browne belt. This garb would be worn by a man, 21 years old and over, who ideally was a US citizen (or, at least, owed allegiance to the United States) and was in “excellent physical condition.”4

The new El Paso sector agents, 26 in all, made their debut at the 1924 Armistice Day Parade, receiving great acclaim. By the end of the first year, the force had grown to 40 officers. According to Perkins, these men “functioned best when exposed to physical danger” and had several other values in common, including being honest, dependable, fearless, and always knowing what they were doing.5 That first cohort of agents included former Immigration Service mounted guards and railway-mail-eligible registers.6 These were men who moved west seeking better health or adventure, which they believed could be found at the margins of the nation.

From the start, the Border Patrol sought to recruit men who could be molded into hypermasculine, fearless beings. The Border Patrol was a gendered project, argues historian Alexandra Minna Stern, which encapsulated “the conflicted configurations of masculinity that arose in the United States in the early to mid-twentieth century.”

It was this model that was already in place when Ervin joined that force and would impact his success in the agency. But it also made him question the mission of the Border Patrol.

Growing up, the idea of working in law enforcement was omnipresent at my school, on TV, and on billboards as I made my way home from school. Its selling point was always the same: a career in law enforcement offered people like me an opportunity for upward economic and social mobility. In the city of El Paso, per capita income rests at $26,011, and 21 percent of people are living in poverty. Meanwhile, the Border Patrol’s starting yearly salary (after locality, premium pay, and overtime) was close to $70,000.

Clearly, the Border Patrol was a launching pad for a kid from El Paso. Here was a city in which multiple empires have left their mark and continue to do so. The local culture of the city clearly retains traces of colonialism. Among these remnants of empire is the culture of honor: a Spanish custom, in which men’s behavior is closely tied to “public service, the ability to command others, strict control over their households, bravery, and manliness in general.”7 And this honor culture collided with rising tensions over undocumented immigration from nativists, conflicts that, after 1970, were “articulated in terms of moral authority versus lawlessness.”8

After all, the police state—from the moment my eldest brother was incarcerated to the ensuing conversations with my neighbor about joining him in the sheriff’s department—has been all around me. It was there each time my second-eldest brother lost his grip on reality and violently turned against the visions that his mind constructed. His breakdowns formed part of a process of trial and error as my mother struggled to find the correct dose of antipsychotics to control his schizophrenia while attempting to avoid sedating him into a state of oblivion.

Taken together, then, the Border Patrol did not just offer an attractive employment opportunity for people living at the edges of the United States. Certainly in El Paso, at least, it also provided the chance to prove oneself as a model citizen.

I failed in my first attempt to join the El Paso Police Department. Next, I decided to enroll at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to pursue a degree in criminal justice, aiming to apply to the department once again after graduation.

Although I did not know it at the time, my decision was part of a broader movement along a Border Patrol assembly line—crafted by Hudspeth and Perkins a century ago—to mold the young men of El Paso into agents of the state. Given that most people who apply to law enforcement positions are unsuccessful, it is no coincidence that the criminal justice program at UTEP ranks among the top five most popular majors. The department proudly partners with criminal justice and intelligence agencies with the goal of preparing the next generation of law enforcement officials.

Yet after graduation, I again failed to join the police department. Now, I found myself trapped by the degree’s inflexibility; after all, the scope of opportunities provided by it were fairly narrow. Coupling this limitation with the economic downturn of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was short on options. So I decided to take the best opportunity available to me: the Border Patrol.

I was to begin my training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Artesia, New Mexico. The moment I stepped off the bus at the FLETC, a wave of howling Border Patrol agents sprinted toward me like a pack of rabid wolves that had suddenly caught the scent of blood.

This marked the beginning of a six-month indoctrination campaign. It was designed to break me down, both mentally and physically, and then to rebuild me into the idealized hypermasculine being whose sole purpose was to hunt human beings. I nearly quit more than a dozen times: during the weekly endurance tests on the agility course; the daily exercise routine that consisted of paramilitary training; and the moments leading up to being exposed to tasers, pepper spray, and pepper balls.

Mentally, I alternated between anxiety and depression. The slightest bit of eye contact with an agent, or even the hint of emotion during daily uniform inspection, would nearly cause a riot. It was not uncommon for trainees to be reminded of their insignificance, especially when the target of this abuse did not appear to fit the idealized standard of masculinity. Throughout this time, a common theme for remaining in the facility began taking shape in the form of a solemn question: Where would I be without this? The question not only reveals the precarious nature of Border Patrol trainees but also shifts blame to the channels that guide people into the agency.

On graduation day, the new class of Border Patrol agents proudly displayed their uniform for the trainees. Perkins’s design remains nearly unchanged and is a symbol of status and achievement, signifying the complete transformation from civilian to hypermasculine agent. A few weeks later, I arrived at my assigned station along the US-Mexico border. Eerily, yet not surprisingly, the county I was charged with surveying was named after Hudspeth himself. From the halls of my university to the rugged mountains of the Chihuahuan Desert, Hudspeth’s shadow loomed over me.

My arrival coincided with the installation of several Elbit surveillance towers. These are components of the “Palestine-Mexico border,” argues historian Alexander Aviña, since their violent development took place in Gaza and the West Bank.

For the next six months, I was a modern agent of the state who participated in a form of “counterinsurgency against refugees.”9 I had undergone a procedure that was intended to extract all emotion from my being. And yet, the open-ended deportation process that I was involved in is something with which I continue to grapple. I may have recently acquired a masculine role as a provider and authority figure within a militarized community. But any feeling of accomplishment over that new role was overpowered by the guilt I accumulated over those few short months.

I resigned. Since then, I have committed myself to understanding the historical forces that continue to shape people like me into perpetrators. I hope this essay will contribute to a broader consideration of the material conditions that factor into El Pasoans deciding to join the US Border Patrol. icon

This article is part of a series commissioned by Catherine S. Ramírez and A. Naomi Paik on the border crisis 100 years after the Immigration Act of 1924.

  1. Clifford Alan Perkins, Border Patrol: With the U.S. Immigration Service on the Mexican Boundary, 1910–54 (Texas Western Press, 1978), 89; Historian Monica Muñoz Martinez argues that Hudspeth not only secured funding for the Border Patrol but that his career was marked by his criminalization of Mexicans and painting the border region as a dangerous place in need of policing. For more on this see The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas (Harvard University Press, 2018), 208–21. For more on the Immigration Service’s patrolling of the border, see S. Deborah Kang, The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1917–1954 (Oxford University Press, 2016).
  2. Nancy Hamilton, A Pictorial History of the University of Texas at El Paso: Diamond Jubilee, 1914–1989 (Texas Western Press; Norfolk, Va: The Donning Company, 1988), p. 18.
  3. Perkins, pp. 4–7.
  4. Perkins, pp. 90–92.
  5. Perkins, p. 95.
  6. Alexandra Minna Stern, “Nationalism on the Line: Masculinity, Race, and the Creation of the U.S. Border Patrol, 1910–1940” inContinental Crossroads: Remapping U.S.-Mexico Borderlands History, eds., Samuel Truett and Elliot Young (Duke University Press, 2004), pp. 306–7.
  7. Victor M. Uribe-Uran, Fatal Love: Spousal Killers, Law, and Punishment in the Late Colonial Spanish Atlantic (Stanford University Press, 2015), p. 8.
  8. Geraldo L. Cadava, Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland (Harvard University Press, 2013), p. 211.
  9. Alexander Aviña, “A Future of Walls or Liberation,” Foreign Exchanges, December 19, 2023.
Featured image: "Students train at the National Border Patrol Academy to become Border Patrol Agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection" by Gerald Nino / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA)