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[Excerpt] The United States Border Patrol (USBP) has a long and storied history as our nation’s first line of defense against unauthorized migration. Today, the USBP’s primary mission is to detect and prevent the entry of terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, and illegal aliens into the country, and to interdict drug smugglers and other criminals along the border. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 dissolved the Immigration and Naturalization Service and placed the USBP within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Within DHS, the USBP forms a part of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection under the Directorate of Border and Transportation Security.

During the last decade, the USBP has seen its budget and manpower more than triple. This expansion was the direct result of Congressional concerns about illegal immigration and the agency’s adoption of “Prevention Through Deterrence” as its chief operational strategy in 1994. The strategy called for placing USBP resources and manpower directly at the areas of greatest illegal immigration in order to detect, deter, and apprehend aliens attempting to cross the border between official points of entry. Post 9/11, the USBP refocused its strategy on preventing the entry of terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, as laid out in its recently released National Strategy. In addition to a workforce of over 17,000 agents, the USBP deploys vehicles, aircraft, watercraft, and many different technologies to defend the border.

In the course of discharging its duties, the USBP patrols 8,000 miles of American international borders with Mexico and Canada and the coastal waters around Florida and Puerto Rico. However, there are significant geographic, political, and immigration-related differences between the northern border with Canada and the southwest border with Mexico. Accordingly, the USBP deploys a different mix of personnel and resources along the two borders. Due to the fact that over 97% of unauthorized migrant apprehensions occur along the southwest border, the USBP deploys over 90% of its agents there to deter illegal immigration. The Border Safety initiative and the Arizona Border Control initiative are both focused on the southwest border. The northern border is more than two times longer than the southwest border, features far lower numbers of aliens attempting to enter illegally, but may be more vulnerable to terrorist infiltration. As a consequence of this, the USBP has focused its northern border efforts on deploying technology and cooperating closely with Canadian authorities through the creation of International Border Enforcement Teams.

Some issues for Congress to consider could include the slow rate of integration between the USBP’s biometric database of illegal aliens and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) biometric database of criminals and terrorists; the number of unauthorized aliens who die attempting to enter the country each year; the increasing attacks on Border Patrol agents, and the threat posed by terrorists along the sparsely defended northern border as well as the more porous southwest border.

This report will be updated as circumstances warrant.


Suggested Citation
Cooney, S. (2008). Border security: The role of the U.S. Border Patrol (RL32562). Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.