Border Control and United States

What is Border Control

Border control describes how a country regulates the movement of people and goods across its borders. The broad term includes both the legal framework that guides enforcement at national borders, as well as the implementation of that enforcement on the ground.

Central to the understanding of border control is the concept of borderlands. In their book Borderlands in World History, 1700–1914 (2014), editors Paul Readman, Cynthia Radding, and Chad Bryant describe borderlands as “places where states, empires, and other sources of governing institutional authority demarcate, expand, and protect territories under their control.” The management of what crosses these borderlands calls into question the ideas of territoriality, or the claims to land by a nation-state or other governing body, and sovereignty, or the system of government used to oversee those territories.

Borderlands have existed for as long as humans have banded together over a common language, culture, and location. However, as societies and governments have evolved, so has the way they have managed their borderlands. In his 2011 book Cultures of Border Control: Schengen and the Evolution of European Frontiers, Ruben Zaiotti equates the definition and control of borders with the formation of national identity and statehood. “In order to distinguish themselves as discrete territorial units,” he writes, “states must possess stable and clearly identifiable borders.” By the early 20th century, border control was generally agreed on by neighboring countries. This concept is called the Westphalian model of border control, named for the Westphalia Treaty of 1648, from which the modern idea of the nation-state is derived.

In the 20th century the world's most powerful countries took varying approaches to border control. Based on the idea of “free movement of persons,” the 1985 Schengen Agreement opened the individual borders of most of the countries within the European Economic Community (EEC), an organization founded in 1957 to foster economic collaboration among member states. The legal framework of the Schengen Agreement was ultimately incorporated into that of the European Union (EU) in 1999. At the same time the United States increased its border security in response to rising immigration from Mexico. A lack of economic opportunities in Mexico spurred what was the largest immigration flow in the world at the time. In 2015 immigrants predominantly from Northern Africa and the Middle East began to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe, seeking refuge from wars, famine, and lack of economic opportunity. Such events put a strain on the governments of the United States and the EU, and countries were forced to once again rethink the management of their borderlands.

Historical Background

The concept of a borderland dates from the 17th century, when, Zaiotti notes, the idea emerged that “borders are continuous territorial lines marking the outer limits of a state's authority and a key foundation around which the principle of sovereignty in the international system is built.” Important to this emerging view was the Treaty of Westphalia, which was signed on October 24, 1648. It brought an end to the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), a conflict that arose when the Austrian Habsburg Empire tried to impose Roman Catholicism on the Protestant peoples of Bohemia.

The treaty gave rise to what is known as Westphalian sovereignty, or the idea of the modern nation-state. This treaty politically reorganized Europe, diminishing the significance of the internal borders of city-states and transferring that power to broader state borders. However, border control in a Westphalian sense took some time to set in, as other ruling powers of the day, such as the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806), continued to practice imperial styles of border control.

As imperialism flourished in Europe and the Americas during the 18th and 19th centuries, borderlands became more defined and quarreled over. As imperialism and colonialism gave way to the formation of the modern nationstate toward the end of the 19th century, the concept of clearly defined and controlled borders became essential to the formation and continuance of sovereign nations.


The protection given by a nation to a refugee who has fled his or her native country in order to escape harm.
The policy of extending the rule and control of one empire or nation over a dependent area (a colony) or people (colonists).
A migrant who receives permission to work in a foreign country on a temporary basis.
US agency tasked with enforcing laws relating to the movement of people and goods across US borders.
The policy of extending the rule and control of one empire or nation over other parts of the world through military force or diplomacy.
Signed in 1992, the agreement immediately lifted tariffs on most goods passing between the United States, Canada, and Mexico and called for the gradual elimination of all trade barriers among the three countries.
A schedule of duties, or taxes, especially on imports.

The Westphalian Model

The application of Westphalian sovereignty to border control was not truly put into practice until the 20th century. Events such as World War I (1914–1918) and the Great Depression (1929–1941) caused nations to tighten control over their borders and created an environment of protectionism in Europe and the United States. Protectionism is an economic practice of safeguarding a country's domestic industries by applying tariffs and quotas to imports, subsidies to local businesses, and other governmental regulations. The practice applied to people as well, as foreign workers were considered a threat to domestic job markets. This period saw the formation of the US Border Patrol (1924) and the US Bureau of Customs (1927).

It was not until the end of World War II (1939–1945) that the Westphalian model began to truly take hold. The devastation of the war led nations in Europe to conclude that strictly defined national borders were the only practical means to maintaining order on the continent. The regulation of immigration became a prominent aspect of border control during this period. Some aspects of modern border control that originated during this period include short-term labor migration and guest worker programs, as well as the concept of asylum. The Westphalian model remained dominant until the EU signed the Schengen Agreement in 1985.

The Schengen Era and Beyond

In the 1980s Europe was experiencing an economic crisis and high unemployment. It became apparent that strict border control was a hindrance to economic development. The Schengen Agreement, named after the town in Luxembourg where it was signed, allowed for the free movement of people across the borders of signatory nations. It went into effect in 1995. It began as an agreement between the countries of France, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands, but by 2007 a total of 26 European countries were included in what was called the Schengen Area. Europe's economy recovered, and as of 2017 the Schengen Agreement remained in effect.

The refugee crisis of 2015 presented the Schengen Area with a major problem. Refugees crossed the Mediterranean Sea in huge numbers to escape violence, famine, and poverty in their home countries. Statistics published by Eurostat in 2017 reveal that the EU received more than 1.3 million asylum applications in 2015 and again in 2016. European countries began to see the downside of the free movement of people, as they claimed to be unable to take in such large numbers of refugees.

In response to the refugee crisis, new border control policies began to appear, even in countries that were part of the Schengen Area. In September 2015 Germany reinstituted border checks with Austria, Austria with Slovenia, and Slovakia with Hungary. In November 2015 Norway began border checks for those crossing into the country from Sweden. Also that year Hungary, Austria, and Slovenia, among other countries, began building border walls and fences in an attempt to physically block refugees from entering their territory.

The November 13, 2015, terrorist attack on a concert venue in Paris, France, further stoked fears that the movement allowed within the Schengen Area threatened security, as the attackers crossed the border from Belgium into France without being checked. Attacks in Berlin, Germany, and Brussels, Belgium, in 2016 added to the fear that open borders threatened national security. In 2016 Sweden and Denmark introduced new border control checks.

In response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Americans began to strengthen the control of their borders. US President George W. Bush (1946–) created the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, which by 2003 had two border control agencies under its jurisdiction: US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Businessman Donald Trump (1946–) was elected US president in 2016 on a campaign in which he promised to strengthen the country's borders by tightening immigration restrictions and building a wall along the entire US–Mexico border. The EU migrant crisis and the presidency of Trump were events that challenged the prevailing ideas of border control.

Impacts and Issues

The concept of free movement of people is fundamental to EU citizenship. The principle first appeared in the legal framework of the EEC. Free movement was used to revive struggling European economies after World War II, as it allowed workers from countries lacking job opportunities to move about the continent to fill labor shortages in others. In 1993 the EEC's scope of activities was expanded to include noneconomic legal matters, one of which was border control, and the name was changed to the European Community (EC).

During the refugee crisis in Europe in 2015, the Hungarian government closed its borders with Serbia and Croatia to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants from entering the country.

During the refugee crisis in Europe in 2015, the Hungarian government closed its borders with Serbia and Croatia to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants from entering the country. Hungary constructed a fence to curb illegal entry and control the border.

The free movement of people has been a heated topic since the signing of the Schengen Agreement. In the early 21st century challenges by opponents began to focus increasingly on national security, particularly in light of the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016. Opposition came primarily from conservative politicians of nations with thriving economies, including France, the Netherlands, and Germany, as well as the United Kingdom, although it was not a member of the Schengen Area.


In their 1999 essay in American Historical Review, Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron describe borderlands as places of “intense imperial rivalry” and also highlight the violence and exploitation common in such contested territories. As such, much of the scholarly research into border control and borderlands tends to focus on these negative aspects of the topic. Australian scholar Leanne Weber noted this pessimistic trend in the scholarly treatment of border control and decided to try something different with a book she edited in 2015 titled Rethinking Border Control for a Globalizing World: A Preferred Future. She calls on contributing authors to engage in a “peace-at-the-border thought experiment,” allowing the authors to “speculate about the future on the basis of observable trends to an extent that may not normally be considered professionally respectable.”

Weber uses the example of ancient English parish boundaries, which were once as strictly guarded as national borders are in the 21st century, as inspiration for the project. She defines the breakdown of the “border control” system of English parishes to spotlight a moment in history when the peaceful closing of borders was done successfully. “Since the significance of particular borders has changed irrevocably,” she writes, “it stands to reason that a similar fate may eventually befall the borders of the nation-state that are currently being fortified against unwelcome intruders.” The subsequent essays in the book, written by scholars from a wide range of fields, apply her “preferred-futures methodology” to a number of particular aspects of border control, including economy, law, citizenship, and morality.

The book is full of ideas that could possibly bring about positive change to border control across the globe. However, her most striking point may be the option of using a historical perspective to inform the present. “Our capacity to imagine a future transformation in the meaning of contemporary borders can be greatly enhanced,” she writes, “by recalling fundamental shifts that have occurred in the past in relation to both the practical and the symbolic meanings of borders and therefore in the perceived necessity to defend them.”

Although it may be so ingrained in one's sense of cultural and national identity as to seem to be the only way to govern and protect territory, the nation-state and the ideas of border control inherent in that system are human constructions and are not absolute. If it has been done before, it can be done again, and such a notion should bring hope to those who dream of a world in which border control is carried out with less violence and more compassion for fellow human beings.

When the suspect of a December 2016 attack on a Christmas market in Berlin was found and killed by police in Milan, Italy, the leader of France's far-right party Front National, Marine Le Pen (1968–), condemned the free movement of people by saying the tragic event was “symptomatic of the total security disaster represented by the Schengen Area,” according to a 2016 report by the Guardian. Nigel Farage (1964–), former leader of the far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP), called the Schengen Area “a risk to public safety,” adding that “it must go.”

Proponents of the free movement of people claim the opposite with respect to security. They point, for example, to the role of border disputes in the outbreak of World War II, as it was the aim of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and Nazi Germany (1933–1945) to expand the country's borders to gain land and resources. In July 2015 British Labour Party politician Gisela Stuart (1955–) told BBC News that the free movement of people in Europe could prevent such conflicts in the future. As the migrant crisis continued unabated at the beginning of 2017, however, the fate of the free movement of people was uncertain.

US Culture of Border Control

In his book The Frontier in American History (1921), US historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932) notes the significant influence the idea of the frontier had in US history and attributes the formation of the country's cultural identity to the expansion and control of that border: “The result [of the conditions of frontier life] is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics.” He attributes traits such as “that practical, inventive turn of mind,” “that masterful grasp of material things,” “that restless, nervous energy,” and “that dominant individualism” to the influence of the frontier on the cultural identity of the United States.

US border control along the US–Mexico border in the 21st century displayed those traits. It became a high-tech endeavor that employed the use of drones, X-ray machines, and other material things to detect unauthorized goods and people crossing the border. In 2014 Reuters reported on private US citizens who embodied the “restless, nervous energy” and “dominant individualism” of which Turner wrote. Calling themselves the “Patriots,” armed individuals patrolled areas around Brownsville, Texas, in search of undocumented immigrants crossing the border. It became clear that, for many in the United States, controlling borders is inseparably linked to the idea of being “American.”

Border control in the United States has historically been inconsistent. The most contentious borderland has been the country's southern border with Mexico. The movement of people across this border has been subject to the economic needs, xenophobic fears, and whims of US politicians and citizens. Immigration from Mexico began in the late 19th century, when the rapidly developing US agriculture industry required cheap labor. Since then migrant flows, as well as US attitudes toward migrants, have fluctuated significantly. The United States' only guest worker program with Mexico, the Bracero Program (1942–1964), allowed for the movement of Mexican citizens to US territories for short-term stays to work, primarily in the agricultural industry. The program has gone down in history as being notorious for worker exploitation.

Data published by the Pew Research Center in 2017 shows that undocumented immigration from Mexico to the United States rose quickly in the first decade of the 21st century, reaching its peak and then beginning a slow and steady decline in 2007. Anti-immigrant sentiment, however, continued to rise, and played a major role in the election of Trump in 2016, who often used language about securing the country's borders in the rhetoric he employed on the campaign trail.

Border Control in a Globalized World

The defensive reaction of the United States to the perceived economic and security threats and the challenges to the Schengen Area in the 21st century reveal the contradictory relationship between border control and globalization. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, global superpowers such as the United States and the EU worked to open trade around the globe via trade deals such as NAFTA. However, such liberal economic policies contrast with border control legislations designed to restrict the movement of people across borders. NAFTA, for example, may have solved a number of problems that had previously hindered trade between Mexico and the United States, but it also had a significant impact on the largest migration corridor in the world at the time.

Those who have taken a hard-line stance on immigration, such as US Presidents George W. Bush and Trump, attempted to remedy the influx of immigrants from Mexico by fortifying the nation's borders, immigration legislation, and enforcement agencies, which led to increased violence in the US–Mexico borderlands and unethical border patrol practices. One example of such practices was the 2010 killing of unarmed 15-year-old Sergio Adrián HernándezGüereca by ICE agent Jesus Mesa Jr., who was on US soil when he shot the teenager on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande river.

President Barack Obama (1961–), a Democrat, took a different tack to alleviate the strain of such high rates of undocumented immigration with a policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), opting to give those brought as children illegally to the United States a chance to continue living their lives in the only home they had ever known rather than deport them en masse. However, with the election of Trump, the fate of millions of undocumented immigrants was once again subject to the urges of a nation unable to separate border issues from its own national sense of self. In September 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration was phasing out DACA. Within weeks of the unpopular decision, Trump indicated a willingness to work with Congress on a solution.

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