The Border : Throughline In February, President Trump declared a national emergency at the US-Mexico border. Last year, he ordered thousands of National Guard troops to the border. Is this the first time an American president has responded with this level of force? In this week's episode, the history of militarization at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Border

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RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

Hey, I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And on this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR...

ABDELFATAH: A quick trip through more than 150 years at the U.S.-Mexico divide and a closer look at government responses to the border.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So we're going to be signing today and registering national emergency. And it's a great thing to do...

ABDELFATAH: In February, after the longest government shutdown in American history, President Trump declared a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border...

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TRUMP: ...Because we have an invasion of drugs, invasion of gangs, invasion of people.

ABDELFATAH: ...In response to what he's called a crisis of illegal border crossings.

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TRUMP: Now, what we really want to do is simple. It's not like it's complicated. It's very simple. We want to stop drugs from coming into our country.

ARABLOUEI: The proposed border wall has been a central part of his agenda since the 2016 campaign. And since then, his administration has come up with a bunch of other controversial policies, like family separation.

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RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: President Trump has said the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border is urgent, and he has ordered the National Guard to deploy.

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TRUMP: Until we can have a wall and proper security, we're going to be guarding our border with the military. That's a big step. We really haven't done that before.

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JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: So the president said troops are needed on the border until more of the wall can be built down here.

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TRUMP: Build that wall. Build that wall. Build that wall.

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GABE GUTIERREZ: Five thousand migrants are now staying, waiting for their next move. The U.S. military says about 300 troops...

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Senators from his own party, as we mentioned, voted to defeat the president's signature campaign issue.

TRUMP: If we didn't do that, you would have hundreds of thousands of people pouring into our country.

We're going to build the wall. We have no choice. We have no choice.

ARABLOUEI: So in light of all that's been going on at the border, we wondered, is it actually the first time an American president has responded with this kind of force to events happening at the border?

ABDELFATAH: And the short answer is no.

GUADALUPE CORREA-CABRERA: He's just a continuation of a trend. He's not an anomaly.

ABDELFATAH: This is Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera. She's at George Mason University and has studied immigration and border security for years. And Guadalupe says that while President Trump's aggressive rhetoric about the border and immigration may be unique, his use of force at the border is not new.

CORREA-CABRERA: He's just consolidating a trend that has been put in place several decades ago.

ABDELFATAH: With her help, we're going to take a closer look at how past American presidents have used force at the border and changed immigration enforcement in response to perceived threats there.

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ARABLOUEI: The tension over the border dates back to the Mexican-American War in the 1840s. Despite disagreements over where the border should be, for years after the war, the border was actually porous.

TONY PAYAN: This is what we know as the frontier era of the border.

ARABLOUEI: This is Tony Payan. He's an associate professor at Rice University.

PAYAN: This is an open border. This is when people came and went. There was an acknowledged right of Mexicans who had been in the Southwest prior to the war to stay in the Southwest.

ARABLOUEI: So for a long time, the border was more or less left unpatrolled. But in the 20th century...

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JOHN DALY: From the NBC newsroom in New York, President Roosevelt said in a statement today that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, from the air. I'll repeat that. President Roosevelt says...

CORREA-CABRERA: In the 20th century, which was the century where the United States came to the fore as a world power, I mean, there were needs that the United States couldn't do by itself.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: All lines of communication seem to be down between...

CORREA-CABRERA: So when the Second World War started, of course, the United States needs more people.

PAYAN: A lot of American men have to leave for the Pacific front and, of course, the European front. They begin to be deployed.

CORREA-CABRERA: So they need labor from Mexico.

ABDELFATAH: In 1942, pretty soon after it had sent troops to the front, the U.S. set up something called the bracero program, which invited Mexican migrants to come to the U.S. to keep the economy going.

CORREA-CABRERA: And many Mexicans started to see the opportunities to come.

ABDELFATAH: Millions of migrants came to the U.S. through the program.

PAYAN: Five million Mexicans came to the United States to work legally with guest worker visas.

ARABLOUEI: But then, the war ended.

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ARABLOUEI: Soldiers returned home, and the program slowed down. But many Mexican laborers were still seeking opportunity in the U.S., which led to a huge spike in illegal immigration from Mexico - people looking for jobs.

PAYAN: We have to remember that the 1940s and the 1950s, even though there was a program for guest worker visas for Mexican braceros, there were never enough. And so many Mexicans simply crossed the border. The Border Patrol was very small. They couldn't cover the entire territory. It was very easy to cross the river.

ABDELFATAH: And by 1954, President Eisenhower began to see this as a really big economic problem. So he launched Operation Wetback.

PAYAN: This particular word, operation, was already kind of militaristic. It implied a mobilization of sorts, a threat. And, of course, the word wetback, which became a pejorative term towards Mexicans.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: What you're watching is a group of wets on the Mexican side who are making preparations to come over into the United States.

CORREA-CABRERA: This is basically the expansion of Border Patrol operations along the border, where the Border Patrol expanded and there are mandates. And they were after these people that came from Mexico...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: There's no point in running. They can have another try at the border tomorrow.

CORREA-CABRERA: ...Because they are protecting the homeland.

ABDELFATAH: Operation Wetback changed the landscape of border security, ramping up immigration enforcement so that people in the U.S. illegally were arrested and deported anywhere in the country, not just at the border.

ARABLOUEI: Despite Eisenhower's attempts to slow down migration from Mexico, by the 1960s...

PAYAN: By the 1960s, it was unsustainable. The tide had turned. The presence of Mexicans was growing in Texas and California. And so there was a sense of panic in the United States. I think what happens is people panic, and then politicians respond by becoming more conservative, more militaristic, and calling for force, really.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Drugs, especially marijuana, became a major problem in 1969...

ABDELFATAH: Drugs became the new perceived threat in the U.S. And President Nixon, with a major law enforcement operation, identified that threat as coming from the southern border.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Operation Intercept stopped the drugs from crossing the Mexican border.

ARABLOUEI: The operation lasted nearly three weeks. And a couple years later...

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RICHARD NIXON: America's public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse.

ARABLOUEI: ...Nixon declared a war on drugs and began ramping up security at the border.

ABDELFATAH: He created the DEA, Drug Enforcement Agency, and provided support to Mexican law enforcement to fight drug cartels. And reinforcements were deployed at the border. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, this rhetoric about drugs invading from the south continued.

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RONALD REAGAN: Drugs are menacing our society. They're threatening our values and undercutting our institutions. They're killing our children.

ABDELFATAH: And in 1985, after a U.S. drug enforcement agent named Enrique - Kiki - Camarena is murdered in Mexico by a drug cartel, the response is, again, force.

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CORREA-CABRERA: That was the first moment where the drug traffickers or the drug cartels were perceived as national security threats because they were able to murder a drug enforcement agent during the war on drugs in the United States, right? And this is when, at that moment, the United States considered it a war.

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ABDELFATAH: Securing the border becomes more than just an economic issue. It's now a national law enforcement issue, too, whether you lived in Chicago, Wyoming or Texas, because drugs could hurt any community in the country. And this began a bipartisan pattern of U.S. presidents responding with even greater force as part of their broader immigration strategies.

PAYAN: In 1994 and 1995, the Clinton administration began to deploy the Border Patrol in a kind of a military formation. They - border agents every 200 to 400 feet away from each other, within sight of each other.

ABDELFATAH: President Clinton launched a series of operations in the continuing war on drugs.

CORREA-CABRERA: Operation Hold the Line.

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BILL CLINTON: By hiring a record number of new border guards.

CORREA-CABRERA: Operation Gatekeeper.

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CLINTON: By deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before.

CORREA-CABRERA: Operation Safeguard.

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CLINTON: By cracking down on illegal heroin.

CORREA-CABRERA: Operation Rio Grande.

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CLINTON: And we must do more to stop it.

ABDELFATAH: And then 9/11 happened.

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GEORGE W. BUSH: Today, we've had a national tragedy.

ABDELFATAH: And the border takes on a whole new meaning.

CORREA-CABRERA: Sept. 11 created a priority. It was perceived as a need in the 1990s. But in the 21st century, it was a necessity, a must because the borders needed to be protected. Yes, it was a turning point, but that was also part of a trend that already was put in place.

PAYAN: We're defining the border one more time.

CORREA-CABRERA: Now, we are talking about the National Guard. We're talking about the Department of Defense. We need another line because now the drugs and the terrorists can get together.

ABDELFATAH: In response to this perceived threat of terrorism, the Department of Homeland Security was created.

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BUSH: This Department of Homeland Security is not a good Republican idea. It's not a good Democrat idea. It's simply an American idea, and they need to get their work done.

ABDELFATAH: In 2006...

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BUSH: Last May, I said we'll deploy up to 6,000 National Guard members to assist the Border Patrol.

ABDELFATAH: ...President George W. Bush launched Operation Jump Start.

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BUSH: Their job is to help the Border Patrol by, you know, surveillance and construction, logistics.

ABDELFATAH: That same year, President Bush signed a bill authorizing the construction of a 700-mile fence along the border, stretching from California to Texas. And this militarized approach to border security didn't stop with President Bush. In 2010, President Obama sent 1,200 National Guard troops to the border during Operation Phalanx in response to the unprecedented violence between drug cartels in northern Mexico.

ARABLOUEI: He also ordered ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to deport any illegal immigrants in the U.S. who'd been convicted of crimes.

ABDELFATAH: Which earned him the nickname deporter in chief.

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ARABLOUEI: And this brings us back to President Trump.

ABDELFATAH: His hard line on the border wall has put the border issue at the center of American politics today.

PAYAN: The wall is ultimately a political and electoral instrument. They're the musings of a populist. That's what the wall is. And, of course, this was a winner for him in 2016. And it will be, he hopes, a winner in 2020.

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ARABLOUEI: But even though President Trump's border policies are a more defining feature of his presidency than previous presidents, the fact remains that aggressive action at the border has become an American political tradition.

CORREA-CABRERA: We perceive that this administration, because of the political campaign, because the discourse, has incorporated a lot about border security, the wall, about the migrants being rapers and being a threat against national security. But this is something not new. And this is something bipartisan. This story has been a story of the whole 20th century and 21st century.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by Rund and I.

ABDELFATAH: Our team includes...

JAMIE YORK, BYLINE: Jamie York.

JORDANA HOCHMAN, BYLINE: Jordana Hochman.

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

NOOR WAZWAZ, BYLINE: Noor Wazwaz.

MICHELLE LANZ, BYLINE: Yo, yo, yo. It's Michelle Lanz. (Singing) Say my name, say my name.

N'JERI EATON, BYLINE: N'jeri Eaton.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks also to Neva Grant.

ARABLOUEI: Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: Chris Turpin.

ARABLOUEI: And Candice Kortkamp.

ABDELFATAH: And a special thanks to NPR's ops team for all their help. Our music was composed by Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: If you like something you heard or you have an idea for an episode, please write us at throughline@npr.org or hit us up on Twitter - @throughlineNPR.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

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