There were few federal laws governing immigration into the United States prior to the late 19th century, and those tended to address immigration from Europe or Asia. The Steerage Act of 1819 regulated passenger travel and mandated the creation of records documenting the arrival of immigrants at seaports. Some passenger vessels arriving at United States ports sailed from Central or South America, but the majority of passenger vessels and passengers came from Europe. Not until 1891 did federal law provide for the inspection of immigrants arriving at land border ports.
Nevertheless, the Immigration Act of 1891 maintained Congress’ focus on immigration from Europe. It did so by concentrating on the inspection of immigrants who arrived “by water” upon any “steam or sailing vessel.” As a result, the federal Immigration Service created by the Act directed its attention to stationing Inspectors and providing facilities (such as Ellis Island) at seaports. Yet the law contained language allowing the Treasury Secretary to “prescribe rules for inspection along the borders of Canada, British Columbia, and Mexico so as not to obstruct or unnecessarily delay, impede, or annoy passengers in ordinary travel between said countries.”
It is unclear how much action the new Immigration Service took in 1891 to fulfill its mission along the southern land border. The Service may have opened as many as two immigration ports of entry along the border during 1891 or 1892, one of which was likely at El Paso, Texas. Nevertheless, in 1893, the only U.S. Immigrant Inspector present on the U.S.-Mexican Border was Leonidas B. Giles, who inspected immigrants arriving at El Paso. Unlike the majority of Immigrant Inspectors working at seaport immigrant stations, Giles’ salary came from a special appropriation for enforcement of the Alien Contract Labor laws. Six years later, in 1899, there were but four U.S. Immigrant Inspectors working along the Mexican Border. They manned ports of entry at Nogales, Arizona, El Paso and Laredo, Texas, and at Piedras Negras, Mexico.
The corps of Inspectors expanded after 1900, when the Chinese Service came under control of the Bureau of Immigration. The Chinese Service pre-dated the Immigration Service, having been created by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and both previously existed as independent entities within the Treasury Department. By 1901, in addition to the already named ports, there were Inspectors stationed at Tucson, Arizona, and San Diego, California. At El Paso, Nogales, and San Diego, Chinese Inspectors augmented that force.
Record Keeping and District Organization
During these years the Border District had not yet been formally organized, nor were there any written procedures adapted to Southern Border ports. The Immigration Act of February 14, 1903, essentially re-stated the 1891 provisions concerning land borders, but called for rules covering entry as well as inspection. Following the 1903 act, Service officers began recording entries and inspecting aliens–other than Mexicans–crossing the Mexican Border. Thus while the Immigration Service was present on the Southern Border since 1892, the earliest Mexican Border Arrival Records were not created until a decade or more later.
With increased attention to the Southern Border came increased staff at more border ports. At El Paso, the force expanded to four Inspectors, a Spanish interpreter, and a few clerical personnel. The entire force of Inspectors stationed at or near the Mexican Border expanded to twenty-three. Ten Immigrant Inspectors were actually stationed in Mexico, five at Paso Del Norte and Juarez, two at Nueva Laredo, and one each at Naco, Columbia, and Las Vacas. Additional ports opened at Brownsville, Texas, Yuma, Arizona, and Coronado and Delzura, California.
Immigration Officers on the border in these early years concentrated primarily on enforcement of the Chinese exclusion laws. Their duties expanded with Bureau Circular No. 13, of February 28, 1905, containing instructions for the use of standardized forms and procedures at Mexican Border ports. The purpose of the new practice and record was to determine whether a given alien was subject to the head tax placed on arriving immigrants. Under the circular instructions, Inspectors completed Form 548, “Report of Inspection–Mexican Border,” for each alien applying for admission. Form 548 called for the same information as one found on the large ship passenger manifests documenting the arrival of immigrants at seaports
If an alien crossed the border by rail, stage, or over an international bridge, the head tax for entry into the U.S. was included in his or her ticket fare or bridge toll. Inspectors later used the “manifests” (Form 548) to prepare a notice billing the carrier or bridge company for head taxes on all their admitted passengers. Many aliens did not arrive via commercial carrier, but rather came by foot, burro, or automobile. Their entry was also recorded on Form 548, and if subject to head taxes, they paid the Customs Collector directly. Rule 1 of the immigration regulations stipulated that citizens of the U.S., Canada, Cuba, and Mexico were exempt from paying head tax.
Those who paid the head tax were counted as “statistical” entries and port officials reported their admission to the Bureau for inclusion in federal immigration statistics. Those not subject to the head tax were “non-statistical,” and their numbers were not reported. Thus official immigration statistics for the Mexican Border did not include Mexicans who immigrated to the United States in these years, nor did they indicate the number of Mexicans who repeatedly entered the United States for a temporary stay. The Mexican Border Arrival Records, though, do include Mexican transients and visitors.
Inspectors received the instructions in Bureau Circular No. 13 during the Spring of 1905, but inspection of all Mexicans at all border ports did not begin until July 1, 1906. During the previous year the Chinese Inspector in Charge of the District of Texas, Theodore F. Schmucker, occupied an El Paso building leased by the federal government for a general immigration station. At the same time, the Immigration Bureau divided the border region into three districts; The Texas District, the New Mexico-Arizona District, and the California District. Headquarters were at El Paso, Tucson, and, for the California District, at San Francisco. Additional ports of entry prior to 1907 were Del Rio and Presidio, Texas, and Columbus, New Mexico.
Following passage of the Immigration Act of 1907, the Immigration Bureau took two actions regarding the Mexican Border. First, the Border States were reorganized into the Mexican Border District, containing Arizona, New Mexico, and most of Texas. The reorganization was effective July 1, 1907. Because the Service’s “problem” along the border was to prevent the entry of Chinese and other excludable classes, Frank W. Berkshire was put in charge of the new district. Previously, Berkshire had overseen the Chinese Service along the New York-Canadian Border and in New York City.
He now supervised enforcement of both the Chinese exclusion laws and the general immigration law. With his expanded force of Inspectors, Berkshire was optimistic about fulfilling the Service mission on the border. At the same time, he applauded a recommendation of President Theodore Roosevelt that the US-Mexican Border be “closed to all but citizens and bona fide residents of Mexico.”
The Problem of Illegal Entry
The Service’s second action was to assign Inspector-at-Large Marcus Braun to investigate conditions along the border. Accordingly, Braun sailed from New York in early 1907. At Havana, Cuba, he boarded a vessel carrying immigrants to Mexico. The majority of these were “Syrians,” a class of immigrants suffering an unusually high incidence of Trachoma, a contagious eye disease and cause for exclusion under U.S. immigration law. He traveled with this group and reported on their continued journey overland to Mexico City, where they were coached in English and provided with false documents. They then traveled North by rail to within a few miles of the border. From there, they were smuggled into the United States.
Braun also observed similar procedures carried out on behalf of migrants from Greece, Japan, and China. Unskilled laborers from these and other European and Asian countries gained easy entry into Mexico where there was a “dire need of labor,” yet the majority of workers soon migrated north toward better U.S. wages. As a consequence to these conditions, Berkshire’s report of 1908 divided immigration over the Mexican Border into two classes: Legitimate and illegitimate. Illegitimate immigrants came via Mexico, mainly from Syria, Greece, Japan, and China. Legitimate immigrants were Mexicans, and to a lesser extent, Spaniards. Most enforcement work was directed at preventing the entry of, apprehending, and deporting illegitimate immigrants.
The majority of legitimate immigrants, that is, Mexicans, were questioned at the port, recorded, and admitted. The Service did not perfect its system of creating admission (arrival) records immediately, and the Mexican Border Arrival Records are not complete for the period prior to July 1, 1908. Furthermore, the entire collection of border arrival records documents only those persons who gained admission through an official port of entry. Under regulations in effect since 1907, Rule 27 instructed Inspectors to first question each individual who did not arrive via a carrier as to their ability to pay the head tax. Those who did not have sufficient funds, even if otherwise admissible, were turned away. They, like aliens who were denied entry due to a specific exclusion of the immigration law, may have entered the United States by simply crossing the border at some point between official ports of entry. To enter at any point other than a port of entry was illegal, and no record of such persons’ entry without inspection will be found in the Mexican Border Arrival Records.