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A Brief History on the U.S.-Mexico Border

Physically securing the border is not the problem. The crisis at our border is the culmination of many problems here at home and throughout the world.


The U.S. side of a border wall between the United States and Mexico in Douglas, a city on the Mexican border in southeastern Arizona. (Library of Congress.


By Jack Reneo

The southern border between the United States and Mexico has a complex history shaped by politics, economics, and social dynamics. Indigenous peoples inhabited the region for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. In the 16th century, the Spanish established New Spain, encompassing areas now part of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, and the region that is now the southwestern U.S. was part of Mexico, including Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

In 1836, Texas declared independence from Mexico, becoming the Republic of Texas. The annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845 led to tensions, culminating in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war in 1848, with Mexico ceding a significant portion of its northern territory to the U.S., establishing the new border along the Rio Grande. The Gadsden Purchase in 1853 finalized the current U.S.-Mexico border by adding southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico to the United States for $10 million to facilitate a southern transcontinental railroad.

The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) brought significant social and political changes to Mexico, impacting the border region and increasing migration to the U.S. Throughout the 20th century, the U.S. established various policies to manage immigration and border security, including the creation of the Border Patrol in 1924. The Bracero Program (1942-1964) allowed millions of Mexican workers to temporarily work in the U.S. to address labor shortages during and after World War II.

Immigration reform became a focal point with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants and aimed to strengthen border security. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect in 1994, significantly increasing cross-border trade and economic integration between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks led to heightened security measures along the border, with the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003 and a renewed focus on border security.

The Secure Fence Act of 2006 authorized the construction of hundreds of miles of additional fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, aiming to prevent illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and terrorism. Despite these efforts, unauthorized immigration remained a significant issue, with many immigrants crossing the border seeking economic opportunities and fleeing violence in their home countries.

In the 2010s, the debate over border security intensified, especially during the presidency of Donald Trump. Trump's administration prioritized the construction of a border wall, with the goal of extending physical barriers along much of the border.

Concurrently, the border region experienced a humanitarian crisis, with a surge in asylum seekers, particularly from Central American countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. These migrants often faced perilous journeys and harsh conditions in detention facilities. The Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or "Remain in Mexico" policy, required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims were processed in the U.S., further complicating the situation.

The Biden administration, beginning in 2021, sought to reverse many of the previous administration's policies. Efforts included ending the "Remain in Mexico" policy, halting border wall construction, and focusing on addressing the root causes of migration from Central America. Consequently, policy experts like Mark Morgan, the former Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), have argued that these changes have contributed to an increase in illegal immigration and exacerbated challenges in managing the southern border.

In Fiscal Year (FY) 2019, under President Trump, there were 859,501 encounters at the southwest border. This number decreased to 405,036 in FY 2020. However, during President Biden's first year in office, FY 2021, the number of encounters surged to 1,662,167. This upward trend continued in FY 2022, with encounters reaching 2,214,652​. (CBP)

What has been the impact in North Carolina?

The immigration policy at the U.S.-Mexico border has had a varied impact on North Carolina, with both economic contributions and challenges associated with immigration.

As of recent data, North Carolina is home to approximately 824,177 immigrants, making up 8% of the state's population. The primary countries of origin for these immigrants are Mexico, India, Honduras, China, and El Salvador. Additionally, 488,000 undocumented immigrants reside in North Carolina, along with 169,000 U.S.-born children of undocumented parents​. (Carolina Journal)

Immigrants play a significant role in North Carolina’s economy. They comprise 11.1% of the state’s labor force and are particularly prominent in sectors such as farming, fishing, forestry, computer and mathematical sciences, and STEM fields. Immigrant entrepreneurs also contribute significantly, with 14.4% of the state's entrepreneurs being immigrants, and their businesses generating substantial economic activity. In 2018, immigrant-led households had a combined spending power of $19.5 billion and paid $6.6 billion in federal, state, and local taxes​. (American Immigration Council)​​ Immigrants are crucial to North Carolina's agricultural sector, where they constitute one-third of the workforce. They are also vital in healthcare, with many working as home health aides, physicians, and surgeons, filling critical gaps in the labor market. This presence is essential as the state's population ages and the demand for healthcare services increases.

Illegal immigration presents challenges, including financial burdens on public services. In 2023, illegal immigration was estimated to cost North Carolina taxpayers $3.14 billion, averaging $779 per household. These costs encompass education, healthcare, public assistance, and law enforcement expenses. Illegal immigration has also been linked to increased crime and drug trafficking, notably involving fentanyl, which has contributed to a significant number of overdose deaths in the state. 

Public opinion in North Carolina is divided on immigration policies, reflecting national trends. While many recognize the economic benefits brought by immigrants, there are also significant concerns about the costs and security implications of illegal immigration. These issues continue to shape the political discourse and policy decisions within the state.

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