Border between the United States and Mexico

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Border between Mexico and the USA along four American and six Mexican states
Border fortification between San Diego (USA, left) and Tijuana (Mexico), 2007
Expansion of the border fence between Mexico and the USA (as of 2017)
Specialty border fence for desert areas that can be adjusted to accommodate changing sand dunes in the Algodones Dunes , California

The border between the United States and Mexico is 3,145 kilometers long. It runs between San Diego ( California ) and Tijuana ( Baja California ) on the Pacific in the west and between Matamoros ( Tamaulipas ) and Brownsville ( Texas ) on the Gulf of Mexico in the east. In doing so, it runs through a large number of landscapes in an east-west direction, which contrast between large cities and inhospitable desert stretches . To the east of El Paso (Texas) and Ciudad Juárez ( Chihuahua ), the border follows the course of the Rio Grande to the Gulf of Mexico. To the west of this border section, which is located in a binational metropolitan area , the border runs right through the Sonora and Chihuahua deserts, the Colorado delta and the northernmost point of the Lower California peninsula to the Pacific Ocean.

Around 250 to almost 500 people die every year at this limit, most often due to the heat prevailing on site, drowning or as a result of accidents or gunshot wounds.


According to the International Boundary and Water Commission , established in 1889 to manage the border, the total length of the border is 3,145 kilometers (1954  miles ), of which 2020 km are in the center line of the Rio Grande. This is followed by 860 km of land border to the Colorado River, 39 km on the center line of the Colorado and the remaining 227 km back on land. The territory of the US state California accounts for 227 kilometers of the border with Mexico. A 22.5 kilometer long section of the border between the Otay Mesa Border Crossing in San Diego (California) and the Pacific Ocean is colloquially and usually rather derogatory known as the "Tortilla Wall" (tortilla wall) .


The current border line is the result of the Gadsden purchase in 1853, in which the United States acquired those parts of Arizona and New Mexico from Mexico that lie south of the Gila River .

Colonial times

At the time of its greatest expansion, the viceroyalty of New Spain claimed almost all of central and western North America . However, it could only exercise real political power over its southern part. Between the Spanish colony and the British colonies that became the United States was French Louisiana . In 1762 France ceded Louisiana to Spain, but this did not create a real border between the Spanish and British colonies, because there was no contact between the colonists through the Great Plains , which were only inhabited by Indians . In 1803 Napoleon forced Spain to surrender Louisiana back to France, but in 1804 he sold it to the now independent USA in the Louisiana Purchase .

USA and Mexico

When Mexico gained its independence from Spain between 1810 and 1822, conflicts developed over Texas on the one hand and trade contacts between St. Louis and Santa Fe on the Santa Fe Trail on the other . American fur traders advanced over the main ridge of the Rocky Mountains into formally Mexican territory, which, however, was far beyond the real reach of the Mexican state power. In 1847, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) founded their city of Salt Lake City and their territory of Deseret , which would later become the US state of Utah , on equally formally Mexican territory . The conflicts over Texas and California escalated in the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848, in which Mexico suffered massive territorial losses: Its provinces Alta California and Santa Fe de Nuevo México went to the USA. The resulting borderline was only slightly changed in favor of the USA in 1853 with the Gadsden purchase . In 1889, the International Boundary and Water Commission was founded, which has since been responsible for surveying the border and resolving any disputes. In particular, the Commission has a responsibility to adjust the boundary line if the course of the Rio Grande changes. Since 1906 the Commission has also been responsible for the distribution of water resources between the two countries.

After several border violations by the Mexican militiaman Pancho Villa , the United States sent an expedition corps in 1916 under the direction of John J. Pershing to what would later become the so-called Mexican Expedition . The operation achieved individual military successes, but politically it was a fiasco. The invasion of US troops served as motivation for the rebels around Villa and turned into a diplomatic conflict with Mexico City. When the USA entered the First World War in 1917, troops were withdrawn from Mexico and General Pershing was appointed Commander in Chief of US units in Europe.

Further contracts from 1933, 1944 and 1963 adapted the responsibilities of the International Boundary and Water Commission and established joint water engineering projects. In the 1970 treaty, all outstanding questions about the course of the border and water distribution were answered and the goal of renaturation of the Rio Grande was agreed. Since then there have also been joint projects in nature conservation.


Border fence from the Mexican side in Nogales

Due to the intense economic and family ties between the USA and Mexico, the border is one of the most frequently crossed in the world. In 2006, almost 250 million legal crossings were counted. Trade between the two states has risen continuously as a result of NAFTA and the relocation of manufacturing to Mexico, which was accelerated by the agreement.

In 2012, the number of illegal immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala , El Salvador , Honduras , Nicaragua and Ecuador to the USA was estimated at 350,000 annually; in 2017, at least 400,000 people were assumed here. The smuggling of arms south to Mexico and drug smuggling from South America are constant issues in the border areas, which is why the border between the United States and Mexico is much more closely guarded from the United States than that between the United States and Canada . The existing border fence will be extended to a length of 1,125 kilometers due to the Secure Fence Act of 2006 of the United States Congress . By the end of the construction work and the doubling of the strength of the United States Border Patrol , the National Guard will take over the security of the border with around 6,000 men as part of Operation Jump Start .

Approximately 12 million Mexicans immigrated to the United States between 1850 and 2015. Immigration was legal until the reform of the Immigration Act of 1965 or could easily be legalized afterwards. The year 1954 was an exception, in Operation Wetback , the then Immigration and Naturalization Service attempted to massively reduce the number of illegally entered Mexicans. Over a million migrants have been deported this year, with at least the same number leaving the US voluntarily under the pressure of the measure. When the social and economic consequences became known, the persecution subsided.

Before 1965, racist regulations were in force that were introduced at the end of the 19th century against immigrants from Asia and, modified in the 1920s, also applied to various European nations. With the reform of 1965, all nationalities were to be treated equally, a quota of 20,000 immigrants per nation per year was set. Priority was given to family members of US residents and people with special qualifications. For most Mexicans and other Latin Americans, the door to legal immigration was closed.

As a result of the global financial crisis of 2008, this immigration from Mexico came to a standstill until 2012 and by 2015 the direction of movement was reversed. More Mexicans and family members left the US than newcomers. Instead, the number of immigrants from countries south of Mexico increased. Among those apprehended in the USA without ID documents, the number of non-Mexicans exceeded that of Mexicans for the first time in 2014. They come mainly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Expansion, current discussions

Border fortification reaching into the Pacific at Tijuana

Attempts to actively secure the border began at the local level in the early 1990s. Illegal immigration first became a hotly contested issue in the 1992 presidential campaign between George HW Bush ( Republican Party ) and Bill Clinton ( Democrats ). There were numerous supporters of increased border security in both parties. In the following years, the first border security measures were carried out by the federal government . For example, Operation Gatekeeper was initiated in 1994 by Bill Clinton ; On September 30, 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act came into effect after the 104th US Congress passed it . The first boundary walls were erected in California near San Diego , Arizona and Texas . In addition, US budget tax money was made available for new removal facilities and several hundred border guards were posted to California and Arizona. The expansion of the border meant that more and more immigrants settled permanently in the USA, who had previously crossed the border uncontrolled to take up work in agriculture and returned to Mexico after the season and the end of the harvest.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 , security became a priority in terms of counter-terrorism. Further funding was made available. In September 2006, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act of 2006 , which created the option to extend border barriers to a total of 1,400 kilometers; US President George W. Bush signed it on October 26, 2006. Bush's successor Obama also endorsed the bill. In the eight years of the Obama administration , border protection has been continuously expanded.

A study commissioned by the Council on Foreign Relations in 2013 found that the border protection authorities apprehended around half of the illegals in 2010.

President Trump's projected border wall

Border wall with construction at the Progreso Lakes , Texas (2016)

Donald Trump , US President since January 2017, intends to implement one of the promises from his election campaign : the construction or the addition and expansion of existing structures on the US southern border to create a 3200 km long wall . On March 24, 2017, he issued a decree on construction. According to the tender published by the United States Department of Homeland Security in mid-March 2017, the wall should be up to nine meters high (for comparison, the Berlin Wall : approx. 4 m high or the barriers between Israel and the Gaza Strip : up to 9 m high ), the cost is estimated at $ 12 to $ 21 billion.

Trump claimed in the election campaign that the costs for this should and will be borne by the neighboring state of Mexico: Possible options include import duties on goods from Mexico, higher visa fees or taxes on money transfers to Mexico. One of the reasons he gave was that Mexico had been "ripping off the United States in trade" for years. The Mexican government repeatedly refused payments for the construction of the wall.

Trump could not get the approval of large sums for the construction of the wall in the first US budget of his term in his party; The 2017 budget did not include funds for the extension of the border wall.

Budget dispute and national emergency

On 22 December 2018, entered budget freeze (Government Shutdown) in force after the president and Congress had not reached an agreement on a budget for the 2019th Trump had stated that the funding of his barrier had to be included in the budget law in order for him to sign it. The House of Representatives then passed a budget law that complied with his request. However, it did not get the required Senate approval, which resulted in the budget freeze. In the bitterly continued dispute over funds for the construction until 2019, at the beginning of January he moved away from the intention to build a concrete wall and spoke of a steel fence. Steel is stronger than concrete; he referred to the strong steel industry in the United States.

In early February 2019, the US government sent an additional 3750 soldiers to the Mexican border for three months as part of Operation Faithful Patriot . Among other things, they are supposed to lay 240 kilometers of barbed wire and install a system for monitoring mobile communications.

A compromise on the budget dispute negotiated by Republicans and Democrats in February 2019 provides for $ 1.375 billion instead of the $ 5.7 billion demanded by Trump for border fortifications. On February 15, 2019, US President Donald Trump announced an emergency regulation for the southern border of the United States on the basis of the "National Emergencies Act" of 1976 with the aim of curbing drug smuggling into the USA, including through gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS- 13) and illegal immigration. Trump responded to the refusal of the US Congress to provide 5.7 billion US dollars for the complete construction of a steel wall along the border with Mexico. In the settlement in the budget dispute, the Trump administration can only set up border barriers for around 55 miles (88.5 kilometers) under the budget law with the approved 1.375 billion US dollars. The first construction is planned in the Rio Grande Valley in the US state of Texas . As part of the national emergency, additional funding of around US $ 600 million from the Treasury Forfeiture Fund (TFF) of the US Treasury , 2.5 billion from the US Department of Defense budget (including anti-drug funds) and US $ 3.6 billion for military construction by the US Department of Defense to build the border wall, among others, by the United States Army Corps of Engineers . On February 18, 2019, 16 states filed class-action lawsuits against the government in federal court in California for declaring the state of emergency. California Governor Gavin Newsom accused Trump of circumventing the constitution with the state of emergency. On behalf of a nature conservation organization and three landowners, the organization Public Citizen filed a lawsuit against the imposition of the state of emergency. On February 26, the House of Representatives passed a resolution against the declaration of the state of emergency by a Democratic majority and 13 Republican MPs.

The Department of Defense released $ 1 billion for the border fortification on March 25, 2019, completing a request from the United States Department of Homeland Security. The money will be used to erect a nearly 92 kilometer long fence 5.5 meters high near El Paso , build roads and install lighting. The fence is supposed to prevent drug smuggling.

In April 2019, the House of Representatives filed a lawsuit against the imposition of the state of emergency with its Democratic majority. The complaint was based on the fact that the President had abused the provisions of the State of Emergency Act. His sentence “I didn't have to do that” is an indication of this.

Criticism and legal disputes

The US state of California filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration in September 2017 about the planned construction of the wall : it had not complied with environmental regulations, and it was not allowed to approve the construction project in San Diego County and Imperial County .

In the case of the expansion or new construction of the border fortification ("cordon") announced in 2017, there is a risk of legal disputes. B. about land expropriation : an approx. 120 kilometer long section leads through the area of ​​the Tohono O'odham Indian people , which is against the wall.

The sealing off of the border by fortifications and walls, border police or troops of the United States National Guard to ward off migrants from the main countries of origin El Salvador , Honduras and Guatemala applies according to the assessment of the US Department of Health and Human Services (" Department of Health Care and Social Services ”) from October 2018 as largely ineffective under the current legal situation, since migrants from Central America usually turn to the US border police themselves with the request for asylum .

Environmental impact

In addition to a lawsuit against the Trump administration's “zero tolerance policy” against migrants, the Southwest Environmental Center also filed a lawsuit against the environmental impact of the planned or under construction expansion of the border fortifications: the significantly above-average biodiversity of the Chihuahua Desert and the surrounding mountains and rivers are threatened by the perfection of the fragmentation of the habitats with the obstruction or interruption of the migration possibilities of rare animal species such as mountain lion , gray fox or jaguar .

Situation in different states


The first systematic step was Operation Gatekeeper in the California area . As a result, the barriers were extended from San Diego east towards Yuma between 1994 and 2000 .

According to refugee organizations, the strengthening of the border, especially in the vicinity of the official border crossings, means that migrants move further into the undeveloped and climatically harsher regions. But they are more likely to die there. The number of deaths on the California border rose by around 500% between 1994 and 2000 after the barriers were expanded. In the California border, migrants typically die from drowning. They die in the All American Canal or the New River near Calexico . Others drown in the Pacific Ocean when they try to swim from Tijuana to San Diego around the existing five-meter high wall that extends into the sea. Death from heat is another factor, it occurs in the deserts and mountains of the Imperial Valley . Since the border was expanded, accidents involving migrants on highways have only made up a small proportion. Until the 1990s, the typical death was a car accident while crossing the busy freeways on foot.


In the course of securing the Californian borders, the migrants turned more to Arizona . The expansion of the border in Arizona under the name Safeguard began around 1999. In 2002 around a third of all migrants were picked up on the 14% that Arizona makes up of the total length of the border. The death toll in southern Arizona more than ten-fold shortly after 2000. In Arizona, most of the migrants die from the heat in the desert, especially in the nearly uninhabited Tohono O'odham Nation Reservation .

New Mexico

The small part of the border in New Mexico is not yet a significant place of illegal crossing because of the poor accessibility on both sides. That is why there are no extensive technical security measures here.


In Texas, after the first measures under the name Operation Blockade or Hold the Line in 1993, there was a systematic expansion under the name Rio Grande from 1997. In earlier decades, migrants in Texas mainly died by drowning in the Rio Grande .

The immediate border area can hardly be controlled, which is why the United States Border Patrol is setting up checkpoints on the major traffic axes in the interior of South Texas. The most important are in the Falfurrias area on US Highway 281 . In order to avoid this, the migrants are picked up by smugglers by car shortly after the border, but first dropped off in front of Falfurrias, only to be picked up again far behind. The migrants migrate over long distances through unpaved areas with a desert climate in order to bypass the checkpoints. Most of them die in the area of ​​private ranches, so there is no direct access from authorities and there are no exact numbers.


The strengthening of the border led to a further displacement of migration into undeveloped areas, where the risks are much higher. This fits in with the fact that the ratio between the dead and those apprehended at the border has risen significantly since around 2005.

The US Border Patrol recorded a total of 6,029 deaths of illegal migrants on the US border with Mexico between 1998 and 2013. About 3300 deaths are assumed between 1985 and 1998. There are no older figures.

In October 2007, Felipe Calderón , then Mexican President, compared the expansion of the border fortifications with the Berlin Wall and Amnesty International also criticized the construction. Organizations like No more Deaths try to provide humanitarian aid and to document the conditions at the border. The activists of the organization Border Angels ("Angels of the Border") began their support of migrants by dumping water bottles in the wilderness, later they expanded their work to support and care for stuck migrants. The number of supporters grew from a few dozen to more than 500 by the beginning of 2019. The increase has been particularly large since Trump took office.


Against the background of a tense security situation and sometimes difficult economic conditions in Mexico, it is hardly possible to estimate how the migration routes will take place there. It is known that migrants from El Salvador , Guatemala and Honduras make up the largest number of Central and South American migrants to the USA. If they want to get by on their own to the US border, and is already available for the transfer through Mexico tug pay, they are usually victims of blackmailers, violent drug gangs and corrupt officials. Numbers are not available, mass graves of victims are repeatedly found.

Fatal shots by the United States Border Patrol

According to media reports, the rapid expansion of the United States Border Patrol meant that neither teams nor senior officials were carefully selected and trained. In the years 2007 to 2012, despite different operational guidelines, officials fired at least ten times across the border into Mexico, killing uninvolved Mexican citizens in six cases. The officers responsible have not been convicted of any criminal offense. In September 2015, a member of the Border Patrol was charged with shooting across the border by a federal prosecutor for the first time.

See also


  • Paul Ganster: The US-Mexican Border Today: Conflict and Cooperation in Historical Perspective. 3. Edition. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham 2015, ISBN 978-1-4422-3112-2 .
  • Robin Reineke; Daniel E. Martinez: Migrant Deaths in the Americas (United States and Mexico). in: Tara Brian; Frank Laczko (Ed.): Fatal Journeys - Tracking Lifes lost during Migration. International Organization for Migration , 2014, ISBN 978-92-9068-698-9 , pp. 45-84. ( online (pdf, 5 MB))
  • Steven W. Bender: Run for the Border: Vice and Virtue in US-Mexico Border Crossings. NYU Press, New York 2012, ISBN 978-0-8147-8952-0 .

Web links

Commons : Border between the United States and Mexico  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

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