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The Image of Control

Following the careers of a family of especially corrupt border control officials.

International Bridge over the Rio Grande, Laredo, Texas, 1928. [National Archives]

On July 10, 1926, Prisciliano Martinez sat in the United States Consulate in Nuevo Laredo, surrounded by U.S. government officials. At the same table sat Clifford Perkins, assistant director of the Border Patrol and Martinez’s interrogator for the afternoon, along with Harry Walsh, US consul at Nuevo Laredo, and William Whalen, the recently appointed district director of immigration at San Antonio. Martinez explained that he had smuggled people and liquor from Nuevo Laredo into Texas for the previous three years. He bragged that there were no charges pending against him in the United States because he had yet to be caught by authorities there. Perkins ignored this gentle mocking of US border enforcement efforts and pushed Martinez to talk more about arrangements made with individuals in Laredo and San Antonio to receive and distribute smuggled liquor and people. Martinez stated that he and his fellow smuggler, Victor Treviño, had contacted a person they referred to as “Big Boy” in Laredo about making arrangements north of the Rio Grande. As Martinez told the U.S. officials, “Other smugglers told me that he was the boss.”

Martinez and Big Boy met at a ranch outside of Laredo and came to an agreement that would continue for a few years until federal investigators moved in to break up the operation in 1926. Liquor flowed by the carload from Mexico to the United States as part of this arrangement, but the migrant smuggling operations involved an unusual division of human cargo. Martinez and his associates would handle the smuggling of Mexican migrants, but all European migrants had to be turned over to Big Boy once they crossed north of the Rio Grande. Since the immigration quota laws that restricted entry of many Europeans to the United States had gone into effect a few years earlier, the number of Europeans looking to avoid detection while entering the nation at the U.S.-Mexico border had increased. Big Boy and his associates wanted to make sure that they could extort money from these European migrants as more rigid immigration restriction and more strenuous efforts at border enforcement grew in the mid-1920s. Mexican migrants, required by law to cross into the United States at legal entry points but not limited in number by immigration quotas, would not be further extorted by Big Boy’s men.

There was one other odd feature of this arrangement. Big Boy’s actual name was Mortimer Hanson, and he was the chief inspector for the Border Patrol at Laredo, Texas. He was the eldest son of Captain William Hanson, who had stepped down from his position as district director of immigration for District 22 —the chief Immigration Service official for the entire region that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Del Rio area hundreds of miles to the west — a few months before Martinez gave his statement to Clifford Perkins. Martinez’s liquor and human smuggling operation ran through the Border Patrol and the infrastructure of immigration control, not around it. It is important, though, not to dismiss this episode as a random, unimportant instance of official corruption. The arrangement between Hanson and Martinez illustrates the ragged edges of the system of enforcement that typically hide beneath the official discourse of border control. In place of actual enforcement of the law, the Border Patrol in South Texas engaged in a numbers game to produce the illusion of enforcement, projecting success through mugshots and apprehension statistics that served as empty simulacra of state power at the border.


Many recent scholars have sought to define, assess, and complicate the idea of border control and enforcement, especially as discussions of “broken borders” and “foreign invasions” have multiplied. These popular assumptions of borders made more porous in recent times, of course, are entirely fabricated and rest on the ahistorical assumption that there was ever a time when the border was fully controlled. There was never a high point from which declension could occur. Instead, the years since the early twentieth century have seen a steady increase in state authority at the border and a growing militarization of policing efforts, but at the same time a drastic increase in commerce that inherently complicates the exercise of control over what and who crosses the international boundary. More aggressive efforts to police border crossing, according to scholar Peter Andreas, have been largely “performative and audience-directed,” meant primarily to create the image of control. Federal immigration control efforts have always depended on providing a credible fiction of enforcement to the general public and to officials in Washington who determine budgets. Lists of apprehended migrants, bottles of illicit liquor, pounds of seized drugs, and all manner of other decontextualized data have been used to show the success and rigorousness of efforts by immigration officials to exercise authority over migration and commerce at the border. According to immigration officials, rising numbers of seizures or arrests are evidence of greater success in finding illicit traffic, while shrinking numbers connote greater success in dissuading smugglers from trying to breach the international boundary. However the border enforcers choose to recontextualize these numbers, they become the primary evidence explaining the activities of the Immigration Service and the Border Patrol and, more importantly, serve as the justification for larger budgets. More money, goes the argument, will produce either a larger or smaller number of apprehensions, whichever number is predetermined to measure success that day. As Peter Andreas has argued, “Border policing, from this perspective, is not only the coercive hand of the state but a ceremonial practice, not only a means to an end but an end in itself.”

Detail of fence and gate, Laredo, Texas, 1940. Photograph by Russell Lee. [Library of Congress]

Just as important as the broader discursive field of notions of border control for understanding the context of Mortimer Hanson’s smuggling operations is the specific history of efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border to create and staff the Border Patrol from its formation in the 1920s. According to historian Kelly Lytle Hernández, “The first officers were local boys who had come of age in the borderlands before they became officers of the Border Patrol. These men allowed their work as federal law-enforcement officers to unfold in intimate conversation with the social world of the borderlands.” For the first fifteen years of the Border Patrol, before World War II prompted a centralization of border control efforts, enforcement authority was highly localized. “Far from the halls of Congress,” Hernández has shown, “the early officers of the Border Patrol enforced U.S. immigration restrictions according to the customs, interests, and histories of the borderland communities where they lived and worked.” Early Border Patrol officers in South Texas were tasked with policing and helping to maintain the cross-border caste system that undergirded the region’s economic and social arrangements. “The development of the Border Patrol,” according to Hernández, “is best understood as an intrinsically social and political process revolving around questions of violence and social order rather than as a system of unmitigated responses to criminalized activity.”

Efforts to project state power at the border also created the negation of those notions of control: smuggling. Smugglers’ business depends on the state’s restricting trade and migration, and smuggling networks are the clearest products of efforts at border control. Conversely, smugglers and their cargoes provide the simplest rhetorical justifications for border control bureaucrats eager to draw public attention and more governmental funds. Smuggling is an essential and inevitable part of border control, and the line between illicit and legitimate trade is often unclear or arbitrary. Moving people and goods across international boundaries both challenges and legitimates the power of the state, while those tasked with wielding that power have had the option to enforce laws according to complex calculations driven by political pressure, local prerogatives, and opportunities for corruption.

William Hanson and Mortimer Hanson were certainly more corrupt than most border control officials, but they should not be written off as exceptions. Their operations were, in many ways, indicative of the early years of the restrictionist state, and their crimes illustrate the central problems within notions of control that immigration and law enforcement officials have tried to paper over since the early twentieth century. As district director of immigration and chief Border Patrol inspector, respectively, the Hansons held two of the most powerful positions in the hierarchy of law enforcement in South Texas. Almost without exception, they used that power to enrich themselves while providing a credible fiction of border control. The strange scheme to capture European migrants while allowing the smuggling of Mexican migrants and liquor, in this sense, perfectly illustrates the subjective nature of claims of border control and the numbers games that served as proof of success. 

Mortimer Hanson obtained employment from the Immigration Service before his father. He never finished high school and stumbled along behind his father, accepting whatever opportunity William Hanson’s connections might provide him. He entered the Immigration Service as a Spanish interpreter in December 1920 but remained in that job for less than a year. Mortimer wrote to the Immigration Service supervising inspector F.W. Berkshire that he had no interest in a permanent position as an interpreter. He viewed the position as a short-term job before he could leave for a “more lucrative position in South America,” where William Hanson hoped to operate as an advance man for U.S. oil interests. Mortimer’s job in South America never materialized, but he left his position as an interpreter anyway in August 1921. For the next year, his whereabouts are hard to determine, but he claimed to have served as a Texas Ranger in Denison before rejoining the Immigration Service as an immigration inspector in September 1922.

Mortimer’s position in the Immigration Service improved rapidly once his father took over the San Antonio office in 1923. He became an immigration inspector at Laredo in 1922, then became an inspector in the Border Patrol upon its founding in 1924, rising to become chief patrol inspector in April 1926, though he only remained in that position until the discovery of the smuggling scheme he ran forced his resignation in July 1926. Unlike his father, Mortimer had no previous law enforcement experience, but nepotism and the same political connections that built his father’s career aided his brief but rapid rise to the top of the Laredo Border Patrol sector. 

Mortimer’s time as an immigration inspector in Laredo yielded a surprisingly thin paper trail, but William Hanson’s position atop District 22 required him to send a steady stream of reports back to Washington. The elder Hanson’s correspondence over the three years of his Immigration Service position dealt with all manner of different problems and circumstances, but he remained focused on one particular issue to a remarkable degree. No report back to the commissioner general of immigration or the various officials atop the Department of Labor (which included the Immigration Service until it was transferred to the Department of Justice in 1940) failed to mention the number of Europeans entering Mexico and conspiring to enter the United States illegally. He particularly pointed to the Laredo sector as the most likely place where these European immigrants, now seeking to avoid both inspection and the numerical limits placed on European immigrants by the immigration quota laws of 1921 and 1924, would seek entry into the United States. In his communications with officials in Washington, Hanson played on the nativist fears that had allowed for the passage of quota laws to raise the specter of large numbers of European migrants trying to enter the United States through Mexico.

Less than three months after assuming his position in the Immigration Service, Hanson wrote to William Husband, the commissioner general of immigration, that the situation at Laredo was reaching a crisis point. He told of massive, highly organized criminal operations that planned to smuggle in hundreds of Europeans waiting in Nuevo Laredo. “We have six outside men [mounted inspectors, since this predates the founding of the Border Patrol by a year] there and for the past three weeks they have been working night and day in an effort to break up the smuggling of aliens,” explained Hanson. He then continued, “There have been times when we worked eighteen hours at a stretch without sleep or rest. The situation requires energetic action and we are trying to meet it; but the strain is telling on the men and they must have relief.”  Hanson went on to argue that he not only required additional personnel to police the supposedly worsening situation but needed broader authority to arrest or sanction anyone suspected of taking part in the smuggling schemes. He also announced that he would move immigration inspectors to the Laredo sector from various locations in his immigration district to concentrate law enforcement assets where they were supposedly most desperately needed.

Hanson continued to feed this narrative of a dangerous invading horde throughout his time with the Immigration Service. In late May 1923, for instance, Hanson warned that smugglers were beginning to use aircraft to bring in both liquor and people, bypassing terrestrial crossing points. Even more dangerous, he insisted, were rumors of a small number of Europeans in Nuevo Laredo promising large sums of money to anyone who could smuggle them into the United States safely. Their financial resources meant that “they were not aliens of the ordinary run.” Hanson quickly jumped to an alarmist conclusion, claiming that these rumors showed that Communists were in Nuevo Laredo and willing to pay handsomely to evade detection in moving north of the Rio Grande. That could only mean, he argued, that Communists were taking advantage of aerial smuggling to gain entry to the United States, and this new threat of illegal entry and ideological subversion required an infusion of new resources for the beleaguered immigration agents under Hanson’s leadership. One month later, in June 1923, Hanson sounded a similar alarm in declaring that Nuevo Laredo and the other border towns of northern Mexico were filling up with “aliens of the anarchistic and other criminal classes,” many of whom had previously been deported but were desperately trying to regain entry. These rhetorical tactics served a clear purpose. “The loss-of-control theme provides a powerful narrative,” according to Peter Andreas. “For law enforcement advocates, its seductively simple justification for escalation can be used to provoke alarm and mobilize support for further escalation.”

For the remainder of Hanson’s time in the Immigration Service, his correspondence shifted back and forth between warnings of imminent invasion and swaggering assertions of hard-won successes that were meant to pry more money and more personnel out of officials in Washington. In a lengthy report to the commissioner general of immigration in July 1923, Hanson boasted of the efforts he led in the Laredo sector throughout the previous month. He told of a meeting he held with bus drivers in which he threatened to punish any of them who transported undocumented migrants north into the interior of the United States. He claimed, “[My] plan had worked admirably and I am confident that since that date no regular jitney or truck driver has conveyed any contraband alien from the border.” He also happily reported that this refusal of bus drivers to ferry passengers north meant that migrants were forced to proceed north on foot, “encountering many hardships, including the lack of food and water.” He continued, “This will undoubtedly have a deterrent effect upon any future illegal entries upon the part of those aliens or others to whom they may relate their experiences.”

Excerpted from William Hanson and the Texas-Mexico Border: Violence, Corruption, and the Making of the Gatekeeper State, by John Weber. Copyright © 2024 by the University of Texas Press. Used with permission from the University of Texas Press.







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