Customs and Border Protection: Rooted in Nation’s First Congress

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D., University Dean of Security Studies

This is the first post in Colorado Technical University’s Homeland Security blog series in which University Dean of Security Studies Dr. Nadav Morag outlines areas within the field. From the government at federal, state and local levels, to the private sector, homeland security is a wide-ranging field, and Dr. Morag will explore its history and future in the weeks to come. This week, he begins with a close look at Customs and Border Protection, an agency that is almost as diverse as the field of homeland security itself.

CTU Homeland Security Degree - US Border PatrolCustoms and Border Protection (CBP) was formed in March 2003 as part of the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was itself created only a few months earlier in November 2002 in the wake of 9/11. However, the functions of controlling access to the country, overseeing the flow of commerce, and enforcing tariffs dates back to the nation’s first Congress which, in July of 1789, enacted the new country’s first tariff laws. 

Evolution of an Agency

For many years, the Department of the Treasury was tasked with enforcing tariffs and controlling the access of goods into the country. In 1853, the Treasury created an agency known as the U.S. Customs Border Patrol to monitor land borders with an eye toward preventing the smuggling of goods into the United States. In 1875, the Supreme Court ruled that immigration policy was a federal responsibility (it had been handled by the states until then), and the Customs Border Patrol was consequently tasked with preventing illegal immigration. In 1903, the responsibility for customs and immigration duties was transferred to the new Department of Commerce and Labor, and in 1906, that department created the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization (INS). In 1927, the Department of the Treasury created the Bureau of Customs. Hence, prior to 9/11, the functions of controlling the access of goods and people into the country were carried out by separate agencies housed in different federal departments. In the wake of the attacks, and due to fears that terrorists would try to access the country and/or send it dangerous cargo, the Bush Administration decided to treat both goods and people as part of the same potential problem and to create one agency housed within DHS to deal with this issue. Hence CBP was born.

An Agency that Wears Many Hats

Today, CBP is the largest law-enforcement agency within DHS. The agency’s primary mission is to prevent harmful individuals and substances from entering the United States. This includes terrorists, criminals, illegal drugs, weapons/contraband, and harmful pests and diseases. CBP is also responsible for regulating international trade, collecting import duties, enforcing trade laws, and protecting U.S. businesses from intellectual property theft

One of the largest components of CBP, and arguably the most well-known, is the Border Patrol. The Border Patrol employs more than 20,000 uniformed and plainclothes agents along the 1,900-mile border with Mexico and the 5,000-mile border with Canadai. In many stretches of remote border area, they are often the only public-safety officials who patrol on a regular basis. 

An equally large component of the CBP consists of uniformed and plainclothes CBP officers who screen passengers and cargo entering the airports and seaports of the United States. For those international travelers who enter the United States via an airport or seaport, contact with the CBP happens via the agency’s uniformed officers who inspect their passports and belongings as they enter the country. CBP also employs about 1,000 personnel in aircraft and ships patrollingii  U.S. airspace and territorial waters (the latter mission overlaps somewhat with another DHS component agency, the U.S. Coast Guard).  Additionally, CBP employs more than 2,000 agricultural specialistsiii  who inspect cargoes arriving in the United States in order to ensure that pests, plant diseases and animal diseases do not spread into the country from foreign cargoes. Finally, the agency employs nearly 2,500 personnel in financial oversightiv  positions to collect entry duties and taxes and to prevent fraud.

As one can imagine, CBP is quite busy. In a typical day, it processes close to a million people entering the United States from the land, sea and air, and it processes upwards of 60,000 containers entering the country by truck, rail and ship. With its workload showing no signs of slowing down, the need for qualified manpower promises to grow long into the future.

i http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/careers/customs_careers/we_are_cbp.xml
ii ibid
iii ibid
iv ibid


CTU Faculty - Nadav MoragNadav Morag, Ph.D., is university dean of Security Studies at CTU. He works on projects for the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, and he is a published author on terrorism, security strategy and foreign policy. Connect with Dr. Morag on Twitter.


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Image Credit: Flickr/Josh Denmark


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