These photos show what the U.S.-Mexican border looked like about 80 years ago

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The border between the United States and Mexico has been in the headlines for a while now. From issues of immigration to executive orders to tariffs to the animals that live along the nearly 2,000-mile-long boundary, it is not only one of the most-crossed international borders in the world, but one of the most heavily reported-on areas. But the border itself is hardly new.

The boundary was established in 1848 after the U.S -Mexican War ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. But it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that Mexico’s own revolution and subsequent border wars, followed by the Great Depression, prompted the United States to send soldiers, push Mexicans out of the country and strongly enforce its southern border. In 1924, Congress passed the Labor Appropriation Act, officially establishing the U.S. Border Patrol for the purpose of securing the borders between inspection stations. And in 1934, the first Border Patrol Academy opened as a training school in El Paso. In her book “Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border,” Rachel St. John writes that today’s border apparatus stems from the 1930s.

At that time, Dorothea Lange, a Farm Security Administration photographer best known for her iconic Migrant Mother image, visited the border near El Paso. Given that the United States at that time was poorer than Mexico today, Lange’s photos have a familiar air about them.

The inspection of goods. The impatience and eagerness of waiting. The anticipation of opportunity. The determination. Lange’s images, while uniquely of their time, capture both the recognizable signs of bureaucracy and the timelessness of life on the periphery.

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Shoppers returning from to the United States in June 1937 open their packages at a border plant-inspection station in El Paso maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress)

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