THE CARAVANS HAVE “REALLY CHANGED THE GAME,” said San Diego Sector Border Patrol public affairs officer Fabian Carbajal. In the last few years, he’s seen so many kids crossing the border that he's carried toys and stuffed animals in his trunk. “Before, it was a cat-and-mouse game, people trying to hide from Border Patrol. Now families come and just stand there waiting for us—and in groups of 30, 40, 50 families.”
Whenever that happens, a Border Patrol agent will have to radio in other agents in the field to come help, because he or she doesn’t have enough vehicular space to transport them to the station. If babies or toddlers are among the group, someone has to hurry over to the station to pick up baby car seats, crackers, milk, and juice. By the time everyone has been transported and medically checked, hours have passed, and dozens of Border Patrol agents have been pulled away from their primary duties—to safeguard U.S. borders from dangerous criminals, illicit materials, and illegal crossings.
To understand what Border Patrol agents deal with on a daily basis, I went on a three-hour ride with Carbajal in his mud-splattered Subaru. A Marine Corps veteran who has been a Border Patrol agent for 13 years, the 34-year-old Carbajal has built his entire career on law enforcement, so his perspective about the border is one of law and order—and very pro-wall. Before 1991, no physical barrier existed at the southern border, but over the last two decades, Border Patrol has been gradually walling off the border (see sidebar) as part of an increasing effort to prevent people from illegally crossing the border rather than arresting them within the country.
The San Diego Sector has one of the most thoroughly barricaded parts of the border, but that hasn’t stopped people from passing through. As we bumped and jostled our way up a steep hill, Carbajal pointed out a spot where a Trump-era 18-foot-high steel bollard fence abruptly ended at the foothills of the rocky, sun-beaten Otay Mountain Wilderness, a wilderness area that peaks at 3,566 feet and stands as a semi-effective natural barrier.
On the other side in Tijuana, I saw shacks and houses made of concrete blocks and wood panels, clearly a poorer neighborhood. Wild dogs barked somewhere in the Mexican plains. On the U.S. side, construction workers were still building and fortifying the wall, welding the steel plates in place as sparks flew to the ground. One Border Patrol agent stood guard next to her jeep at the end of the wall. As we drove back down, Carbajal nodded over at that agent. “You see that? We’ve been driving for several miles, and she’s the first Border Patrol agent we saw. That’s a problem.”
To Border Patrol, the massive spike of family apprehensions at the border creates plenty of opportunities for criminals to take advantage of the chaos and dysfunction. Many migrants arrive with no birth certificates or ID, so Border Patrol has to call their country’s consulate to procure their biographical information—and at times, the supposed parent has no relations to the child. “That’s scary,” Carbajal said. “Are these kids kidnapped? Rented out? What if drug cartels are taking advantage of these kids and our laws?”
Sometimes, the children unwittingly put themselves in danger. In one case that Carbajal worked on, a 17-year-old girl from Guatemala showed up with two younger siblings, ages 4 and 7. She said she had a 45-year-old male contact in New York whom she had met on Facebook—and when Border Patrol ran the man’s records, several child molestation charges came up. Out of sheer desperation or foolish naïveté or both, the girl had been willing to travel thousands of miles to seek refuge from a man she had never met.
“This can’t be the new normal,” Carbajal said. “Something has to change. This is not sustainable. Something drastic needs to happen.”
I witnessed that “new normal” an hour after my interview with Munoz. I heard a commotion going on over at the border fence on the beach. Someone had pried the corroding steel bars open 2 inches wider with a big rock, used a lighter to heat the steel wire blocking the bars, and then cut the wire open with a sharp tool. A Border Patrol agent parked on the other side of the border honked a warning, but the migrants ducked, crawled, and dashed through the fence.
As I watched, 52 individuals—17 of them children ages 1 to 14—ran across the beach and then marched toward the Border Patrol agents. Minutes later, more agents showed up in ATVs and on horseback. Among the migrants, I saw a middle-aged man limping on the sand in a black jacket, black hat, and streaming pink scarf, and I instantly recognized him as Oscar Munoz. I then spotted his wife, his daughter, his son-in-law, and grandson. Everyone in that group claimed asylum. Munoz has found his way into the United States after all.