While that impact may be minimal for travelers, it’s a burden for officers. According to Officer Jonathan Larson, the Blue Water Bridge CBP Office of Field Operations had about 10 percent of its workforce at the southern border at all times from April until mid-September, when the operation ended due to the decreasing number of migrants. That’s about 20 officers at once.
If not enough officers volunteered, the port director assigned the rest. This summer, Larson volunteered to work at a migrant camp in El Paso to avoid being assigned at a later time. Since he volunteered, he had two weeks’ notice. Not everyone had that convenience, though: A fellow officer was sent down for two months with only four days’ notice. “It’s difficult,” says Larson. “Nobody likes getting that short of notice to leave.”
Larson recognizes the need for more officers on the Mexico border. He’s worked the bridges in El Paso before, and he says travelers at those border crossings are similar to Blue Water Bridge migrants, traveling mainly for work, school, shopping, or sometimes visiting family. But the differences between Port Huron and El Paso are stark. At the Blue Water Bridge, the influx of vacationers in the summer can increase wait time to an hour. Meanwhile, it’s busy year-round at the Mexico border, and Larson says the lines in El Paso can take two to three hours to get through. He remembers how the 110-degree desert heat produced the forceful smell of hot rubber, hot metal, and sweaty people during those long hours.
On top of that, officers at the southern border deal with more illegal activity. While a day at the Blue Water Bridge is more likely to involve catching paperwork problems or agricultural pests, fraud and illegal drugs are daily finds in El Paso. A hundred pounds of narcotics isn’t an uncommon discovery down there. “Every day, you know you’re likely to have drugs coming through your lane. … You’re a little bit more on your toes there,” says Larson. “Here, it’s not so bad.”
Back on the bridge, Officer Hammond stands with his back toward the United States customs booths. Behind him, a handful of cars and CBP vehicles sit parked under the rusty brown overhang outside of a gray cement building, where the officers in the booths send select travelers for further questioning. An occasional semi-truck slowly rolls past on its way to the exit ramp. Even in calm Port Huron, Hammond says, CBP officers regularly face unknown dangers and hard decisions. But he recognizes that those unknowns are nothing like what they face at the southern border: “It’s night and day from what goes on down there.”