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Border blowback

The crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border is taking a toll on the agents who patrol it

Border blowback

A U.S. Border Patrol agent patrols the U.S.-Mexico border near Del Rio, Texas. (Jared Moossy/Redux)

When someone from U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) first tried to recruit him at a mall, Chris Cabrera said he didn’t know what a Border Patrol agent was. “It’s like playing hide-and-go-seek every day,” the recruiter said. You spend most of your 10-hour shift outside—in the grasslands, the desert, the mountains, on foot, four-wheelers, boats, and horses, catching people who cross illegally.

That sounds like a fun job, Cabrera thought. He was an adrenaline-seeking, U.S. Army veteran who had no desire for a 9-to-5 office job. Today he’s been a Border Patrol agent in McAllen, Texas, for 18 years and is the vice president of his union chapter. 

Another agent, Richard Marzec, first heard about Border Patrol through his father’s cousin, a border agent who told him wild stories of chasing bad guys. “It sounded so cool, so awesome,” Marzec recalled. “I wanted the adventure and danger.” 

About 30 percent of Border Patrol agents are U.S. military veterans. USBP recruits heavily from ex-military officers, Cabrera said, since these people are familiar with life in a uniform, like law and order, have a strong sense of national duty, and are trained to respect authority—“You tell me what to do, I go do it.”

For decades, the U.S. Border Patrol mostly operated away from the public eye. But since 2014, when thousands of families and children began crossing between ports of entry along the border with Mexico to seek asylum, USBP began receiving its greatest scrutiny since its creation in 1924. In a few years, USBP has swung from one of the least visible federal law enforcement agencies to one of the most hated.

Many border agents feel they’ve become a whipping boy for somebody else’s mismanagement, and that has pushed them to become defensive, discouraged, and insular. They think the public misunderstands what they do, politicians make their jobs harder, and the U.S. immigration system still has problems.

Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A Border patrol agent checks the health of immigrants who crossed the Rio Grande in El Paso. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

ALTHOUGH THE BENEFITS ARE GOOD, being a Border Patrol agent can be grueling, lonely, and dangerous. Most agents serve at the southwestern border, many in dusty towns so small and isolated that “you’ll miss them if you blink,” as one agent described to me. 

Morale has dropped among Border Patrol agents. Every agent I talked to groused about the media’s portrayal of them, accusing news outlets of missing “the nuances of the job” or “flat-out lying.” They resent congressional leaders who visit their facilities and sob on national TV, using language such as “concentration camps” and “cages” to describe conditions. They bristle when the public calls them racist and inhumane. They say nobody acknowledges the sacrifices and stress of their job. 

These agents feel that the vitriol against them is unwarranted and reflects a lack of understanding of Border Patrol duties: Agents cannot make immigration laws and policies—someone in D.C. signs an order, and they execute it on the ground. “Our role is actually very small,” one supervising agent in El Paso told me: “All we do is apprehend someone, and then turn them over to another agency—that’s it.”

Marzec served 23 years in the Border Patrol under four different presidents: Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump. He describes forces much bigger and more powerful than the agents—such as politicization—kicking and tossing them around. Marzec retired in 2017 at age 50—seven years earlier than he originally planned—and began a second career. The Border Patrol is losing agents faster than it can recruit and train new hires. After a peak of 21,444 in 2011, the number of agents dropped to 19,555 in 2018, despite the agency tripling its recruiting efforts.

Cabrera fumes when people criticize Border Patrol agents for what they do—the way he sees it, there’s the law, his job is to enforce the law, and that’s what he’s doing. He passionately denies that Border Patrol agents are abusive or inhumane. He and other agents store toys in their trucks and donate their own children’s clothes. Once, he and a few other guys barbecued 300 pounds of chicken to feed migrants at the local respite center. Cabrera says he has helped migrants who were drowning, dehydrated, or suffering from heart attacks, heatstroke, rattlesnake bites, or hypothermia. He saw an agent deliver three babies in one year. He’s met rape victims as young as 10, and he’s come across children lying dead in the brush.

Still, even his own family members object to his work. His niece asked him, “How can you do that job, how can you do that to your own people?” 

Cabrera told her, “You won’t find another organization in the country that saves more lives along the border than the Border Patrol.” 

Last year, he apprehended a group of more than 100 people. Among them were a woman and her 22-month-old son who was unresponsive—no pulse, no breathing. Cabrera poured water over the little boy, and a medic ran over to do chest compressions. One pump, two pumps, three pumps—the boy’s arm suddenly twitched. A doctor later diagnosed him with tuberculosis, flu, pneumonia, a brain hemorrhage, and brown spider bites. Soon after, Cabrera signed up for an EMT course: “I don’t want that to happen ever again.” 

John Moore/Getty Images

Border patrol medics treat immigrants for heat exhaustion in McAllen, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Talking about the little boy makes him angry. He blames the mother for bringing her baby along on the long journey. He blames parents who send their kids alone to the United States. He blames the smugglers for making money off of desperate people. Most of all, he blames the U.S. immigration system. 

Like many border agents, Cabrera believes many of the asylum-seekers come with fraudulent claims: “We have this system that says, ‘I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, but once you get here, you’re free to go.’ So what are people going to do? They’re going to do anything to get here—and along the way, people will be murdered, kidnapped, robbed, raped.”

Somebody’s benefiting from this chaos, and it’s not the migrants, whose hardship doesn’t end just because they cross into the United States. Border agents say nobody passes the U.S.-Mexico border between ports of entry without paying the drug cartels that control those areas. They pay a coyote, who then pays someone else until the money reaches a drug cartel—a completely risk-free, profit-making enterprise. Somehow, somewhere, someone is “recruiting” folks from Central America by providing false hope, essentially banking off their ignorance and desperation, agents say. 

Perhaps that’s why, when President Donald Trump took office, morale among agents shot up. For once, here was a tough-talking, no-nonsense businessman at the helm, promising to build a “big, beautiful wall” and take border enforcement seriously. The National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), which represents 18,000 border agents, endorsed Trump even before his nomination—the first time it has ever endorsed a presidential candidate. But since then, border agents have realized that there’s only so much a president can deliver.

The Trump administration at first tried implementing a “zero tolerance” policy to prosecute all illegal border crossers, even if it meant separating parents from their children. Under this policy, Border Patrol agents referred border crossers for prosecution, then reclassified their children as “unaccompanied minors” and sent them to the Department of Health and Human Services. The Trump administration is convinced (as are many border agents) that asylum-seekers are using their children to exploit U.S. immigration laws and thought this policy’s harsh consequences would deter more families from coming. 

 Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images

Border patrol agents help a Guatemalan man stranded in the desert for three days near Sanderson, Texas. He was left behind when he injured his knee after making it across the river. ( Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images)

But then images and audio clips of children moaning and crying for their parents trickled out. What happened was a bureaucratic disaster: The government lost track of the kids and didn’t know how many were separated or how to reunite them with their parents. Eventually, public outrage forced Trump to overturn that policy.

Asking border agents about family separation under the “zero tolerance” policy is tricky business. Agents don’t know what happens to migrants after they leave USBP custody. Almost every agent I talked to denied family separations happened, despite overwhelming evidence. One agent who works in public affairs told me he didn’t read news about the family separations: “A lot of the news are lies. They’re just going to make me mad, so why would I read it?”

“You won’t find another organization in the country that saves more lives along the border than the Border Patrol.”

On Jan. 25, 2019, the Trump administration announced a new policy designed to deter migrants. The Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), originally called the “Remain in Mexico” policy, sends all asylum-seekers from Spanish-speaking countries back to Mexico with a court date. MPP started in the San Diego sector and then extended borderwide. Since then, more than 55,000 asylum-seekers have returned to Mexico. 

If the sole goal is to deter more people from crossing, MPP may be working. The number of people apprehended at the border has been dropping steadily since July. From a peak of 132,856 apprehensions last May, USBP apprehended just under 30,000 in January. But the human desperation hasn’t ceased. 

I asked Cabrera if MPP is the solution to border security. He sighed, looking conflicted: “I don’t know. MPP may seem humane to me, but … I’m not in their shoes. I don’t know what they’re going through. I don’t know if MPP is the answer, but I can tell you that right now, nobody is working on it.” Finding the solution to our messy immigration system is above his paygrade, he said. He just enforces the law—and meanwhile, “we get blamed for everything.” 

That frustrates him most, especially when he thinks about all the sacrifices he’s made for his job: Throughout the years, he has fractured a rib, dislocated his knee, and injured his shoulder, wrist, hip, and ankle while on the job.

Cabrera says he still enjoys his job, but he plans to retire in four years when he turns 50—and he doesn’t want his own kids to join Border Patrol: “I’d rather them be inside, you know? Have a normal person job, where they’re not going to break bones or get sick or be punched.”

John Moore/Getty Images

Central American immigrants wade across the Rio Grande, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Ground zero

The border is quieter now, but desperate migrants still arrive seeking refuge

I visited McAllen and El Paso, Texas, in November, when numbers were low and things were much calmer at the border. In El Paso, I went on a five-hour ride-along with Border Patrol Agent Fidel Baca in his white-and-green truck. 

On the way, we parked underneath a freeway overpass to see an almost-completed, 4.2-mile-long steel-and-concrete bollard fence that stands between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. Behind the wall trickled the Rio Grande, and across the river, I saw Mexican National Guard officers keeping watch on the other side of the border. During dry seasons, the river runs dry, but that day, gray-green, knee-deep waters flowed at a lazy pace. I spotted mismatched shoes and pieces of clothing strewn about the squishy banks, most likely items that migrants left behind while crossing. 

We walked along the wall until it suddenly broke off and dropped into a flood plain. “Here,” Baca pointed, “this is ground zero.” 

Many have called El Paso “ground zero” of the border crisis. It’s where then-Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Kevin McAleenan came to announce that the country’s immigration system had reached a “breaking point.” It’s where border agents apprehended the largest group ever in Border Patrol history this May—1,036 people at one time, most of them asylum-seekers from Central America. It’s also where the Border Patrol experienced the sharpest increase in apprehensions: Between fiscal year 2018 and fiscal year 2019, apprehensions in the El Paso sector spiked fivefold, from 31,561 family members and unaccompanied minors to 149,068. 

At the peak of the crisis, agents would stand right where we were standing, waiting. Soon enough, they would come—sloshing through the river, climbing up the bank, then zooming toward the agent. Some yelled, “I want asylum!” while crossing the river. Some came and stood silently, waiting for instructions. The agent would check them for any potential weapons, write down their basic information, and radio for transportation, all of which took hours. Back at the station, an agent asked the migrants a series of questions, and if they expressed fear of returning to their country, Border Patrol sent them to asylum officers for a credible fear interview. Most border agents have no idea what happens to them next.  

As we talked, we heard a soft splash. We turned toward the river and saw four individuals—a man, a woman, a boy, and a girl—wade across the Rio Grande. The man held on to the boy with his right hand and carried the girl with the other arm. The woman followed behind, struggling to lift her feet off the mud onto the sandy banks. Mexican officials hurried over, but they were too late by then—the family had already stepped onto U.S. soil. 

Baca groaned: “Oh gosh, here we go.” He called the station asking for transportation, and we stood waiting as the group trudged toward us. Baca led them to his white-and-green truck and opened the tailgate so the kids could sit in the shade and dry their feet. He then pointed at the man and asked the little boy, “Who is he?” The boy said, “Mi papa.” 

The kids seemed physically affectionate with the man and woman, so Baca believed him. He asked the boy, “Cuantos años tienes?” (How old are you?) “Siete” (7), the boy said. His name was Adrian. Baca also tried to talk to the girl, but she hid behind her mother. 

The man said they were from Michoacán, a state in west-central Mexico. They had been traveling toward the U.S. border for a week, going as far as they could afford by bus, then walking and begging for rides along the way. The previous night, they slept on the streets of Juárez because they didn’t know anyone and had no money. They hadn’t eaten anything since the night before, when someone took pity on them and gave them two tortas to split. 

They’ve come to the United States for “family protection,” the woman said. 

Baca turned to me and said, “That’s something I’ve never heard of.” I assumed they meant asylum but didn’t know the proper term for it. The man said he was a bricklayer in his town when someone sent him death threats. He didn’t know who. 

At that point, the woman began crying. I asked her, “What do you think is going to happen now?”

She sobbed, “I don’t know, but as long as my kids are safe.”  

The woman said someone had killed her cousins and uncle. Crime and violence is everywhere in Mexico, and they don’t feel safe anywhere there.

All they carried were the clothes they wore, a plastic folder with their birth certificates, and a small sling bag stuffed with a pink Barbie toy, sanitation wipes, and a yellow paperback Bible. I pointed out the Bible, and Baca said it’s common to see migrants with Bibles, even if they leave everything else behind: “They gotta have faith.” —Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.


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    Posted: Fri, 02/28/2020 11:48 am


    I don't have twitter so I would like to thank our Border Patrol agents for their hard work and dedication. There are many people who appreciate you. The media do not represent us. Thank you.

    Posted: Mon, 03/02/2020 12:35 pm


    Thanks for sharing your experience with our Boarder Patrol agents. We who live on the border appreciate their work and dedication and often feel so frustrated by the way the Media portray them as the villains of this nation's failed/failing immigration policies. Congress needs to be villified, not the hardworking, dedicated Border Patrol, for failing to deliver laws and policies that address the needs of the Nation and immigrants.

    Posted: Mon, 03/02/2020 05:34 pm

    Please correct me if I am wrong, but is seems to me I recall the reason children are separated from parents who are held at the border is because of US laws that state children cannot be detained more that a certain amount of time with incarcerated/detained adults? If this is so, I hope perhaps you can do an article on this subject...