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.”