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Last week I made a trip to McAllen and El Paso, Texas, to meet with U.S. Border Patrol agents. In McAllen I met an agent who’s been serving in Border Patrol for 18 years. He told me something that I think underscores the real crisis at our border: The human cost of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), aka the “Remain in Mexico” policy.
“I don’t let my kids go anywhere in Mexico,” the agent said. When I told him I was planning to go to Matamoros, the Mexican city just across the border from Brownsville, he shot me a look of concern: “You be careful out there in Matamoros.” He then pulled out a blank sheet of paper and sketched out a basic map of some of the cartel wars going on in Mexican border towns along the Rio Grande Valley.
Perhaps that’s why this agent says he isn’t particularly in favor of MPP. Under the policy, U.S. immigration officials send all asylum-seekers from Spanish-speaking countries back to Mexico to await their court proceedings. I’ve written about some of the consequences of MPP, including how it significantly affects the asylum-seeker’s due process in immigration court. And now here was a senior U.S. Border Patrol agent acknowledging that it is not safe in Mexico—the very place we’ve sent tens of thousands of asylum-seekers.
The U.S. Department of State’s own travel advisory webpage puts Matamoros’ home state of Tamaulipas under a “Level 4” warning, or “Do not travel.” It warns Americans of “violent crime, such as murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault.” U.S. government employees are not allowed to travel between cities in Tamaulipas on interior Mexican highways due to the risk of armed criminal groups attacking public and private passenger buses.
I decided to follow the State Department’s advice for its employees. Instead of going deep into the interior as I sometimes do in Tijuana (a city under “Level 2” travel warning—“Exercise increased caution”), I stayed close to the border in Matamoros. Mainly, I just wanted to see for myself the conditions there, since our government has sent more than 11,000 asylum-seekers back to this city.
I didn’t need to travel far. Within a five-minute walk from the international bridge, I saw hundreds of tents pitched all over a public park near the Rio Grande. Many of these tents were covered with black garbage bags to protect from the rain. In this informal tent city, more than 1,200 people—mostly families from Central America returned to Mexico under MPP—live outdoors in the cold and heat. Some have court dates booked into next year.
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Much of the focus regarding the border crisis has been on the spike in numbers of families and children crossing the border unlawfully between ports of entry. I’ve heard countless people ask, “Why don’t they do things the right way and present themselves at the port of entry?”
Well, here’s a story of someone who tried to do everything the “right” way, and it may end up costing him his asylum case and even endanger his life.
Jhonaikel Jose Vielma Belandria is a 25-year-old architecture college student from Venezuela. He tried to seek asylum in the United States through a port of entry between Tijuana and San Diego this past May, but an official gave him a number and told him to wait in Tijuana. His number: 2,813.
Some context: It’s true that crossing the border between ports of entry without authorization is breaking a law—that law applies to everyone, including U.S. citizens. But it’s also true that there’s a special circumstance for asylum-seekers, who under U.S. law are allowed to request asylum “whether or not at a designated port of arrival … irrespective of such alien’s status.” So though irregular, what asylum-seekers are doing—turning themselves in to Border Patrol between ports of entry—is actually permissible within the U.S. Code.
That said, not many people seem to realize why so many more people have been crossing the border unlawfully in the first place. They do so because the United States implemented something called the metering policy along the U.S.-Mexico border.
What this means is that U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) agents now turn asylum-seekers away from ports of entry by limiting the number of people who can enter, sometimes allowing in only about half a dozen a day. As a result, thousands of people are stranded in Mexican border towns, waiting months for someone to call their number. (To get a better scope of what’s changing in our nation’s asylum system, read this timeline.)
That’s what happened to Jhonaikel. The young Venezuelan had expected to begin his asylum proceedings the very day he approached CBP agents at the port of entry. He had only 50 pesos ($2.62) in his pocket, and didn’t know anybody in Mexico. So when the official sent him away with a number scrawled onto a tiny piece of paper, he was shocked. He asked the official when they would call his number. The man told him more than 700 people were waiting in line before him. Wait three to four months, he said.
“I almost passed out,” Jhonaikel recalled. “My legs began to shake. I lost all hope. I felt despondent, lost.” When I spoke to Jhonaikel last week, he had already been living in Tijuana for about six months. The officials called his number in August, but because of a newly enforced policy called “Migrant Protection Protocols” (aka “Remain in Mexico”), CBP sent Jhonaikel back to Tijuana after a credible fear interview with an asylum officer. His next court date was in late October.
Jhonaikel could have crossed the border like many other asylum-seekers. May 2019, the month he arrived in Tijuana, had the highest number of apprehensions at the southern border in years—border officials apprehended 144,116 people that month, compared with 109,415 the previous month or 51,862 in May 2018. In early summer, Border Patrol was turning asylum-seekers over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which would first keep them in detention and then, after a risk assessment, release them on parole or bond to a sponsor in the United States to await the remainder of their court proceedings.
Instead, Jhonaikel stayed put in Tijuana and waited for his number to be called. “I thought there was an adequate process [for asylum],” he told me. “I was given a number, and I thought waiting in that process would allow me a better opportunity to voice my claims for asylum.” He also said he obeyed the process because he had “moral values” and “respect for the country’s laws.”
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In March, I went on a three-hour ride-along with a U.S. Border Patrol agent around the San Diego–Tijuana border.
That was my first and only ride-along with a border agent, and I was thrilled when the media relations team at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) granted my request for a ride. After doing a background check on me, they connected me with Fabian Carbajal, a public affairs officer with the Border Patrol at the San Diego sector. That’s protocol: As a journalist, I can’t just walk up to a border agent and interview him. If I did, the agent would refer me to media relations, or perhaps talk off the record. My biggest concern going into the border tour was that I’d mostly be getting official statements from agent Carbajal.
Carbajal and I met in the early morning at a Starbucks near the border. His truck tires were coated with dried mud, his windows dusty and stained with squashed bugs—signs of a well-traveled vehicle. I hopped into the passenger seat, and Carbajal took me up and down muddy hills overlooking the little towns of Tijuana.
Carbajal was an affable and open guy, and he had only just been rotated to public affairs several months before I met him. As we rumbled and bumped over unpaved terrain, Carbajal told how he had served in the Marine Corps for several years and completed two tours in Iraq, where he saw so many of his friends die that he decided he needed to get out of that field. But law enforcement was all he knew, and a former Marine like him wouldn’t adjust well to a pencil-pushing job, so he applied to other law enforcement agencies. Border Patrol was the first to respond to him, and he’s been a border agent for 13 years now.
What Border Patrol does is pretty straightforward: It apprehends individuals who cross the border between ports of entry, holds them for a short while, and then turns them over to the next appropriate agency, whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). To many Border Patrol agents, their job purpose is to serve and protect their countrymen: They are the watchmen at the front lines, guarding citizens from drug traffickers, terrorists, smugglers, and possibly dangerous illegal border crossers.
Unsurprisingly, Border Patrol attracts many individuals like Carbajal. In its job application site, the agency promises future agents a job that will “fill your need for excitement and adventure.” It’s a job that appeals to people who chase adrenaline and desire to serve their country. Most Border Patrol agents signed up knowing their job would be tough and dangerous. Many spend hours traversing the remote outdoors, braving suffocating desert summer heat and mountain winter cold. At times they keep watch for long hours, chasing illegal crossers or hiking around brush, looking for fresh tracks.
With all that’s happening at the border, we now frequently hear about the Border Patrol in the news, often for unflattering reasons. In one year, I’ve read reports on the high rates of misconduct and disciplinary infractions within CBP and Border Patrol, on agents separating migrant families at the border, on children dying in CBP custody, and on sexist and derogatory remarks that agents and former agents made in a secret Facebook group. For the most part, whether deserved or undeserved, CBP and Border Patrol bear the brunt of media scrutiny and criticism.
“This is the most media attention we’ve ever received,” Carbajal told me—and the criticism has also grown among his family and friends, some of whom call him names such as “family separator.” He now dreads telling people what he does for a living. The hostile remarks sting him, because that’s not how he sees his role as a border agent.
When I asked about the morale of Border Patrol agents, Carbajal paused. “It’s kind of low,” he told me quietly. “They don’t feel like they’re being supported. At the end of the day, our job is to stop people from crossing illegally, but people are calling us racist. They don’t understand I’m just trying to do my job.”
Recently, I asked that same question to another Border Patrol agent in Arizona. He let out a dry laugh: “Of course morale is down. It’s because of public perception. People are protesting, calling you Nazi, things like that.” Morale has never been the highest among CBP or Border Patrol compared with other law enforcement agencies, but it dipped significantly after 2014, when thousands of unaccompanied children began crossing the border, the agent said: “You’re angry at their parents. You’re angry at the administration. You’re angry that this issue is not really being resolved.”
The agent, who spoke under condition of anonymity because he didn’t have approval to speak to media, said he’s going to take a retirement deal as soon as he can. He said many other agents he knows plan to do the same. This is worrying, because Border Patrol already has a significant recruitment and retention problem. Meanwhile, the border issue is now a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Migrants are suffering, but Border Patrol agents are also suffering from a poor public image they say they don’t deserve.
This is why I’m pursuing a feature story focusing on Border Patrol. I’m looking to interview CBP and Border Patrol agents working at the southern border who can show me what their job looks like day to day, what their challenges and frustrations are, what they see that the public might not. I’d like to talk to someone who’s not in media relations, and who’s preferably a professing Christian. If that’s you, please contact me at email@example.com.