‘People actively hate us’: The morale crisis within the US border patrol

Manny Fernandez, Caitlin Dickerson, Miriam Jordan, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Kendrick Brinson
US Border Patrol agents apprehend families suspected of crossing the Rio Grande River to enter the United States illegally on 11 September 2019: Larry W Smith/EPA

One US Border Patrol agent in Tucson, Arizona, said he had been called a “sellout” and a “kid killer”.

In El Paso, Texas, an agent said he and his colleagues in uniform had avoided eating lunch together except at certain “BP friendly” restaurants because “there’s always the possibility of them spitting in your food”.

An agent in Arizona quit last year out of frustration. “Caging people for a nonviolent activity started to eat away at me,” he said.

For decades, the Border Patrol was a largely invisible security force. Along the southwestern border, its work was dusty and lonely.

Between adrenaline-fuelled chases, the shells of sunflower seeds piled up outside the windows of their idling pickup trucks. Agents called their slow-motion speciality “laying in” – hiding in the desert and brush for hours, to wait and watch, and watch and wait.

Two years ago, when Donald Trump entered the White House with a pledge to close the door on illegal immigration, all that changed. The nearly 20,000 agents of the Border Patrol became the leading edge of one of the most aggressive immigration crackdowns ever imposed in the United States.

No longer were they a quasi-military organisation tasked primarily with intercepting drug runners and chasing smugglers.

Their new focus was to block and detain hundreds of thousands of migrant families fleeing violence and extreme poverty – herding people into tents and cages, seizing children and sending their parents to jail, trying to spot those too sick to survive in the densely packed processing facilities along the border.

Ten migrants have died since September in the custody of the Border Patrol and its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection.

In recent months, the extreme overcrowding on the border has begun to ease, with migrants turned away and made to wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed.

Last week, the Supreme Court allowed the administration to close the door further, at least for now, by requiring migrants from countries outside Mexico to show they have already been denied refuge in another country before applying for asylum.

The Border Patrol, whose agents have gone from having one of the most obscure jobs in law enforcement to one of the most hated, is suffering a crisis in both mission and morale.

Earlier this year, the disclosure of a private Facebook group where agents posted sexist and callous references to migrants and the politicians who support them reinforced the perception that agents often view the vulnerable people in their care with frustration and contempt.

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Interviews with 25 current and former agents in Texas, California and Arizona – some conducted on the condition of anonymity so the agents could speak more candidly – paint a portrait of an agency in a political and operational quagmire.

Overwhelmed through the spring and early summer by desperate migrants, many agents have grown defensive, insular and bitter.

The president of the agents union said he had received death threats. An agent in South Texas said some colleagues he knew were looking for other federal law enforcement jobs.

One agent in El Paso told a retired agent he was so disgusted by scandals in which the Border Patrol has been accused of neglecting or mistreating migrants that he wanted the motto emblazoned on its green-and-white vehicles – “Honour First” – scratched off.

“To have gone from where people didn’t know much about us to where people actively hate us, it’s difficult,” said Chris Harris, who was an agent for 21 years and a Border Patrol union official until he retired in June 2018. “There’s no doubt morale has been poor in the past, and it’s abysmal now. I know a lot of guys just want to leave.”

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By and large, the agency has been a willing enforcer of the Trump administration’s harshest immigration policies.

In videos released last year, Border Patrol agents could be seen destroying water jugs left in a section of the Arizona desert where large numbers of migrants have been found dead.

Some of those who worked at the agency in earlier years said that it had changed over the last decade, and that an attitude of contempt towards migrants – the view that they are opportunists who brought on their own troubles and are undeserving of a warm welcome – is now the rule, not the exception.

“The intense criticism that is being directed at the Border Patrol is necessary and important because I do think that there’s a culture of cruelty or callousness,” said Francisco Cantú, a former agent who is the author of The Line Becomes a River, a memoir about his time in the agency from 2008 to 2012. “There’s a lack of oversight. There is a lot of impunity.”

In El Paso and other border communities, becoming an agent has long been viewed as a ticket to the middle class. A starting agent with a high school diploma and no experience can expect to earn $55,800 (£44,800), including overtime, climbing to $100,000 (£80,200) in as few as four years.

But given the long, solitary work, often in punishing heat and far-flung locations, and a growing workload, the agency has had difficulty recruiting: it remains about 1,800 agents short of its earlier hiring targets.

Some trace the increasing bitterness and frustration among agents to 2014, when large numbers of migrant families, as well as unaccompanied children, began arriving at the border.

Many agents said they were not given the money or infrastructure to handle the emerging crisis. Desperate mothers and sick children had to be herded into fenced enclosures because there was nowhere else to put them.

Some agents blamed migrant parents for bringing their children into the mess.

Their anger began building under Barack Obama’s presidency. Then, with Mr Trump’s election, it found a voice in the White House.

M Trump “said it to us, he said it in public: ‘I’m going to consider you guys, the union, the subject-matter experts on how we secure the border’,” said Mr Harris, the former agent and Border Patrol union official from Southern California who retired last year. “We had never heard that from anyone before.”

The private Facebook group, which was created in 2016 and had more than 9,000 members, became a forum for agents to vent about the increasingly thankless nature of their jobs and the failure of successive administrations to fully secure the border.

In some ways, though, the posts reflected a culture that was long apparent in parts of the agency. For years, the Border Patrol has quietly tolerated racist terminology. Some agents refer to migrants as “wets”, a shortened version of “wetbacks.” Others call them “toncs”.

“Tonc” may have originated from an acronym referring to unknown nationality, but that is not how it is widely understood these days.

Jenn Budd, a former agent of six years who is now an outspoken critic, said a supervisor at her Border Patrol station in California had explained the term to her: “He said: ‘It’s the sound a flashlight makes when you hit a migrant in the head with it’.”

All the agents interviewed by The Times concurred.

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Josh Childress, a former agent in Arizona who quit in 2018 because the job had begun to wear him down, said the Facebook posts hinted at a deeper, darker problem in the agency’s culture.

“The jokes are not the problem,” he said. “Treating people as if they aren’t people is the problem.”

Calexico, California, 120 miles east of San Diego in Southern California’s agrarian Imperial Valley, offers a glimpse of the relationship between a border community and the agents.

Hemmed in by rugged mountains, desolate desert and the Colorado River, the valley has an economy that revolves around seasonal farm jobs and government work. Temperatures top 110 degrees during the parched summer months.

About 800 Border Patrol agents work in the vast El Centro Sector, which runs about 70 miles across the Valley. They patrol on bikes and in their white vehicles in Calexico, whose downtown sits up against the rust-coloured bollards that separate the United States and Mexico.

When Mr Trump visited the city in April to tout 2.3 miles of a new border barrier – a row of 30-foot-tall, slender steel slats with pointed edges – Angel Esparza organised a binational unity march that drew 200 people. But he said the march was to protest the US president, not the Border Patrol.

Mr Esparza has featured Border Patrol agents on the covers of two issues of Mi Calexico, a magazine that he produces and distributes sporadically in this town of 40,000.

“The Border Patrol agents are part of the community,” he said.

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Operating in communities that are often heavily Hispanic and quietly hostile to Mr Trump’s immigration agenda, the Border Patrol has become more openly political than at any time in its history.

Agents have nurtured a strong loyalty to the president, whom many of them see as the first chief executive who is serious about border security.

The union endorsed Mr Trump in 2016, a move that gave the Border Patrol a line of communication to the White House but has also created friction in Democrat-dominated border communities.

Democratic lawmakers flocked to the Texas border throughout the spring, many holding news conferences to criticise the filthy, crowded conditions in which migrants, including children, were being held – some with unchanged diapers, little access to showers and little or no hot food.

Agents said they had done the best they could – some bought toys for the children in their care – but were simply overwhelmed by the number of new arrivals.

The New York Times

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