This past week, along with the rest of my US/Mexico Border Studies class here at Prescott College during my eco league semester, I had the experience of going to Homeland Security Border Patrol Headquarters and meeting three very nice officers. I got the chance to learn more about border patrol, get to know these men a bit and ask them my questions. The following is what I learned: These men work in the Tucson sector which consists of about 282 linear miles, but their little section only includes 32 miles, which is the smallest geographical area that contains border patrol activity in this region. 730 agents are assigned to the Nogales station. The officers we met were named Agent Funky who was from Detroit, Michigan, Agent Delap from the rural West, and Agent Bean from Maine- two of these men were actually roommates in college. They joined the border patrol in 2007 and have been stationed in Nogales the entire time. Unlike the military, when you’re assigned to a border patrol station you can stay there for your entire career. They each majored in Political Science.
They are a part of the department of Homeland Security, run by the secretary of Homeland Security who in turn is under the control of the president. Each department of Border Patrol reports to different chiefs. They could be assigned anywhere between Tucson and New Mexico within their sector and they patrol everything from mountain range to mountain range. There have been 616 thousand arrests in the Tucson sector over this last year and 1.2 million pounds of drugs have also crossed. They said that even though they’re catching less “aliens”, they tend to be catching more drugs. Their job includes things like looking for footprints in the desert, looking for signs in general either in nature or other possible disturbances or trails, using special equipment to look for migrants at night when they can register their heat in the darkness, finding tunnels that immigrants or cartels have created to send people or drug shipments across underground, monitoring check-points and making sure the cars passing on I-19 aren’t smuggling people or drugs in any compartments as they cross (even though their way to determine this can be very general and usually involves racial profiling), etc. The officers acknowledged that they don’t think that having the border wall or fencing will stop people from crossing, but that they use it as a deterrent that can give them an extra 15 or so seconds in which they might be able to catch someone. It was actually proven by two teenage girls who uploaded a video on Youtube that the wall is only a 16 second deterrent for crossing. Billions of dollars and millions of miles of environmental mayhem for a 16 second deterrent. At these check points, the Border Patrol deal with many forms of causes of action. There are six levels of suspicion: zero, mere, reasonable, probable cause, reasonable certainty, beyond reasonable doubt. Immigration causes are usually under the category of mere suspicion, in which you can be sent to secondary at a highway checkpoint and be further searched. Depending on the border patrol officer, this could also depend highly on racial profiling. They use dogs at these checkpoints as well. They train the dogs as little puppies by putting a certain drug in their favorite chew-toy and after a while, every time the dog get’s closer they put the toy farther and farther away until the dog is programmed to look for that scent, therefore being able to smell if someone touched a car with drugs even a week ago because their nose is so sensitive.
Typically an agent has eight hour shifts, but generally this goes over time because you’re never supposed to leave the border unsupervised, therefore it is important that when one shift ends and one shift begins- the officer stays and can exchange information about what happened before they got there. About sixty people in the Tucson office are EMT’s and are therefore on call to be available for almost any shift. They make up about 10% of the station. There are fewer woman border patrol than men. Patrol officers have different teams: these include transportation such as bikes, ATVs, horses, and cars- the training for each of these teams differs slightly but all take roughly a few weeks, as well as going through intensive language courses in order to understand more Spanish. They walked us through their gear, sensors that go off of heat in which they use in the desert to spot people, letting us experience their night vision goggles (which function off of light) and see their rooms full of artillery, guns lining the walls.
They explained that there is the highest rate of suicide among law enforcement officers and is now the highest amongst border patrol. The officer couldn’t say why, he suggested that perhaps it is because they are placed in very poor locations. We asked, ”Do you ever find yourself ever start spacing out or getting bored?” Their response, “…are you kidding me right now? Of course- when it really starts to happen is when I’m driving down the road and I’m looking out the window to try to see footprints and all of a sudden I start getting dizzy looking at the lines caught up in the road.” They explained that you’re always placed in different areas; you never know where your shift will place you usually. We asked, ”Do most agents live in Nogales?” – ”No, we live in Rio Rico, most agents live near Tucson.” It is common for border patrol to be located in desolate areas.
They told us that their money comes from the department of agriculture, instead of having multiple different pay role offices they do this. Homeland security pays the department of agriculture and they pay the border patrol. They told us that use less than lethal weapons, which will hurt, but are not designed to kill. These are the weapons that they are generally supposed to use, similar to paint ball guns. Their armor that is assigned is very heavy, uncomfortable items. They can be forced to wear a combination of pants, a belt, etc. and that can weigh up to 53 pounds. It’s like carrying around a small child. On top of that they have to carry water with them. And their boots are very heavy as well.
I asked, ”Does it feel weird or uncomfortable to you to be using the terminology of calling them aliens when they’re just people?” The officer responded, “No. And I’ll tell you why, I mean first- first you just get over it, and have you ever heard of the alien sedition law? Well, ‘alien’ is a very old word. It was adopted for the little green guys from outer space, before that it was literally a French word, meaning someone not from here or foreigner. So take it for what it’s worth, but if you look at the law, we like to use the terminology of what’s in the laws. So when we say alien, it’s because alien is the law. You have the illegal aliens, and you also have the legal aliens that are following all the laws to be here- that’s sort of where the terminology is coming from.” Another officer piped in, “We’re in the midst of a cultural shift right now. The language changes over time, you said it makes you feel uncomfortable, well you know there are a lot of people that feel uncomfortable about it, it just, it just happens. In Spanish the word is ‘extranjero’, which also translates to ‘stranger’.” Somehow this struck me as feeling odd, considering no human being is illegal, and how calling someone a stranger and an alien is very different, even ‘extranjero’ in Spanish isn’t the same as calling them an alien and telling them they don’t belong somewhere.
We continued to walk into their surveillance room, lined with monitors and televisions across the room from a line of people at their desks. People are always assigned to be watching these monitors, watching from the cameras that are assigned at the towers, through tunnels, through everywhere. They can lip read- but they can’t hear you. We were actually asked when we were there by one of the people watching the monitors if we’d been near the wall earlier with our guide from the Mexicatoytl school because he’d seen us and remembered our group, since we were in fact pointing at the cameras we could see from the ground of the wall. It was a very eerie thing to hear.
They also brought us to their hard-cell detention center toward the end of the tour; this is where everyone who is caught is brought to be processed before anything happens to them. If they’re an alien, they have to fill out a bunch of paperwork and are given a few options: you don’t have to read these people their Miranda rights if they’re not planning on asking them questions and only detain you and finger print you. If they determine that they’re going to face prosecution- then they have to tell them their Miranda rights. These few options they can choose after being read their Miranda rights are: 1. I request a hearing against immigration court 2. I plead, I face harm in my country and I do not wish to be returned 3. I plead, I admit that I am here illegally, I do not have papers to be here but I do not wish to face harm and I request to be returned to my country as soon as possible. Most people choose the last option. This is the stage, usually; that it is determined as to whether someone will go to Operation Streamline. However, there are no harsh guidelines determining how many times someone needs to have been convicted or how many terrible things they may have needed to have done in order to be sent to streamline, but generally you will have to have been convicted a lot of times to go there. Patrol officers’ processes stop at the door of their institution, generally not knowing about anything more within the process than they have to deal with or persecute personally. The officers we’d spoken to had never even been to Operation Streamline. They have 48 hours to get someone in front of a judge, but usually the people in their detention centers will only hold someone for the duration of two or three shifts.
They proceeded to tell us that their radios are probably the most expensive piece of equipment issued to the border patrol, they each go for $5,000 a piece, and generally they don’t always work. Our teacher, Laura, asked a question that followed up on the Central American children being shipped across the border and where they’ve ended up- asking where they went? In response they said, “They were apprehended at the border and they were shipped to Nogales because there was nowhere else for them to go, no one had room for them. The Border Patrol held them in their facilities for as long as they could before Health and Human Services took over and then they started placing them across the country. The reality is that they will be in the U.S. forever now, either with their legal parents or placed in foster care. For years, there have been Hondurans, El Salvs, Guatamalans who have been coming over here illegally, crossing illegally, and they have been living here illegally for many years- so within that time these people have their kids in those countries who have been being raised by grandma and grandpa while they’ve been here. So in the midst of this crisis, a lot of them were sending them up, sending them over, thinking well now’s their chance to go live with mom and dad and get a better education, a better future.” The patrol said they weren’t holding these children indefinitely, that there was a constant turnover, they’d only be there for four or five days because of the huge numbers. They had to retrofit their warehouse for all kinds of juvenile things, like playhouses etc. Military bases, the border patrol academy, these were all used as places to house them as family units. They were all put through a process; vaccinated etc. (huge influx of chicken pox) and then they were claimed by their family members in the country. For their undocumented family members that came to claim them- those family members were not questioned about their legality within the country, they were just given their children. Because of this, it’s a huge sore point with the officers and has turned into a giant political issue.
The border patrol was clear that their job is to apprehend, that is their soul duty. ICE is the agency that takes them home. So somewhere in this process that responsibility gets shifted. Past apprehending them, the border patrol is in no way involved in the immigrants’ processes. My fellow student Sam asked, “Is there anything that you guys would change within border patrol policy or security?” and they answered “Oh my god, you don’t even have time to hear that answer. We need to have full control over the immigration world. For example, we can’t issue a visa. If you come to me and you’re the victim of domestic abuse in the United States and what’s my job? My job is to say alright well you’re not from the U.S. And I have to return you to your country of origin, but if you’re the victim of abuse in the US and you don’t have documents well there’s still a visa out there for you- but again, what’s my job? My job is to apprehend you and return you to your country of origin. How do you get that visa? And why don’t I have the authority to get that to you?” I exclaimed that that is extremely frustrating, and they said exactly, there ya go. They said, “You have this mass amount of juveniles coming into this country, and they all deserve a fair trial, but how do you realistically get those thousands of children in front of a minimal amount of judges? You don’t, so if you have these people here who are claiming to be their relatives and can house them and take them off our hands, then this is where we’re going to send them. And you have these kids who get here and they’re back with their families and they’re finding that they have these brothers and sisters here that they never even knew existed. So to bring it back to your question, we’d want to bring the world of immigration back to be working together, instead of splitting all of these departments into separate places and institutions all dealing with different things.” This used to be the case when INS existed (Immigration and Naturalization Services), but now all we have is ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). These are very different things, shifting the focus from getting citizenship to detaining the people that try. The officer explained, “You have one department issuing visas. Then these people come to the port of entry and customs will grant them entry or deny them entry, you have border patrol catching people and removing them, you have ICE that deals with interior enforcement, then you have UIS, CIS (Citizen and Immigration Systems) that deals with issuing visas within the United States, and it just keeps going on and on…What’s the process of gaining citizenship to the US legally? Honestly, probably twenty thousand dollars or upwards of that, and it’s going to take a very long time, mainly because there’s not one agency that does it. It’s very convoluted.”
We asked about their thoughts on the lawmakers in Washington that make these decisions on immigration etc. and barely know anything about what actually happens on the border. They said, “A lot of these congressmen that are ‘experts’ on the border, well what they do is they send their staffers down, typically around holidays, and how this plays out is that they say to a senator ‘Hey, come work for me, come be a part of my staff.’ They make it easy for them to do this by paying for their flight home during those holidays if they don’t mind stopping by the border to check out what’s going on. These staffers come down here and get a quick introduction with us, spend maybe about an hour, and then they go back and become the ‘border experts’ that then write the laws. So to me? It gets to be really frustrating because there are people that call themselves experts that have literally never been on the border, but hey, it’s corporate America.” In my opinion, this would make anyone feel insulted or belittled. They proceeded to admit that most border patrol members just simply do not care what’s going on as long as they’re getting paid, they detach themselves from what’s going on. They also said they want to get rid of quotas for coming in. Because of the quota system there are waits as long as twenty-eight years for people who really do deserve citizenship. The only thing this is doing is generating money for the government.
I asked if these officers had any family or were close to anyone who has ever crossed or tried crossing illegally. Their response was, “If we have found out about someone who has crossed illegally into the United States then our duty as immigration officers is to report them, no matter if we’re on duty or not. Because if we know there’s been illegal activity, even if we’re off duty, and we don’t report it then that’s corruption by definition. What kind of police officers would we be if we didn’t?” Gloria Anzaldua writes a lot about identity and what that can mean for someone when they feel like they don’t know who they really are. I think it is completely natural to have a desire to love your country and what it stands for no matter who you are, but what I think the border patrol is coming into conflict with is the idea that they cannot totally grapple with their identity because of what their job is really about.
Border patrol is the largest form of law enforcement police in the country. I couldn’t help but think about this more after spending some time as a group attempting to walk in the footsteps of some of the trails that the immigrants walked themselves in the desert, we were only able to spend approximately an hour on the trek. We forget what intense heat and discomfort actually means. Our levels of discomfort as a group escalated within such a short amount of time that it felt unbearable to even consider what people crossing could have experienced. When you’re out there and you’re looking around, standing in less strenuous terrain or while driving in an air conditioned vehicle, you wonder how such extreme suffering could exist in such unbelievably beautiful and expansive mountain range. Especially coming from the North East, the ability to look so endlessly across the western landscape is incredible, and even more confusing to consider that people are hiding within the crevices of the faraway peaks, taking shelter with the snakes and the red ants and the poisonous spiders because somehow those things are less filled with terror than the people of the white American race that I should feel privileged in which to associate myself. How is it that we’ve convinced these patrol officers, whom I don’t believe to be bad people, that they can feel such righteousness in stalking a race in which they share so much in common? Why is it acceptable to hunt humans? Why is it acceptable to spend billions of dollars to hire humans to hunt humans? Gloria Anzaldua, the author of the book ‘Borderlands’ writes about the symbolism of mirrors and the concept of really seeing one another and being seen. What would happen if we asked our government to stand in front of a mirror with themselves and the migrating people they call alien? How have they stopped being able to “see” these humans and who they really are? Perhaps they have been put through experiences in which they are also not being seen as rightful human beings. Perhaps we are all having so much trouble seeing each other and being seen that that is why we’ve created a literal wall so we don’t even have to try anymore. We’ve just given up. Anzaldua writes, “A glance can freeze us in place; it can possess us. It can erect a barrier against the world.”
Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, a 16-year-old boy was killed by Border Patrol two years ago and the government still will not release the footage of his shooting or the names of the officers involved. Jose was shot 10 times in the back in October 2012 while walking in Mexico near a border fence, when supposedly throwing rocks up the fence. After visiting the area where this took place, it was clear that it would have been impossible to get a rock over the fence, let alone cause any damage if it had. But the question is also raised- even if he had been throwing rocks, would such a crime deserve such an incredible punishment? We are forgetting, as Americans, how modern this issue and debate is. The issue of immigration and unlawful police authority is going on today.
To begin to understand any of this, however, I think it is important to know more about the war on drugs, as well as economic policy rooted in our government to even begin to understand this issue. For social justice to come alive, for all human beings to truly have enough and not just the fortune 500 business corporations, then we need to profoundly change our economic system. No matter how important protests and strikes and non-violent acts against government are- laws will not change unless we can pass the change of certain economic policies. The system we function in today quite literally demands the sacrifice of certain people at the alter of profit against others. The concept of neo-liberalism is confusing because it claims we have a newfound freedom as US citizens- but what does this mean now? What are we free to do? The “American Dream” is practically unthinkable unless you’re in the 1% of millionaires that inhabit this planet. Globalization has begun a change from humans depending on an economic system of barter, which allowed everyone to trade and exchange what they needed for survival, to capitalism which clearly isn’t working since 14.3% of people in the U.S. live in poverty. The problem with this, which we have trouble remembering or wrapping our minds around, is that this system was not designed to feed/house/educate all 7 billion people. It was created to do exactly what it is doing, allowing the people who are doing well in today’s economy to be doing well simply because others are not. So how do we fix this? Well, if a doctor misdiagnoses his patient he cannot properly the person. As a country, if we cannot properly diagnose a problem, we can’t fix it either. Our decisions as human beings is what is making people poor, not God, not luck, not sin, it is our human decisions. We’ve built a wall so that we can keep people in places where they’re forced to work for our economy for the cheapest price, whether they like it or not, and we enforce it with a gun. Today, the wall is in between the U.S. and Mexico- but who’s to say that we couldn’t continue to create a wall anywhere? It could be built around any state or country or piece of land. This filters all the way down to our daily decisions in grocery or utility shopping. It should be shocking that Wal Mart is the most successful business in the history of the human race, but it is not. Contemplating the difference between the “price” of an item and the “cost” of an item is directly impacted by the workers creating that product. 160 years ago our economic system depended on slavery. Considering this, I believe we have the ability to change this system yet again, since it isn’t working. Migrants are actually very normal people. In reality, we are a migrating species. Stars, bacteria, and matter itself is all migrating all the time. U.S. citizens today were originally from parts all around the world, one must only think about Ellis Island. It just so happens to be that now, we are choosing to be angry with the “illegal” or “alien” undocumented Mexican or Central American migrant. The law that this migrant is breaking, the “Entry Without Inspection” law is a misdemeanor violation of section 1325 of the U.S. immigration code. If you consider this, also consider how many times you’ve broken a law, either by driving over the speed limit or drinking under the legal age. One does this simply with the motivation of partying or having a good time, however, they are not labeled as being “illegal” as a person simply for doing this, and yet this motivation isn’t nearly as important as breaking the law because of the desperate need to feed your family or escape immediate danger or violence. People are coming here because they have to; they literally feel as though they have no other choice. As Americans, these “illegal aliens” put 58% of the food on our table and yet we claim to hate them so severely. However, if they do make it across, we offer them the jobs we don’t want and would never think of accepting anyway- and we pay them significantly less to do them. It is proven that people will stay in their homelands if they have the ability to do so and support themselves there, while still living within their communities and with their loved ones, but we are not giving these people that economic possibility because it benefits us to have them here- no matter how we speak about them politically. On top of this, they are here and paying taxes that will never actually benefit them because they are illegal. This averages to about 6 billion dollars every year that we are making off of these people’s presences’ additionally. This is unjust and unconstitutional. Relating this to its effect on mortality, from 1998 to 2013, over 7,000 people have died crossing the U.S. border, while 208 died during the entire existence of the Berlin Wall.