By Annmarie Gajdos and Juan Diego Ramirez
Born in Mexico, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Antunez served in the U.S. Army. After being deployed to Iraq in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he received his American citizenship. Described as both a proud American citizen and a lover of Mexico by his colleague Agent Sara M. Cabrera, Antunez is just one of the many U.S. Border Patrol agents who are responsible for policing an area that they also call home.
When asked about this complicated relationship, Agent Ernesto Mena said: “The job itself is a very difficult, challenging job. You’ve got to keep that in mind. We’re human beings. We’re here to do a job. And a lot of times it’s not very pretty.”
The U.S. Border Patrol plays an important social and economic role at the Southwest border. Agents, who are often members of a binational community straddling the U.S. and Mexico, deal with the compounded stress of a job that is both physically dangerous and mentally draining, and the stigma caused by the national outcry against Trump-era immigration policies. Frequently changing strategies and the effects of Covid-19 have further complicated their role.
During a Zoom presentation and interview in mid-April, two agents and an intergovernmental public liaison from the Border Police’s El Paso station described the work of what they said is a largely misunderstood government agency.
Often associated with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Border Patrol is an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. It is responsible for protecting and enforcing immigration laws at the border, and also is in charge of maintaining traffic checkpoints, conducting city patrols and transportation checks. Officers work with local police departments to solve cases involving Amber Alerts and anti-smuggling investigations such as the concealment of narcotics. In contrast, ICE enforces immigration laws throughout the rest of the United States and is responsible for arresting and removing undocumented migrants.
The Border Police is a federal police force whose mission is to “detect and prevent the illegal entry of aliens into the United States,” according to the U.S. Customs Department. In the eyes of some of the American public, they are the face of anti-immigration policies. Described in a Sept. 15, 2019, article in the New York Times as a by and large “willing enforcer of the Trump administration’s harshest immigration policies,” the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been scrutinized by countless media outlets and American residents for its role in carrying out President Trump’s Zero-Tolerance and Remain in Mexico (MPP) policies. However, the agency’s role is most convoluted at the Southwestern border.
The CBP El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico and two counties in far west Texas, employs 2,400 agents. The force patrols over 268 miles of international boundaries. The job is not easy. Every agent must participate in the Academy in Artesia, N.M., in preparation for the job. The most dangerous part: Every officer patrols alone. With only 19,000 agents guarding all of the nation’s borders, a number that pales in comparison with the 35,000 officers employed by the New York Police Department alone, the agency’s aggressive recruiting program fails to meet its quota by more than 1,800 agents nationwide, according to Politico.
For those living along the border, joining CBP is considered a ticket to the middle class. With only a high school diploma, a starting agent can earn $55,800 a year plus overtime. This figure can grow to $100,000 in as little as four years. This is a promising option for individuals living in El Paso, where the 2017 median household income was $44,416, a figure 25 percent lower than the average median income in Texas.
Twenty percent of the residents in El Paso live in poverty. Thus, well-paying government jobs, ranking right below education in popularity, attract 8 percent of the workforce in El Paso. Fort Bliss, the second largest Army base in the country, is the largest employer in the El Paso metro area, contributing $23.1 billion to the Texas economy in 2017. The Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection program employs more than 10,700 workers in the area, according to data compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
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Another popular choice of employment, health services, increased by 28 percent from 2010 to 2017, thanks to companies like Tenet Health and Las Palmeras Del Sol Healthcare. But wages across all employment sectors in El Paso are still lower than the national average. Large corporations with the ability to employ many people have not yet moved into the area. “If you go to the Career Day in my local high school, all it is there is Mary González, State Rep, and Law Enforcement. There are no doctors, nurses, or anything else. It’s really just Law Enforcement. It’s the only opportunity given to a lot of these young people,” says Mary González, the State Representative for House District 75, an area just east of El Paso.
In the Socorro Independent School District, the second largest school district in El Paso, students who do not enroll in four-year colleges often choose a career in law enforcement.
“If you look at our state, at Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, that’s the triangle of our state; most of the major companies, Google, Apple, are relocating to that area,” said Hector Reyna, the school district’s Chief Technology Officer. “Unfortunately, our kids, when they graduate, the majority of them have to leave for those high-paying jobs.”
However, those who do not make this decision have a feasible alternative: joining the Border Patrol.
For members of the El Paso community, Border Patrol agents represent more than just uniformed officers. They are neighbors, friends and oftentimes the relatives of members of the larger Latino community.
“Almost everybody knows somebody who is an agent or has a family member, a father, a brother-in-law,” said Irene Mortensen, the Community Relations Officer for the CBP’s El Paso sector. “So, we are very integrated with the community and we do things to try to explain to the community what we do.”
“Most of our agents do have backgrounds or families from Mexico and some of them go on their weekends, they go visit their families and come back; but they do understand that a job is a job and the law is the law,” added Cabrera, an agent in El Paso who hails from Puerto Rico.
Despite the national stigma, members of the El Paso community respect Border Patrol agents. Agent Cabrera said: “If you have a family member that’s in it and you feel that need to serve your country and you want to do something better for yourself, it is a very big option. It is a very well-paid job so you can provide for your family. So that is very attractive to a lot of people. Also, they see us as part of the community.”
Still, living in a binational community poses difficulties. Often times, agents must deal with criticism from the American public. Officers’ responsibilities also have changed immensely since 2014, when a large influx of immigrants from Central America began arriving at the Southwest Border. In 2019, 851,508 individuals were apprehended, with record highs from Guatemala (264,168), Honduras (253,795) and Mexico (166,458). Many long-time officers have witnessed a stark shift in their original responsibilities.
State Representative González lives two miles from the Migrant Detention Center in Clint, where over 700 children were held in cells over the summer of 2019. Border Patrol agents called her and alerted her to the crisis, just as they had informed their superiors. They told her that they were at capacity and that nobody knew what to do. A lack of resources and a lack of initiative from upper leadership initiated an onslaught of criticism against Border Patrol agents, who were poorly equipped to handle the challenges of the immigration influx.
“There’s some low points during the recent influx,” said Agent Ernesto Mena. “It was overwhelming. The number of people that we were dealing with was just astonishing. We’ve never seen this before in our lives.”
During this time, agents were furloughed. Those who remained on the job were expected to work for 69 days, despite a government shutdown.
The events playing out at the border over the past several years have taken an emotional toll on members of the force. The suicide rate for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers is 28 percent higher than that of any other law enforcement agency in the country, states Quartz. El Paso, with 7 reported suicides from 2007-2019, accounted for 15 percent of the CBP’s total suicides and had the third highest rate out of nine sectors, according to an internal government report acquired by Quartz.
Officers received taunts and hate mail on a daily basis. In 2019, the President of the Agents’ Union received death threats.
Representative González: “These [Border Patrol agents] are still human beings, who are usually from low-income communities…You can’t say abolish ICE and not think about the Latino families that are part of that system too and were intentionally put in that system by larger forces.”
Concerns about the mental health of officers are evident. Officers are given Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services and a variety of free counseling services. In May 2019, the CBP requested an additional $2.1 million for the agency’s EAP program. But Agent Mena said: “We’re our own best support here. We spend so much time with each other. It’s just we know each other so well and when something’s not right, we pick up on the other person.”
Covid-19 had not made their job any easier. By closing borders to reduce the spread of the virus, immigrants encountered by the Border Patrol must be returned to their nearest port of entry. “It’s very difficult,” said Agent Cabrera. “Sometimes the way that you find out is the way that we find out. Right, you’re watching the news and all of sudden this comes up and then we’re like, oh, well, good, let’s wait for them to give us the guidance. It’s very difficult.”