On the Border
After spending a week at the busiest U.S. Border Patrol station in Texas, associate editor Pamela Colloff learned that there is more to an agent's job than helicopters and surveillance cameras.
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texasmonthly.com: Why did you decide to write this story?
PC: I originally set out to write a story about the Border Patrol, hoping that it would shed some light on the border as a whole. After doing some research, I found that the busiest crossing point in Texas wasn’t El Paso, or Brownsville, or McAllen—which have traditionally been high traffic areas—but Eagle Pass. I thought that fact alone was fascinating because it was such a radical shift in traditional immigration routes: Illegal immigrants used to cross into Texas border cities, but because the Border Patrol has cracked down on metropolitan areas, they have been forced to cross into more and more remote areas.
The Border Patrol was kind enough to allow me to do ride-alongs with agents in Eagle Pass, Del Rio, and Carrizo Springs. I gathered a lot of fascinating material while I was down there. Ultimately, the focus of my story became less about the Border Patrol as a whole and more about Dob Cunningham, who had once been a Border Patrol agent. A lot of the complex issues surrounding immigration and patrolling the border could be found in Dob’s story.
texasmonthly.com: What was your first reaction when you saw the Border Patrol station in Eagle Station?
PC: The difference between the Eagle Pass and the Del Rio stations is one of the best illustrations of the larger issue at hand—that illegal immigration is not a simple problem with a simple answer. Until the mid-nineties, the Eagle Pass station had always been relatively quiet, so it has a small station house. The Del Rio station, by contrast, traditionally has been the busiest in that area, so the Border Patrol recently built a state-of-the-art $3.7 million, 28,000-square-foot station house there. While the new station was being built, the flow of illegal immigration began to drop off in Del Rio and to rise tremendously in Eagle Pass, which is about an hour away. Now, Del Rio has a huge, beautiful new facility that is relatively empty. Eagle Pass has a tiny station with an unpaved parking lot that turns to mud when it rains.
texasmonthly.com: What time of the year do most crossings occur?
PC: Before I started working on this story, I had no idea what an enormous impact Mexicans working in the States have on their country’s economy: Revenue they send home to family members accounts for the third largest source of income in Mexico, after tourism and oil.
December is the slowest time for the Border Patrol because many Mexicans who work in the U.S. head home to be with their families for Christmas. So the flow of people heads south then, not north. That’s why Vincente Fox chose last December as the time to travel to several Mexican border towns to welcome laborers home. The heavy crossing period begins in January after Three Kings’ Day, when Mexicans begin returning to their jobs in the States. February and March, in particular, are the busiest times for border crossings. Throughout the rest of the year, the rates of border crossings seem to be tied to harvest seasons and fluctuations in the Mexican economy.
texasmonthly.com: What was the relationship like between Border Patrol agents and illegal immigrants?
PC: There wasn’t so much overt hostility between agents and immigrants as there was an understanding that everyone had a job to do: Immigrants were trying to go north, and agents were trying to catch them. Agents are always outnumbered; two agents might come across fifty in the brush. But most of the time, a group even of that size will stay put until Border Patrol backup arrives. Border Patrol agents are trained to speak authoritatively to a group of that size and to take control of such situations, not to pull a gun like Will Honeycutt did. Agents don’t use handcuffs unless someone becomes belligerent; it would be impractical to carry around fifty pairs of handcuffs anyway. Though illegal immigrants are technically breaking the law, Border Patrol agents didn’t seem to view them as criminals. They made a point of calling their captures of immigrants "apprehensions," not "arrests."
The agent I spent the most time with, Luis Valderrama, is Mexican American; his mother emigrated here from San Luis Potosi and is now a resident alien living in the States. His father was a Border Patrol agent in Yuma, Arizona. Luis and several other agents I spoke to in Eagle Pass had close ties to Mexico, and said that had their parents or grandparents not come north, they would be making the same trip themselves. They talked about the sympathy they felt for the immigrants they caught, but stressed that they had a job to do too.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you have to hang out at the station until a call came in to go out and catch people?
PC: There was very little hanging out at the station because there wasn’t time for that. The Border Patrol agents in Eagle Pass were constantly patrolling the area, mostly by driving along the river or staking out well-traveled areas like the golf course. Agents always had their radios on; dispatchers would call out sensor numbers—which corresponded to certain locations on the river—and how many hits the sensor had registered. Then a particular agent would respond to the sensor hits. I would ride with an agent for a whole shift, which was usually eight or nine hours. Sometimes the agent would catch people, other times the immigrant groups would be too far ahead to be caught. Agents have a term for people they track, but can’t catch: "Gotaways."
texasmonthly.com: You were with agent William O. Willingham when he was looking for illegal immigrants. What was that like?
PC: I wasn’t used to running through the brush in the dark. It’s much harder than you might think. First of all, you can’t see where you’re stepping. We were running up and down a steep creek bed with tree roots jutting out of the ground, so it was sheer luck that we didn’t end up falling down. We had to scale down a creek bed that had turned into mud, and then scramble back up it, which was not easy to do in the dark. Our photographer, Judy Walgren, was with us and was carrying several cameras and lenses with her. You had to watch out for twigs poking you in the eye as you ran and getting your hair snagged on catclaw and your skin being scratched by thorns. Of course, we had it easy because we had good shoes and a warm car to return to, unlike immigrants who have to do this for days at a time.
texasmonthly.com: What was your first reaction when you heard the seven men who had been caught say, "Regresamos mañana"?
PC: There was a certain absurdity to the whole thing. These men worked in Plano every spring; they had crossed the border before, and they would cross it again. This was just a momentary setback for them. I thought a lot that night about the hypocrisy of our immigration policy. These men had jobs in the U.S. waiting for them. They knew that if they could just get to Plano, they could make enough money to feed their families. But in the meantime, they had to risk their lives crossing the border and walking for days through harsh landscape. If there were no jobs for Mexicans here, we wouldn’t need a Border Patrol. The incentive would be gone.
Most people in Plano—or anywhere, for that matter—don’t give a moment’s thought to how the guy mowing their lawn got there, or what his life is like. I think if they did, there might be greater public support for things like guest worker visas.