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.

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.

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...