The border between the United States and Mexico stretches from Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico to San Diego on the Pacific Ocean—a 1,954-mile span that unites and divides the two countries. Bill Broyles, a research associate at the University of Arizona (not to be confused with the similarly named screenwriter and TEXAS MONTHLY founding editor Bill Broyles Jr.) studied and explored the desert borderlands and law enforcement there for more than three decades. He joined with Mark Haynes, who retired from the Border Patrol after 25 years of service, to write Desert Duty: On the Line with the U.S. Border Patrol (University of Texas Press, $24.95)—nineteen interviews with Border Patrol agents that put a face on the peace officers charged with performing a thankless job in what has become a politically charged atmosphere. The realities of policing a deadly and violent border are presented side-by-side with the mundane stories of honest workingmen making a living for themselves and their families. Controversial immigration policies sometimes seem a universe away. Says Broyles, “We wrote this book to show the humanity and decency of individual people doing an exceptionally difficult job in a dangerous place. They work for you and your country. Agents don’t ask for favors, but they have earned your respect.”
Which of the nineteen agents profiled in Desert Duty had the most compelling story to tell?
Broyles: We interviewed nearly one hundred agents for this book and most tell similar personal histories of just looking for a job and finding a calling, a career that gave their lives meaning. I was most moved by Jim Runyan recounting finding bodies or skeletons and having to bury them himself because neither the Mexican government nor the state authorities would take them. The Mexican government required the victim’s identification, which in most cases had blown away in the wind, and the local sheriff didn’t have money to bury Juan Does even in pauper graves.
Was there any recurring or shared sentiment among the agents you interviewed?
Broyles: Agents have an extra-strong work ethic. To be sure, they’re leery of politicians who boast they intend to close the border but then undermine efforts to do that by underfunding the agency, adding snarls of legal tape, or weakening laws. But I’ve never encountered an agent who felt like a sacrificial scapegoat or apologetic for doing the job. Part of what sustains them is the respect they receive from the aliens themselves. In general, both illegal migrants and border agents are from working-class backgrounds, so they intuitively understand and respect each other.
Haynes: Agents whose careers preceded September 11 felt they were undermanned, funding was scant and little notice was paid to the issues surrounding immigration and border control. After that day the Border Patrol gained increased funding and status as one of the premier agencies in the new Department of Homeland Security. September 11, 2001, was a watershed event in the history of the U.S. Border Patrol.
How do the agents feel about the new equipment and technology at their disposal and the building of border fences?
Haynes: New surveillance technology has the potential to free an agent from sitting in a single location and “watching the fence rust” as some have described it. The flip side is that technology has the potential to make agents professionally lazy in terms of learning and applying time proven skills such as sign cutting, navigating by the stars and landmarks, and “laying in” (i.e., choosing the right location to intercept border crossers.)
Broyles: The border fence is one part of a larger strategy, and by itself is merely scrap iron. The border fence is a barrier on only one side of your “house.” The fence does slow down walkers and it is fairly effective at keeping out stray vehicles, but as DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano purportedly once said, “Show me a twelve-foot fence and I’ll show you a Mexican with a thirteen-foot ladder.” She knows that agents, not toys, are the core of the Border Patrol. Aliens or smugglers desperate to cross are ingenious at finding ways.
Based on what you heard from agents, how real are the threats (terroristic, economic, political) to America from land-based border crossers?
Broyles: Agents regularly train for such possibilities. They read the daily “intel reports,” and hourly they interview aliens who have just crossed through smuggling corridors controlled by criminal cartels, so they have an intimate feel for the border’s fever. Some agents have been shot at across the fence, some have stared-down Mexican army patrols on our side of the fence, and some have rescued victims escaping torture or found bodies dumped by cartels. It is known that from time to time agents have bounties placed on their heads by cartel leaders. Sometimes, many miles into America, agents find roving gangs of cartel kidnappers and enforcers, hilltop spotters, dope farmers, and operators of safe houses. It’s no wonder agents feel like they’re sitting on a time bomb.
Having delved so deeply into the subject, how would you change the way the border is policed?
Broyles: The policing is fine. It is our national willpower and political approach that need improvement. As a nation we have a wide spectrum of opinions on how the border should be managed. Some voters wish to send all illegal immigrants home before sundown while some voters envision a border open to anyone and everyone. Agents daily risk their lives to enforce border laws that the country may want enforced, or may not. Foreigners get mixed messages, ranging from vigilante Minutemen, who look menacing, to border humanitarians, who roll out welcome mats and water stations. Let’s decide on a plan and stick to it. As long as people around the world lack food, shelter, jobs, or safety at home, they’ll vote with their feet. The vast majority of illegal immigrants would rather stay home, where they can visit grandma and sleep in their own bed, but they come to America for living-wage jobs.