When the Biden administration announced earlier this month that veteran Border Patrol chief patrol agent Gloria Chavez would move from her post in El Paso to take over as head of enforcement efforts in the Rio Grande Valley, it was the clearest sign yet that the RGV has become a focal point for the agency. Illicit border crossings there have reached record highs during the Biden era. The administration seems to have recognized that local agents need support, because in Chavez it is sending its best. 

Born in Dallas and raised in the Valley, Chavez is one of the most experienced agents in the Border Patrol. She has a master’s degree in security studies from the Naval Postgraduate School and studied at Harvard as an executive fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Since joining the Border Patrol in 1995, Chavez has served in the country’s northern and southern border zones, from Spokane to Tucson, San Diego to El Paso. Last year, when Vice President Kamala Harris made a trip to the border, she made the conspicuous choice to visit El Paso, where Chavez was serving as the sector’s first female patrol chief. “It is here in El Paso that the previous administration’s child-separation policy was unveiled,” Harris reminded reporters, before posing for pictures with Chavez. 

But Harris’s visit and Chavez’s promotion highlight an awkward fact: the new RGV sector chief played an important role in implementing that policy, which forced thousands of children, including infants, out of their parents’ arms in an effort to deter illegal immigration. Chavez’s appointment underscores that even after Donald Trump cleared out his desk in the White House, many of the middle managers who carried out the policies remain in place. 

The pilot program to which Harris referred during her visit to El Paso began as a local initiative in 2017, with Border Patrol agents testing an idea that had been floated at high-level meetings during Donald Trump’s first month in office: what if, instead of detaining and paroling families together, the agency detained and prosecuted the parents separately? The policy would have two supposed benefits. First, it would let the agency keep the parents in jail for longer periods. (Federal statutes limit the amount of time children can be kept in jail, so most families are paroled before three weeks.) Second, the policy could serve as a powerful deterrent to families considering crossing the border, by making clear that they risked the trauma of a forced separation.

It’s not clear if anyone in Customs and Border Protection’s upper command authorized El Paso agents to begin the program, but it was started by Jeff Self, who preceded Chavez as the Border Patrol chief in El Paso, without the knowledge of much of the Department of Homeland Security leadership in Washington. Even Carla Provost, then the acting chief of Border Patrol, appears to not have known about it. But at least one high-ranking CBP official was aware of the program: Gloria Chavez. Internal government documents and emails, collected by journalists and NGOs, show that Chavez had detailed knowledge of the El Paso pilot program and used that knowledge to assist the administration in standardizing family separation across the entire border. 

When the El Paso pilot program started in March of 2017, Chavez was serving as deputy chief for operations under the Law Enforcement Operations Directorate in Washington, D.C. Reporting to Provost, Chavez was in charge of day-to-day Border Patrol enforcement operations, including those overseen by Self in El Paso. It’s unclear at what point Chavez first knew about the family separation program, but emails since released by CBP reveal that Chavez was aware that agents were separating children from their parents in El Paso for at least two weeks before she told Provost. In November of that year, when officials in other immigration agencies complained to CBP about a huge increase in unaccompanied and undocumented minors detained in the El Paso sector, Provost asked Chavez what was going on. In one email, one of Provost’s deputies reprimanded Chavez for keeping the information from their boss. And Provost complained by email to colleagues that Chavez had known about family separations in El Paso and yet had not told her. 

“When we left you yesterday evening Chief Chavez mentioned to us that EPT had been separating some families when prosecutions were applied,” Provost wrote to then-Customs and Border Protection commissioner Kevin McAleenan in one email. “This has been ongoing since July without our knowledge. It has not blown up in the media as of yet but of course has the potential to. I have implemented a stand down until we have time to address all possible issues/concerns and have DHS approval.” (DHS, the Department of Homeland Security, is the parent agency of CBP, which includes Border Patrol.)

When Provost and other high-ranking officials found out about family separations in El Paso, they were initially wary. Besides the harm to families and the potential for a media scandal, the policy was putting enormous pressure on government shelters unprepared for an influx in unaccompanied minors. Provost even tried to have the program shut down, according to emails obtained by the nonprofit watchdog American Oversight. But some in the government, including Chavez, suggested that the El Paso initiative might be a useful model for a family separation program all along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Indeed, Chavez is perhaps the first person to refer to the El Paso family separations as a “pilot.” In a November 2017 email to Provost, since released by CBP, Chavez notes that the El Paso initiative seemed to have been effective in discouraging families from crossing that portion of the border. “The launch of this . . . program has already made a significant impact with the decreased flow of FMUAS [family units],” Chavez wrote. She then asked Provost how she’d like to proceed. “If we need to [tell El Paso] to stand down until we can brief up to the Department, we can take care of this today; or use this as a pilot test and share the results with our DHS internal stakeholders.” 

In the email, Chavez made no mention of any harm that may have come to the families that had been separated and instead focused on the supposed effectiveness of the program. Still, Provost seemed unconvinced and ordered the program to shut down. 

But the ball was already rolling. Ever since Trump had entered office, influential figures around him, most prominently senior adviser Stephen Miller, had been pushing for a family separation policy, but had been rebuffed by establishment figures such as John Kelly, then Secretary of Homeland Security. When Kelly was replaced by his subordinate Kirstjen Nielsen in late 2017, an action memo suggesting family separation as a policy circulated in DHS. 

Emails released by CBP and first reported on by Texas Monthly indicate that Chavez reviewed the memo before it was sent to Nielsen. In the week of December 11, 2017, Chavez and a DHS official, Meghann Peterlin, worked together on a document called “S1 decision memo,” sharing it back and forth (“S1” means the Secretary of Homeland Security in agency parlance). In their email exchanges, Chavez noted that she’d been taking meetings to see how other agencies in the government would deal with “processing adjustments” for detained families and talked about the El Paso “pilot” separations. 

Just a few weeks later, Chavez seems to have been involved in coordinating a prospective family separation policy for the entire U.S.-Mexico border. In January 2018, Chavez emailed officials in the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency in charge of sheltering unaccompanied children, about its policy for how unaccompanied minors could be released from government custody. Jonathan White, then the head of ORR, subsequently messaged some of his staff in the same email exchange. He asked someone else to talk to Chavez because he had “alienated” her “group” the previous week, after he raised concerns about DHS’s “new policy to separate children from family units.” 

By April 2018, the Trump administration had implemented an official, border-wide family separation policy across the entire U.S.-Mexico frontier. Thousands of families would be separated.

Throughout her email exchanges on family separation policies Chavez focused on the evidence that they could decrease the number of migrants crossing the border illegally—in essence, the main goal of her career in the Border Patrol. Ultimately, it’s unclear whether family separation accomplished this goal. A report from the liberal think tank Center for American Progress in July of 2018 concluded that “statistical analysis of data on southwest border apprehensions illustrates that policies of family separation and detention will not deter families from coming to the United States.”

Chavez did not respond to multiple requests for an interview about her knowledge of the family separation pilot program, its expansion, or her service more generally in El Paso. Landon Hutchens, a CBP spokesperson, also declined to discuss family separation policies, citing multiple pending civil lawsuits against the government brought by families who were separated. 

While public backlash forced the Trump administration to abandon its family separation policy in August 2018, the crisis created by the separations persists today. When Border Patrol separated families, agents had no coherent system for keeping track of families and eventually bringing them back together. To this day, some of the families who were separated have not been reunited. Even among those children who are once again living with their parents, the aftereffects are devastating. Pediatricians who worked with some of the separated minors have told me about the brutal trauma the kids experienced—which, in those first few months, manifested in responses ranging from catatonic silence to uncontrollable screaming. The doctors said that many of the children will never recover.

“The trauma is incredible,” says Jennifer Podkul, vice president of Kids in Need of Defense, a nongovernmental organization that provides services for unaccompanied minors in the custody of U.S. immigration officials, including those separated from their parents. “Many of these kids still struggle to this day with anger issues and distrust of parents and authority figures, which is entirely understandable.”

Trump officials have long tried to describe their family separation policies as a byproduct of immigration law. To prosecute parents for border crossing, they argue, it was necessary to detain them separately from children. But we now know from internal documents and dogged reporting from journalists such as Caitlin Dickerson at the Atlantic that the administration separated families with the explicit and specific intention of causing pain to migrants. In the words of another Atlantic writer, Adam Serwer, the cruelty was the point.

How could Border Patrol agents and leadership go along with a policy designed to cause children pain and to force babies out of mothers’ arms? It’s a question that’s particularly challenging to answer in the case of Chavez. Among local reporters in El Paso and her peers in Border Patrol, Chavez has earned a reputation as an uncommonly compassionate human being. “I’ve told her in the past, not only does she provide good leadership, but she’s a good person—and you don’t always get both,” said Victor Manjarrez, former CBP sector chief who now studies the agency as a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. “I think one of her basic characteristics is her ability to be compassionate. She’s very diligent, but she’s not cold-blooded—and that’s a special trait.” 

Hutchens, the CBP spokesperson, also emphasized Chavez’s glowing reputation in the agency. He stressed that during her time as El Paso chief Chavez worked closely with charitable groups and local officials such as Democratic congresswoman Veronica Escobar to improve conditions for migrant children who get detained by Border Patrol. “She’s really well-known [in El Paso] for the way she’s worked compassionately to process and handle the migrants during the recent surges, so we’re not back in the same situation we were back in 2018 and 2019,” Hutchens said.

Chavez is part of an old guard within CBP that has carried out the policies of multiple presidents. Manjarrez saw her come of age in the agency—he was her supervisor during her early years in the force when they were both stationed in Southern California—and spoke highly of her work ethic. He noted that she has long strived to navigate the turbulence of administrative turnover and handle the rapidly shifting policies and priorities from one president to the next. “She’s really good at being able to come back and say, ‘I’m a public servant, I’m not elected, and I gotta lead this organization for this administration, and the next administration, and the one after that—cause they’ll all have agendas,” Manjarrez said.

When it comes to family separation, Manjarrez said that Border Patrol agents such as Chavez appreciated its goal, even if they may not have embraced the program itself. He said they saw the policy as a way to deter border crossings. “They looked at it as a tool,” Manjarrez said.

If Chavez and other leaders in the Border Patrol thought the policy was justified, however, why did they carry it out in secret for so long? In 2017, NGOs including KIND, Podkul’s organization, which offers both legal and social services to the unaccompanied minors in close coordination with the government, began noticing an increase in the number of children being separated from their families. These organizations wrote letters to the government and alerted the press, and reporters in turn emailed CBP officials asking about what was going on. Emails from November 2017 since released by CBP show that the agency’s press officials forwarded questions from then-Houston Chronicle reporter Lomi Kriel to Chavez. At this time, Chavez knew that Border Patrol was indeed separating families. But CBP’s official response, sent back to reporters by spokespeople, was a lie: the agency claimed there was no policy in place to separate families. 

Today, Podkul says it frustrates her that officials such as Chavez were not clear with NGOs about the policy. “It was not just frustrating, it was immoral to do that. We weren’t getting straight answers from them,” Podkul said. “We were caught on our heels.”

Despite the controversy it caused, the family separation saga does not seem to have shaken Chavez’s belief in the mission of Border Patrol. Speaking on air with KXAN El Paso last week about her recent promotion and the trajectory of her career, Chavez said, “It’s been a phenomenal journey. I really love this organization for what it stands for.”